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The untouchables

City architect Robert Troy was flabbergasted when council members assailed him for reporting a contract-rigging incident.
Mark Graham

Here is the quiz: A city employee sees something crooked going on. He reports it. His claims are investigated and found to be completely true.

What does it mean -- what do you suppose is going on -- if the reaction of the Dallas City Council is to defend vigorously the people exposed by the employee, and then to lambaste the employee himself for having made a technical error in the reporting process?

Please choose one: It means we have 1) a very honest city council with an unflinching eye for moral lapses; 2) a funny city council that was just joking; or 3) a city council with ethical instincts borrowed from the exercise yard at the state pen.

Now just try to imagine for half a minute what it's like to be Robert Troy, the senior city architect who brought the charges. He saw something dishonest going on. It made him mad, because it was wrong.

Troy was in charge of a committee that was supposed to choose among 14 architectural firms invited to bid on a half-million-dollar contract with the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. The city has a densely written policy for how these decisions must be made. To his distress, Troy watched while several senior city officials -- up to and including First Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm -- corrupted the process in order to steer the contract to a particular company.

So he blew the whistle. The city auditor investigated his claims and agreed the situation Troy had reported was a serious violation of city rules and policy. The auditor himself used the word "corrupted" to describe the way top city officials had rigged the deal.

But when an official city auditor's report on the charges first was presented to the council at a subcommittee meeting on October 25, council members Veletta Lill, Barbara Mallory Caraway, and Maxine Thornton-Reese jumped on Troy. They said he was the bad guy for having the nerve to discuss his charges publicly.

So upset were they that the public was in on it that they suggested the whole report was "flawed."

Lill also told the subcommittee she considered it unfair that the city auditor had found even more things wrong with the Office of Cultural Affairs than what Troy originally had reported, as if this were a violation of the Dallas City Hall Corruption Book of Hoyle.

Troy was almost speechless.

"They're trying to make me look bad," he said last week, totally overwhelmed. "They're trying to throw discredit on me."

Troy is a relatively new city employee who, for most of his career, was an architect and a teacher of architecture in colleges and universities. He knew the firms bidding for the job were investing thousands of dollars' worth of effort, resources, and cash in a contest they all assumed or at least hoped was honest.

He had tried to make it honest. When he found out it wasn't, he tried to bring the whole mess to the attention of people at the top in City Hall, assuming they would want to clean it up. What he didn't know was that the main target of his accusations, Margie Reese, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, is closely wired into two very important constituencies: the upper circles of wealthy black political power in Dallas, and the city's tight-knit community of moneyed arts patrons.

In political terms, Troy was a nobody who had tried to do a citizen's arrest on a somebody. He had violated the one law that really counts in Dallas: the rule of social caste.

Jan Adams, Margie Reese's former management assistant and the other city employee who helped Troy blow the whistle, was also upset. Reese fired Adams in July for failing to help her rig the bid process. But last week, Adams was feeling sorry not for herself but for Troy. "He's like a baby who has just been born," she said. "He thought they were going to thank him and then go fire all of the people he reported. He's just finding out how it is."

Margie Reese is the main gatekeeper for the city's $9.5 million annual arts budget. She and her husband, Foster Reese III, a lawyer, serve on boards and move in circles with the mayor and many of the mayor's political financial backers. In her career as the city's culture czar, Reese has drawn power and support from her social connections. In those circles, jobs and deals, college admissions and postings in the Air National Guard, may trade hands in a wink over the lip of a champagne glass.

Practically speaking, there is no way the public can ever learn what motives someone in that position may have for jimmying the process. That's why they're not supposed to jimmy.

 

It's simple: If you're not crooked, don't jimmy. If you jimmy, people must assume you're crooked, even if they can't see the wink or the bubbly.

Councilwoman Mallory Caraway, whose husband is a paid operative in black political circles, tried to suggest that Troy had some kind of ax to grind against Margie Reese -- an utterly baseless charge as far as anyone can tell. And Veletta Lill, an East Dallas council member associated with the culture vultures, even suggested that the auditor, Robert Melton, had been swayed toward his findings by publicity.

I asked Lill whether she was implying that Melton's integrity had been compromised.

"If he's reading all these outside papers that aren't a part of the process," she said, "the potential is there."

Wow. That's a serious charge. Melton's reputation, since he assumed his position in June 1995, has been one of impeccable integrity, even courage. Going after Melton to protect Margie Reese is a pretty breathtaking leap of...something.

Melton, in his report, also faults Troy for going public. Of 26 pages of single-spaced material in the audit report, council members Lill, Mallory Caraway, and Thornton-Reese chose to focus on this one issue. (Thornton-Reese is no relation to Margie Reese and comes from an older, less tea-party, more southern Dallas nexus of African-American politics.)

The line in the audit report says: "The project manager [Troy] should have contacted the City Auditor's Office, in compliance with Administrative Directive 2-14, before sending out letters to the public."

Administrative Directive 2-14 is 109 lines of single-spaced City Hall gobbledygook on four pages, of which one line says, "Any employee, citizen, contractor, vendor or other interested party who has observed or suspects dishonest or fraudulent activity should notify the Fraud Hotline immediately."

It's important to know that Robert Troy did not go first to the media. When he saw that the selection process for a $500,000 contract had been subverted, he fired off an angry, embarrassed letter to the architects who had applied for the job. These were people of his own profession, some of whom had been his students as an architecture professor. There were already calls coming in from some of them indicating something fishy was happening with the process. He wanted them to know he wasn't the fish.

Right after that, Troy made a full report to the city manager, who referred the matter to the city auditor. Troy not only cooperated fully with the auditor; he handed the auditor's investigators all of the meticulously compiled paperwork on which the auditor's report is now based.

But Lill, Mallory Caraway, and Thornton-Reese believe the auditor's report cannot be trusted because Troy sent out his letter before calling the city's Fraud Hotline, and in so doing he violated the phrase "should notify the Fraud Hotline immediately."

For one thing, who believes in hotlines, anyway? In today's world, you call 911 and you're put on hold. Are we supposed to believe there's a big ready room full of people who slap on their holsters and hit the bricks when a call comes in to the City Hall Fraud Hotline?

Troy says he had never even heard of the Fraud Hotline. The hotline policy was just instituted on August 15. "I was a new employee. We were talking about this just the other day, and no one in my work area has ever seen this policy yet."

In retrospect, we see the real meaning of the call-the-hotline rule. It's the don't-call-the-media rule.

Couldn't he have gone through channels in his own department? Two startling findings in the auditor's report help answer this question: 1) that Troy's department head, David Dybala, director of public works, was the person who carried out the final rigging of the bid process, and 2) that First Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm was the one who told Dybala to do it.

Maybe Troy just showed up at the state pen yesterday, but he can still see who's got the bad tattoos.

Anyway, it was Jan Adams who actually went to the media.

Over lunch in Deep Ellum, I asked her why she didn't allow the normal city grievance process to run instead of talking to reporters. Adams could summon only bitter laughter at first.

She recounted how, right after she was fired, the head of human resources for the city shocked her by informing her that her employment status had been changed some months before the firing, unbeknownst to her; that she was no longer a civil service employee; that she no longer had any right of appeal; and that she could stick around as a temp for 30 days if she wanted and see whether anybody else in City Hall would hire her.

 

No one would. By mid-August, Adams realized she was going to wind up jobless. She called Crayton Webb at Channel 11. Webb came out and did a piece about how she got fired and the city told her she had no rights of appeal.

"I was on Channel 11 News on Friday, August 13," she says. "On the next Wednesday, August 17, I was contacted by the head of human services, who told me that the city attorney's office had told them to reinstate my position."

Adams stares. "I'm sorry," she says. "I don't consider that a coincidence."

Don't go to the media? That's like making a hostage promise not to talk to strangers.

Troy feels the same way. "If I had not gone public, I would not have had the cover of the Texas Whistleblower Act, nothing would have happened, and people would be getting away with lying and dishonesty."

The auditor concludes his report by saying they shouldn't give the contract to the firm chosen by the corrupted process.

No kidding.

Melton's main finding is that nobody in this situation "had any consideration, other than what they believed to be in the best interest of the City." The phrase is less than reassuring. Saddam Hussein thinks everything he does is in the best interests of Iraq.

The bottom line is the moral message our council is sending to city employees: Don't snitch on the rich.


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