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Price Corruption Probe: You're All Black. Go to Jail?

Jen Sorensen

Everybody I talk to thinks the FBI Dallas County corruption investigation will produce indictments soon. The rumor is that the targeted alleged co-conspirators are tattling on each other so fast they're giving new meaning to the phrase "rat race."

The investigation centers on Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the city's longest serving, most powerful African-American elected official, and his network of friends and associates in black Dallas.

Small surprise, perhaps, that the city's only daily newspaper last week produced two out-of-the-blue treatises on selective enforcement — one a "news" story and the other an editorial — about how black people should not think the system singles them out for unfair treatment.

Is selective enforcement a legitimate issue and therefore a legitimate story? Sure. It's an unavoidable issue and an important story. So, please, let's not wag long, bony editorial fingers at people and try to persuade them pre-emptively not to talk about it.

I spent last week talking about it with people. Before I get into a lot of blah-blah about what they said, let me share with you one of the important conclusions I came to early in my week of blah-blah.

Black people in Dallas are capable of holding two ideas in their minds at the same time. I want to believe the same is true for whites.

I spoke to several thoughtful members of the black community who said two things. First, it's conceivable that some of the accused in this situation may be guilty as sin and deserve harsh punishment. Yet they also believe the American justice system is profoundly racist, goes after black people sooner and harder than whites, metes out harsher punishment to black defendants and never, ever brings the same measure of mercy to black defendants as to whites.

All of those issues are exactly what we should be talking about. Wagging fingers and urging reticence is profoundly disrespectful. It assumes we can't handle an honest debate in a civilized fashion. We need to assume the contrary — that the only civilized way to handle a deal like this is with honest, passionate debate.

And let me tell you something: If Price gets indicted, whether or not black people in the city think he's guilty, black people in the city are going to be talking about selective enforcement. And white folks will look stupid walking around with duct tape on our mouths.

The January 3 editorial in The Dallas Morning News closed with a quote from longtime civil rights leader Peter Johnson: "There is targeting, but I have no sympathy or empathy for African-Americans who use our people as a stepladder to line their pockets."

That sounded to me like about half of Peter Johnson, not the full Peter Johnson I have come to know and revere. So I called him up.

Johnson expressed bitterness to me, as he had to the News, about the betrayal of the black community by pocket-lining, crooked elected officials and their well-dressed hoodlum friends.

But he spoke with even greater pain in his voice about the dual standard by which the white-dominated system approaches basic questions of fairness and equity. He brought up the case of state Representative Joe Driver, a Garland Republican recently convicted of stealing more than $60,000 from taxpayers.

In its editorial, the Morning News wrote that Driver's "status as a GOP legislator for the past 20 years won him no special treatment ..." That statement struck Johnson as absurd.

For filching 60 grand, Driver got no jail time at all — not one day. For stealing $112,000, Dallas city councilman Don Hill got 18 years in the pen.

"If state Representative Driver had been a black state representative," Johnson said, "he'd be in jail. That's the difference. He gets a slap on the wrist."

Johnson also brought up Floyd Richards, the cab company owner who in 1999 pleaded guilty to bribing the late Albert Lipscomb, a Dallas City Council member eventually convicted on 65 counts of bribery and corruption and sentenced to 41 months of home confinement. (Lipscomb's conviction was later overturned on appeal.) Richards drew a sentence of 14 months at home — not too tough since he was sick in bed anyway.

"Richards, who was the owner of the cab company, corrupted Albert Lipscomb," Johnson said to me. "Richards was the corrupter. Albert Lipscomb was the corrupt-ee. Albert Lipscomb got prosecuted. Richards did not.

"He was a white man. Turn that upside down, make Richards black and Lipscomb white, Richards would have been prosecuted and Lipscomb not. That's the America that I know and love."

When Johnson and I talked, I was rusty on my Floyd Richards history. I went back and looked it up later. Actually, Richards was prosecuted. That's why he pleaded guilty. He wound up spending a month behind bars and nine months in home confinement. That's a month more jail time than Lipscomb got.

But the Floyd Richards saga is instructive here in other ways. Last year the Morning News published a story reprising the Lipscomb case. In it, Richards shed tears and honked his nose about how FBI agent Don Sherman put the squeeze on him at a time when Richards was sick, awaiting a liver transplant.

"I'm fixin' to die, and he wants to make a deal," said Richards, then 68. "I consider that pretty low-life."

But that's not what I found looking back through the court record. In 1999, before Richards was sentenced, the U.S. attorney filed a motion with the court arguing Richards should get a lighter sentence than called for in federal guidelines because he had "testified at defendant Lipscomb's trial."

That document tells us some important things. Before the trial, during the investigation of Lipscomb, Richards helped the FBI put the case together. And it was his idea! He went to the feds before they came to him.

That's just how it is. The more you fight it, the more those years in the pen stack up if you lose the fight. And if you are the elected official in the case, you are considered to carry a higher duty to the public than the guy who owns the cab company, so you are the bigger villain to begin with.

It's a double standard. Most of us would agree it's a good double standard, but it's also an example of how there's more to the law than the law.

Johnson and I talked about a play produced earlier this year in New Orleans based on the true story of Oliver Thomas, a popular black New Orleans city councilman recently released from federal prison, where he'd been sent for taking bribes. In the play, the part of Thomas was played by Thomas himself.

In the first act of the play Thomas warns people to take his story as a cautionary tale rather than evidence of a conspiracy against black officials. "The record is straight," he says. "I did something wrong and went to prison. You can't get a straighter record than that."

Johnson suggested I might be able to get a better bead on that story by calling his little brother, Judge Calvin Johnson, who retired in 2008 after 17 years on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court bench.

Judge Johnson, who knows Thomas, said to me, "You have a group of individuals who are bad in and of themselves, criminals at their core. That group needs to be dealt with accordingly. But then in the instance of Oliver Thomas, I think he represents a group who really made a mistake."

Where race intervenes, he said, is in our basic appraisal of a defendant's character and our feelings of harshness or mercy based on that character.

"There is difficulty," he said, "in making a distinction between a person who is truly a criminal and a person who has made a mistake, and there is a racial edge to it sometimes."

See. I think we can talk about selective prosecution, disagree all to hell and still not turn the city to ash. How about you?


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