The art of the touch
Some weeks after former city Councilman Al Lipscomb was convicted of bribery in federal court, a local wag said to me, "They railroaded a guilty man!"
And for many people, there's the rub. It's not a question of whether he took the bribes but more an issue of whether the same rules apply to everybody the same way.
Lipscomb, 74 years old and in bad health, was convicted in January of 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy by a federal jury in Amarillo. When U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall took it on himself to move the trial to lily-white West Texas, there was outrage and dismay among the many people in Dallas who love and revere Lipscomb.
Federal judges don't typically explain themselves, and Kendall has never said why he moved the trial. But once the trial opened, the truth is that the government bulldozed the defense with a solidly built case that would have been tough to beat no matter where the trial took place. Federal prosecutor Mike Uhl proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Lipscomb had taken money from a cab-company owner in exchange for his vote on cab-related issues.
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But especially in black Dallas, even among people who can see that Lipscomb did wrong, there is still a nagging sense that something about this case was out of balance. The most common way people put it is this: "What's the difference between Al's taking $1,000 a month from Yellow Cab to vote their way on taxicab issues and Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk taking several hundred thousand dollars a year from a law firm he admits he does no work for?"
At one level, the answer to that question is so obvious, it barely seems worth the trouble it takes to say it out loud: It's not against the law to be a partner in a law firm. It is against the law to take bribes.
It seems patronizing and even morally sleazy to make some kind of special rule for Lipscomb because he's old, because he's poor, because he's black. Don't we all have to live by the same rules?
And yet, that's really the underlying question, isn't it? Are the rules really the same? In a city where power has always been secretive, oligarchical, self-seeking, and hugely hypocritical, is there double-bookkeeping for rich white people? Do people in power tend to forgive in themselves and their friends the very same kinds of greedy moral lapses that get them all bug-eyed and frothing at the mouth when it's some person with dark skin and no money doing it?
I sure can't offer definitive answers to that one, but I think I can steer us toward a useful point of departure: the 1998 suburban city council campaign of Ronnie Kendall, wife of the judge in the Lipscomb trial.
Judge Kendall's wife made political history of a sort in that case by raising more than $15,800 to run for a council seat in the town of Southlake, which is one of those instant whitebread encampments on the cotton patch north of the airport, where a typical war chest for a city council race has always been more like $3,000.
How and why did Mrs. Kendall raise such a vast sum to run for office in a town of 21,000 souls? The main way she did it was by raising two-thirds of her money from people who didn't live in Southlake, including a number of prominent Dallas plaintiffs' lawyers and other people in the legal profession. I'm not good enough at names to spot every single person on her contribution lists who may have had business in the federal courts at some time, and unfortunately the records of the U.S. Northern District courts are set up so that you can't search them by lawyer or judge.
But I can spot some of the more likely candidates. For example, Debbie D. Branson, a lawyer and wife of super-bucks plaintiffs' attorney Frank L. Branson, expressed her concern for good government in Southlake by kicking in a thousand dollars. Lacie Truelove Crow, wife of plaintiffs' attorney Patrick Q. Crow, and Lisa Blue, lawyer and wife of lawyer Fred Baron, the asbestos-damages mogul, kicked in a grand apiece. John R. Howie, a successful plaintiffs' attorney, contributed a thousand dollars. Ben C. Martin, another plaintiffs' attorney, put in a couple of hundred bucks, as did Dallas lawyer Charlie Waters.
The list goes on.
In the May 1998 election, Ronnie Kendall defeated her seriously outgunned opponent, who had raised less than $3,000, and has served on the Southlake City Council since. Normally Joe Kendall, like most federal judges, never talks to reporters. His deputy told me he has never given a comment for the record to a reporter in the seven years she's worked for him.
But Kendall did give a quote to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time of his wife's election. He told the paper he had 400 pending criminal and civil cases on his docket. He said he had checked his docket: "She has not taken one dime from a person who has any business before me or business with the city that I am aware of."
Honk. Wrong answer.
Debbie Branson's law firm had two cases in his court at that time. And, of course, the question of how many cases the Frank L. Branson law firm might have had before him at that moment begged the question of how many cases it might reasonably expect to have in the future. Frank Branson himself recently polished off a case in Kendall's court that drew total settlement amounts of $9.4 million for his client.
I put in multiple phone calls to all of the lawyers I thought I'd write about for this story. The Bransons were among the few who wouldn't take or return my calls. In my last call to Debbie Branson, I told her voicemail I was probably going to interpret her silence as an indication of some kind of embarrassment over this issue, since I knew she was in the office and since I had explained the story fully in earlier messages. Literally minutes before this story went to press, I picked up a phone message from Debbie Branson saying, "Your conclusion is absolutely inappropriate."
Neither of the Kendalls called back.
Lisa Blue did call back, and she told me that neither she nor her husband, Fred Baron, has ever had a case before Judge Kendall. She said she had known the Kendalls for a long time through the legal community.
"He used to be a defense lawyer, and I was a prosecutor, and I was thoroughly impressed with how many times he beat me," Blue said.
Other lawyers who took my calls had similar things to say about both of the Kendalls: They had known and admired them for years.
"I've known Joe and Ronnie Kendall a long long time," said Patrick Q. Crow. "I'm still close friends with a guy that's close friends with them."
I asked Crow whether he ever had cases in Kendall's court. He thought about it.
"I've had some stuff in Joe's court," he said. "I don't know what the likelihood is of my ever having anything in it in the future."
Roger Williams, a criminal attorney, said his wife had contributed to the judge's wife's campaign because "Joe was my son's T-ball coach." Williams made a good point: that campaign contributions are completely legal and transparent.
"A contribution is on the up and up and posted for everybody to look at," he said. "I assume that's why you are able to call me."
I asked him whether he ever had legal business in Kendall's court. He said he had been appointed by Kendall as the "ad litem," or child's legal guardian, in a recent case. That case turns out to be the one for which Frank Branson just pulled down the $9.4 million settlement in Kendall's court.
I talked to former U.S. Attorney Jim Rolfe, now a criminal attorney, who had made in-kind contributions worth $900 to Ronnie Kendall's city council campaign. Rolfe said his motivation for helping the judge's wife's campaign had nothing at all to do with currying favor in Kendall's court.
"Obviously not," he said. "That would be the farthest thing from my mind or from reality that I can think of. She's a friend of mine, and I'm interested in helping anytime a friend of mine runs for public office."
I asked Rolfe whether he ever had legal business in the judge's court.
"Yes," he said. "I will be in his court soon on a case I got appointed on."
One of the lawyers I spoke with made what I thought was an especially curious observation. After talking to me for some time on the record about how much he admired the Kendalls and how thoroughly incorruptible he considered Judge Kendall to be, he asked to go on background, meaning I wouldn't quote him by name, and I agreed.
He said, "I gave money to [Democratic congressional candidate] Regina Montoya Coggins, and she and [U.S. Attorney] Paul Coggins are linked, let me tell you. They are tied together. That's just how it is in politics."
No kidding. It's even like that on my block. All these guys on the block are linked to their wives. Well, the vast majority.
In the Lipscomb bribery trial, Judge Kendall allowed the federal prosecutors to present a lot of evidence about political contributions made to Lipscomb's city council campaigns over the years, including a number of contributions that were clearly legal.
In the judge's instructions to the jury, he specifically told them they could weigh these legal campaign contributions as a kind of background information in their overall determination of "whether or not the defendant had the intent and purpose of committing Federal Program Bribery," the legal term for Lipscomb's crime.
No one is saying...certainly I am not saying...that the legal campaign contributions made to Ronnie Kendall's Southlake City Council campaign two years ago amounted to bribery of her husband, Judge Kendall.
But if I loved Al Lipscomb, and if I tended to view rich, powerful people in Dallas with suspicion anyway, the 1998 Ronnie Kendall campaign contribution list definitely would not pass my personal smell test, especially when it was stacked against the tough standard that the judge and the government set for Lipscomb.
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