The Big Stick

If you had City Hall greased the way oil man Ray Hunt does, you'd be smiling, too.

There's a difference between the short end of the stick and the long end, between how people get treated when they're well-connected and how it goes when they're not. Most of us can live with that. Within reason.

The problem at Dallas City Hall is that there's too big a difference. It just looks crooked.

Last week was a great opportunity to watch the two extremes of City Hall behavior--short end, long end. City Hall just about laid itself down in the mud as a doormat for Ray Hunt, a Dallas oil man involved in some major downtown real estate deals. The city manager, in particular, covered up an agenda item so that a huge tax abatement deal for Hunt could sneak through without anybody noticing.

It didn't happen, because the mayor blew the whistle. But after she blew it, 10 members of the city council called a press conference to talk about how totally lovable Ray Hunt is--batting their eyes, shifting their hips and making wet air kisses so much, I think they all could have been arrested on suspicion of solicitation.

That's how it goes if you're Ray Hunt, head of Hunt Oil and Woodbine Development Corp. That's the long end of the stick.

But just across downtown at the very same time, a special investigative hearing of the Texas House of Representatives was gathering a starkly different impression of how City Hall treats people at the other end. The two-day special state hearing into practices at Dallas City Hall was called because legislators in Austin last spring had heard sworn testimony about rampant civil rights violations and official oppression in Dallas--of business people.

State Representative Terry Keel, a Travis County Republican and former sheriff who was co-chair of the investigative hearing, suggested more than once in the two-day hearing that Dallas may have a deep-down case of the crookeds. Based on testimony the committee had already heard in Austin, Keel and other committee members concluded that even basic police protection in Dallas depends on how fat your checkbook is.

"It seems to be different in Dallas than anywhere else I've ever seen," Keel said at one point. "Police service has been moved from basic services to a user fee."

He said the committee had heard sworn testimony from many Dallas property owners who said they couldn't get the police to show up or take action unless they agreed to hire the cops off-duty at $30 to $60 an hour.

"The solutions proposed to individuals and businesses victimized by crime rates is that, 'You need to hire us off-duty.' And it dangerously approaches almost a protection racket," Keel said.

At another point in the hearings, Keel accused the Dallas City Attorney's Office of vindictively persecuting an honest cop to a degree he characterized as "official oppression."

In the case in point, the police officer had written a letter vouching for the good character of a business. That made the city attorney's office so mad, it filed a semi-anonymous internal affairs complaint against him suggesting that he might be on the take. Which he wasn't.

Speaking to City Attorney Tom Perkins, Keel said, "Can I just speak frankly with you? I see a pattern of witness-tampering, intimidation, attempts to make witnesses say certain things, attempts to make witnesses not testify before state committees, attempts to mislead the press and public."

The "Is Dallas Crooked?" Committee was actually a joint body of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics. The dozen or so members who traveled to Dallas from all over Texas for the hearing were not looking for simple tales of woe. They probably hear those at home all day long. What seemed to intrigue them more was how seemingly upright and honest business people can wind up in the crosshairs of Dallas City Hall.

A few of the more sophisticated witnesses--lawyers representing substantial companies or real estate holdings--signaled to the committee that there is always a game: somebody wants your property, or somebody doesn't want you to get the property you're trying to get.

True everywhere, in any city. But in Dallas the game has a way of getting played out through City Hall, maybe with Draconian enforcement, maybe with the withholding of enforcement or services or access to the council or something.

In the very last minutes of the two-day hearing, the committee members were visibly shocked when an attorney for Budget Suites of America showed them blow-up photographs of the Budget Suites Hotel on Stemmons Freeway between Mockingbird and Regal Row. For a year the city of Dallas had been telling the legislators that Dallas had to sue Budget Suites and make it the target of a vast "Safe Team" enforcement campaign because Budget Suites was running a loathsome red-light-district crack house.  

The committee already had heard testimony that the Budget Suites property in fact had a much lower incidence of crime than the area around it. Dallas undercover cops, they were told, were going to other hotels dressed as prostitutes and trying to lure customers back to Budget Suites so they could bust them there and get the city's numbers up for its lawsuit. This was the same company the honest cop had written a letter for, only to get blind-sided with a career-damaging complaint.

But it was the pictures that blew them away. I could see them gasping. The hotel looked beautiful. The committee saw pictures of a tidy new modern facility that any business traveler would be glad to find at the end of a long day.

Keel turned to Steven A. Stefani, Budget Suites of America corporate counsel, and asked him, "Why do you think your business was targeted?"

Stefani said, "Why have we been identified? I think that there is a feeling we are a non-resident owner, that we would have rolled over or maybe we would sell the property. And maybe those individuals that had inspired the complaint process would benefit from a reduced cost of that type of acquisition."

OK, you can say he's being paranoid. Oh, sure, it's all a big real estate plot. But look at it from his company's point of view. Out of nowhere they get hit with this huge enforcement action, lawsuits, horrible publicity, and the more they try to do what the city wants, the madder the city gets at them for still being there. How else do they explain it? Just random madness?

And then there's this: the flip side. It's a lot easier to believe City Hall could bend the rules to jam somebody up when you watch them bend the rules to do favors for the insiders. All last week while I'm watching the hearings, I'm also watching a situation back at City Hall where Ray Hunt is asking the city to: 1) give him Reunion Arena in equal trade for a disused parking lot behind the convention center, and 2) give him a 73 percent $6.3 million discount on property taxes for the new corporate headquarters Hunt Oil Company may or may not build on Akard Street downtown.

Look: I have no idea if either of these deals is fundamentally good or bad. Way above my pay grade.

But I do notice this: The city manager put the issue of the $6.3 million tax abatement on the agenda of the City Council Economic Development and Housing Committee as an "executive session." That means secret. Behind closed doors. Reporters have to leave.

They don't do tax abatements as executive sessions. They just did one for Vought Aircraft Industries that was public. The Hunt abatement was a completely done deal. There was no lawyering left to talk about, no sensitive negotiations.

And note this: On the committee's official agenda, the name Hunt never appears. The item is described as "Economic Development Negotiations. Incentives regarding corporate retention project and consultation with city attorney."

Uh, retention of what corporation, doctor?

The minute Mayor Laura Miller blew the whistle on them, the city attorney agreed that the very same secret briefing could be given again in public to the full city council, which happens this week. That means there was no legal basis for making it secret the first time. That means making it secret was illegal.

Like anybody cares.

Miller pointed out at the end of last week that the land value appraisals that provide the underpinning for the Reunion Arena land swap seem to have a pretty ripe whiff to them. The appraisals say the lot behind the convention center, owned by the city, is worth basically the same amount as Reunion Arena. So they give us the empty lot, we give them Reunion on which we will still owe $20 million, and we all kiss and say good night.

But Miller points to several assumptions in the appraisals that do seem to lean way over toward the Hunt side of the table. Like we have to deduct the $3.8 million cost of demolishing Reunion from the value of the property, because Ray Hunt wants us to demolish it. But what if we sold it to somebody who didn't want us to demolish it? I mean, don't you figure the fair market value on the land and improvements, not the deal?

But then we have 10 city council members holding an out-of-the-blue wiggy ward press conference about how important it is not to offend Mr. Hunt.  

Is this thing greased or what? Look out, it's a-comin' down the chute!

So at the South Pole we have Budget Suites of America, an out-of-state company that comes to town, invests, opens a sound business and gets totally bushwhacked by the city. At the North Pole we have Ray Hunt eating an ice cream cone while he waits to blow out his birthday candles. And up and down and in between we have cops telling us we won't have to worry about any of this if we just hire them off-duty.

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