The Texas Legislature is moving toward a two-year corruption investigation focused on Dallas. Two House of Representatives committees may combine forces to look for civil rights violations, acts of official oppression, solicitation of bribery and other crimes and corruption at Dallas City Hall.
The spark for this was testimony the House heard in hearings earlier this year from witnesses who said City Hall had misused an anti-nuisance ordinance to oppress legitimate businesses, solicit work for off-duty cops and pressure businesses into paying bribes.
State Representative Terry Keel, an Austin Republican and former Travis County sheriff and assistant district attorney, says both Democrat and Republican members of the House Civil Practices Committee were "appalled" by what they found in several days of hearings into Dallas' use of a state "nuisance abatement" law.
"You have a problem in your city government," Keel told me at the end of last week, as the Legislature was rushing to close its session. "You've got a major problem right now, and it does not appear to me that the mayor of Dallas really appreciates the problem or has any incentive to get rid of it.
"In fact, she defended it."
So why are you reading about something this big here? If there were serious allegations of corruption at Dallas City Hall, wouldn't you have read a detailed account of it in The Dallas Morning News or have seen it on television?
Well, some of it has been on Dallas TV news. As for the city's only daily newspaper, don't ask me to explain what they do. They have played this story way inside, as a kind of kooky spat between lawmakers. Keel said he and other members of the committee are puzzled.
"I am really surprised that The Dallas Morning News has not really covered this as much as they should have," Keel said. "This is a major story. This is old-time corruption.
"The Dallas Morning News tried to spin this as a partisan witch hunt of some kind, and let me tell you something. This was not a partisan matter in any way, shape or form.
"The people on this bill were bipartisan. The News said it was House Republicans versus the city of Dallas. Let me tell you, Jim, that's false. Party politics didn't play any role in that investigation."
The central accusation against the city is that it misappropriated a law aimed at crack houses and hot-sheet motels and used it instead to oppress and gouge legitimate businesses. Under the guise of nuisance abatement, the city sends police SWAT teams into respectable businesses, files suit against them and engages in other scare tactics, witnesses said, in order to get things out of them.
"We had diverse businesses and individuals unconnected to each other who gave startlingly similar stories about these threats," Keel tells me. "One witness swore that he was encouraged to give a donation to a particular local official's birthday fund and on other occasions was told to hire certain people to avoid this problem."
The birthday fund reference is to testimony by car wash operator Dale Davenport ("Kickback City," May 12, 2005), who said he was urged to give money to a "birthday fund" for city Councilman Leo Chaney and to give money to other entities blessed by Chaney. Davenport also told the committee that Chaney leaned on him to hire members of the Nation of Islam, an anti-Semitic organization founded by Louis Farrakhan, as security guards for his car wash in South Dallas.
Chaney has denied to me that he ever solicited a bribe from Davenport but did concede he thinks "corporate folk that do business and earn millions of dollars in the community ought to give back."
Keel says: "We also heard sworn testimony from individuals who had been abused and in some cases had been assaulted. We heard sworn testimony that there were threats to use code enforcement authority in response to business people merely challenging the nuisance abatement law.
"Now, I can argue that this evidence at a minimum--at a minimum--shows that the city of Dallas was in essence targeting lawful businesses in high-crime areas for this type of enforcement action in an attempt to make the businesses pay for the privilege of being protected by the police.
"That is a serious problem and possibly an act of official oppression by the city itself.
"This is the only area of the state where the nuisance abatement law has been misused in this manner. This is the only city that has done this.
"I believe it is possible there were crimes here committed by city officials.
"It needs to be investigated from top to bottom. Other than the House hearings, where testimony was taken for several days, there has not been an investigation of this that's thorough. And it needs to be done, either by federal or state authorities. I think it's going to have to happen.
"I think it's possible there will be indictments that would come out of an investigation of it."
So let me say this about why the Morning News has blown this story. For once, I don't see a conspiracy. What's going on here is a simple combination of culture and incompetence.
Veteran news hands inhabit the Austin bureau of the Morning News--nice people, capable of a nice turn of phrase, but I'm not sure any of them has a history in shoe-leather, cop-shop, nitty-gritty, city desk reportage. I think a real news story could rise up and simultaneously bite all of them in their posteriors, and they would all take it for an epidemic of heat rash.
Then there's the subliminal culture, which they and their newspaper express so well and so unwittingly. Our mayor, for example, exudes the notion that business people who operate and sell products to the low end of the ladder are themselves low and loathsome. I think that may even be why she's our mayor.
It's your basic hick suburban worldview: The nice people are the ones at the new mall who wear new clothes and sell expensive stuff. People who operate dirty tire repair shops in Oak Cliff are dirty bad people, whereas I might view them as immigrant entrepreneurs building a future for their families and carrying out the American dream.
Let's be more specific. In the last week, I have spoken to several former Dallas code inspectors who told me they had received orders, while working for the city, to "get the Topletzes." Topletz Investments is believed to be the city's largest owner of rental property in poor neighborhoods in South and West Dallas.
This may be the best example of how the City Hall mind-set works. The Topletzes are considered fair game, because the product they offer is often located in poor run-down areas.
But I have never understood, for the life of me, why that makes the Topletzes bad. They routinely decisively defeat these code-violation campaigns by the city. Check me on this, but I think that means, according to the law, they are not major code violators--pretty amazing, when you think how hard it must be to keep up a rent house in the parts of town where they operate.
They're an old family, considered pillars of the community by many, with an auditorium named after them at Temple Shearith-Israel. And somehow they manage to provide housing for people by operating in the private sector without any government subsidy.
Check me on this, too, but in many long years as a reporter, both here and in Detroit, I have never seen a major government-subsidized housing program do anything but decimate the lives of its residents and destroy the area around it.
Not that no one benefits. Somebody churns a lot of land; somebody writes a lot of loans; somebody builds a lot of stuff. But the poor people, who might have been working their way up to real home ownership and creditworthiness had they been left the hell alone, always wind up in the ditch.
So why, instead of beating up on people like the Topletzes and gouging them to "give back to the community," wouldn't we go to them and to Dale Davenport and to anybody else who somehow manages to keep a real honest to God business alive in South Dallas and pin a damn municipal medal of honor on them?
Dennis Topletz, the chief operating officer of Topletz Investments, said experience has taught him that the city of Dallas usually has an agenda, even if it's not easy to see. He says the city used tactics similar to what it's using now in order to force the Topletzes to sell property in the State-Thomas area in the 1980s.
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"They threatened us with the RICO statutes then," he said. "I mean, we're talking about government. We're talking about federal. We're talking about criminal. We're talking about jail time, unless we would sell them the property under eminent domain."
He smells a similar but larger agenda behind the wholesale assault on private businesses that the legislative committee discovered when it investigated the misuse of the nuisance law. Somebody wants certain people out of certain neighborhoods, while other people, who are wired to City Hall, qualify for lavish grants and subsidies instead.
Maybe nobody even notices this stuff within the city limits. Maybe the culture is that it's all copacetic. But those people in the House, who hail from cities, suburbs and towns all over Texas, sure don't think Dallas is normal.
"I would invite you to talk to any member of that Civil Practices Committee of the House of Representatives," Keel says, "and find out how appalled they were from every part of this state who heard about this, even when they heard the city of Dallas' side of it, which made them even more appalled."