Dear Elaine Agather, chairwoman of the Dallas Citizens Council; Joel Allison, chairman of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce; Steve Taylor, president of the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce; former city council members Alan Walne and Max Wells:
Thank you all so much for helping defeat the recent strong-mayor proposal at the polls and preserving our fine system of government in Dallas. As you watch FBI agents swarming over City Hall like lusty South Texans on a javelina hunt, your chests must swell with pride.
We made The New York Times last week as a corrupt city--something that might not have happened without your expertise and generous financial support. My own favorite moment--one of those endless loops on TV--was the big stumper question at the very end of the Political Jeopardy Championship Play-Offs: "And now for the grand prize, Dallas City Councilman Don Hill, tell us, who owns your car?"
In another city, it would be a simple question. But here, thanks to the business leaders who joined themselves at the hip with Councilman Hill and others to defeat the strong-mayor proposition in the May 7 election, it's a brain-buster. We don't know who owns our cars. The answer is "You got a badge?"
Listen. This FBI thing? Raids on the city council offices, raids on private developers, raids on law firms? That's just the beginning. Who knows where it will go? We do have to keep our minds open to the possibility it will go nowhere. But even if it does, it's still just the beginning.
A serious effort is under way in the Texas Legislature right now--it sounds to me like it's going to succeed--to create an extraordinary investigative committee just for Dallas. The Dirty Dallas Committee. We'll know by the end of the summer.
If it gets done, the scope of the Dirty Dallas Committee will be broader and more profound than what the FBI and the Justice Department can look for. The feds have to find some kind of money in brown envelopes stuffed into pockets of people with say-so over federal funds.
The state committee also will look for old-fashioned corruption, but its larger mission will be to look for a culture of corruption that systematically violates the civil and property rights of citizens of Dallas.
And before I go into those details, let me first draw the big picture. The syndrome the FBI and the state are looking into--the one the Elaine Agathers and the Alan Walnes and the Chambers of Commerce fought so hard to protect in the recent charter election--is one where basically there is no rule of law. There is no ultimate transparency or accountability, no checks, no balances, nobody even knows who owns his car. Everything gets divvied out according to who's a cool guy and who's not. Country club rules, in other words.
At least for what the state's interested in, most of the worst offenders will turn out to be absolutely convinced of their own moral and ethical rectitude, of their devotion to the good of the community. You know. Like Benito Mussolini. Hey, do you want the trains not to run on time?
When the state investigation gears up, look to see way more white faces in the dock and not just a bunch of Southern Dallas pols scrambling for crumbs. Between the two efforts, state and federal, we are going to see a searing examination of the nature of power in this town.
Which works like this. I buy a chunk of cheap land in Southern Dallas. Well, I put some money down. Now I want to make a few million. I'm thinking low-income apartments. Southern Dallas is already overbuilt in low-income apartments. Too much competition. So I go two ways.
1. I use my friendship with members of the Dallas City Council to qualify for millions of dollars in up-front tax credit money and cheap bond financing from the state. I can build cheaper on my land than a guy who lacks my political connections, so I can offer new apartments at lower rents.
2. Some of my competitors won't go away. They slash their expenditures and cut their rents below mine. I use my political connections to sic the city on them with extraordinary enforcement efforts, especially the use of the so-called police safe teams.
Why does the city want to help me out and not the next guy? Because I'm cool, and he's not. And that's how it always has been done in Dallas. The only difference now, as opposed to 20 years ago, is that in the name of social progress the city has allowed persons of color to play in the rigged poker game.
It's still rigged. We like it rigged. We don't need no stinking charter reform. Thank you, Dallas Citizens Council.
And tell me I'm imagining it. Go ahead. Tell me I made it all up. Maybe you need to listen to state Representative Terry Keel, chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and a member of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee. Keel has developed a keen interest in Dallas.
He is a former sheriff of Travis County (first Republican elected sheriff since Reconstruction), former prosecutor, eight-year member of the Legislature, special consultant to the Austin Police Department. He tells me he and other legislators, armed with evidence gathered from Dallas business people in hearings earlier this year, will ask the speaker of the House for a special charge to establish a joint investigative committee of both the criminal jurisprudence and investigating and ethics committees, with full subpoena power, just for us.
Ain't we somethin'? Thank you again so much, Elaine Agather, the Citizens Council, Alan Walne, everybody who helped make us what we are today.
In several days of hearings earlier this year, the Legislature heard sworn testimony from Dallas business owners who said the city was abusing state law to persecute them for political reasons. The legislators who heard the testimony were alarmed, but their alarm grew even more intense after Mayor Miller, the city attorney, city manager and police chief went before them and basically said, "Yup, that's how we do it. You got a problem with that?"
"It certainly got the attention of the House of Representatives," Keel told me last week.
The legislators' take on it was straightforward: The issue, as far as they were concerned, was allegation after allegation that Dallas City Hall systematically persecutes honest business people in order to give a market edge to political insiders.
Keel and I were speaking a few days before the FBI raided City Hall. He said, "I am a former prosecutor, a former sheriff. I'm a criminal defense attorney. I've been in the Legislature now, this is my fifth term. It just looks to me like there is some dysfunction there in the city of Dallas."
He said he thought there was a strange absence of "the normal checks and balances that would police this kind of thing internally and that would police it externally, like the district attorney's office and possibly the feds.
"It's just not been looked at closely for whatever political reasons there are up there. It certainly appears there is more than probable cause under oath to suggest that civil rights violations have occurred."
Keel said he and other legislators are puzzled that the issue has received so little attention from Dallas media. "I think it's one of the most serious matters I've ever come across since I've been serving. It is alarming that this could happen.
"Dallas actually expended resources heavily to lobby against the law they had abused being clarified. It was an incredible sight to watch."
Why change a bad law if it's workin' for you? Just one more time, I have to say it: Thank you so much, Elaine Agather, for keeping things the way they are.
So let's say the state comes riding into town with a tribunal to ask the question "What's up with this burg, anyway? Hey, waaait a minute. How come you guys all look like you're each other's cousins?"
Who and what will they look at specifically? One guy who will figure prominently is the private developer whose offices the feds raided last week, Brian Potashnik, CEO of Southwest Housing Development Co. I wrote about Potashnik last year ("P.U.! Who made a stink at City Hall?" Dallas Observer, October 21, 2004).
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That story was about a battle within the city council over lucrative tax credits for low-income multifamily housing projects. Mayor Miller had accused city Councilman James Fantroy of supporting an apartment project for a developer to whom Fantroy's security company was supplying private guards. I said in my column that Miller was backing Potashnik, who had a rival apartment project across the street.
When the wash finally gets hung out to dry on the recent FBI raids, that conflict between Miller and Fantroy will turn out to have had a lot to do with touching this off. The basic reality is that individual council members and their appointees have the power, under this stupid system of government, to deliver very lucrative deals to developers with a simple waggle of the voting finger.
Put that together with what the state has been investigating in Dallas, and you have the chemical equation for corruption and abuse. That's what Elaine Agather and Steve Taylor achieved by sinking the only decent shot at reform we'll ever see in this city for the next 10 years. They helped save everything that's wrong.
The strong-mayor campaign, which Miller supported to her credit, was a battle for accountability and transparency at City Hall. Why would anybody be against that? We're about to find out.