Uber Is Upside Down When You Look at It Through the Eyes of John Barr
Everything looks different if you're John Barr.
The mayor has released his investigation of city officials who worked to help Yellow Cab of Dallas combat an incursion into the Dallas marketplace of Uber, an app-based car-ride system that operates outside taxicab laws. Brantley has reported all of that for you already.
The night before the mayor released his report, I had a long phone chat with Barr, attorney for Yellow Cab. I always enjoy speaking to Barr, because he is a man who says what he means.
Below is Barr's version of events. I must explain first, however, that Barr often peppers his conversations with me with instructions, "This is off the record," and "That's on the record, you can print that," all of which I ignore in deep silence. So it's all on the record, most of it. We seem to get along anyway.
I believe when I reached him he was driving friends to dinner. I am not including things I overheard him saying when he apparently was competing for a parking spot, because I think those remarks just should be off the record, no matter what. He said:
"I'll give it to you in three words or less.
"I gotta tell you, this is the summary in a real brief statement. The summary is, some guy comes to town that's got a bunch of Internet money behind him. He shows up, and he says, 'Well, I'm not in the transportation business, I'm in the application business.' Yet when he advertises on my Facebook, he says, 'Your next ride, leave the taxi behind.'
"I go and I say, 'Who are these guys and why are they coming into my town and what's the story on them?' So I tell my investigation people that work full-time for me, 'Go tell me about this Uber bunch, tell me what the deal is.'
"So they go get me all the stuff from all these different cities, and I just see what they've done. What they did in those cities is what they did in Dallas. They just roll into town, and they just start operating without going to the hearings, without getting the permits, without doing anything.
"I got a client [Yellow Cab] who's paying 50 thousand bucks a month to the city of Dallas for permits, paying two million dollars a year to go and in out of D/FW airport, and these pricks show up and get a front row seat, and they don't pay anything? That's unfair.
"Years and years ago I went down to City Hall and said, 'We'd like to do an upgrade cab service where we use limos, or what we'd call limos, just black Lincoln Continentals, and we'd like to put a meter in 'em and when we're not using them for the traditional limo deal we'd give it to the people in North Dallas or the rich people to be able to not get a DWI.'
"And [city officials] said, 'No way, not allowing it, no way that's happening, because you're crossing a line.' And these guys show up, and what do they do? They get iPhones, and they use them as meters."
At this point I interrupted to ask a question about the sudden appearance earlier this week of certain southern Dallas clergymen speaking out on Yellow Cab's side of the issue. Barr admitted he had approached them to speak, but when I raised the issue of compensation, he vigorously denied taking part in any payment for services.
"We ain't paying no money. No money at all. You know that's not my deal. Look, off the record, I'm the only lawyer that's had the FBI come in their damn office on that Don Hill guy [former City Council member and member of Barr's law firm, now in prison for bribery] and come in there and go through everything and walk back out the other side and not even be charged with failing to pay a traffic ticket or not pay the IRS. Secondly, Defenbaugh [former FBI Dallas special agent Danny Defenbaugh, now a private investigator] is officing with me, and he's such a Nazi bastard, if there was anything out of sorts you know that son of a bitch wouldn't be around."
At this point I laughed out loud because I couldn't help myself, and I agreed that he had made a strong case on that point.
"The point is, I'm just getting sick of this. These iPhone ... what's the word, John? [apparently asking someone else in car with him] these i-palm, another word for these big high rollers in silicon valley, I, you know what I mean, f-dot something, [voice in background offering suggestion], yeah, these dot-com assholes come in here and do this, so I go down there [to City Hall] and start raising hell, literally raising hell in August, saying 'These guys are coming into town, and they're not bothering to stop at the front door of City Hall, guys. They're not going to try to get a permit.'
"'This is what they did in all these other cities, and if you guys don't stop them, they're going to come in here and if you guys don't grab ahold of them real quick, they're going to sign up two or three hundred drivers, and then you're going to have a contingency that you can't deal with.'
"You know what? This can be printed. I don't care if anybody faults me. I got a client to represent, and they can fucking go to hell. Everybody that can hear that or read that can go to hell. I only care about this [the client].
"So what I do is start jumping on him (Interim City Manager A.C. Gonzalez), and I say, 'It's been six months, goddamn it. What are you going to do? And A.C.'s starting to push the system. And look, have you ever seen that system work? From the inside, let me tell you how it works. It's a cultural deal, just like in France.
"If you go eat in France and you want your check real quick, you want to eat and leave, you're in a hurry, they won't bring you your check."
At this point while Barr spoke, I engaged in a personal fantasy: Oh, to be a fly on the wall when John Barr dines in Paris.
He went on: "In the city of Dallas, they don't come in and say, 'Yeah, we'll take care of it, Boss, let's get it done.' They come in and give you 20 ways of why they can't do it, because if you're the kind of guy that goes in and sits down and can get something done, well, you aren't at the city of Dallas. A.C. Gonzalez to his credit, is. I said, 'What the hell's wrong with you? Let's get something done, damn it.'"
At this point I observed that the anti-Uber new taxi ordinance that Gonzalez tried to slip into the City Council's consent agenda was remarkably similar to other anti-Uber ordinances backed by the taxi industry around the country.
"You're approaching it wrong," Barr told me. "You're approaching it completely wrong. We didn't want a new ordinance. Yellow Cab never asked for a new ordinance. We were told the city attorney was going to have a hard time prosecuting the cases because they couldn't decide what 'prearrangement' was. The statutes that were in existence and have been there -- they were able to use them to tell us we couldn't do this or that -- are suddenly vague and ambiguous for prosecution purposes.
"Here's exactly what I did. I said, 'Look, you guys at the city attorney's office, if you're worried about a new statute and you want a new statute, well, I'll just give you the statutes from every damn place that they've got it.' And I told the kid that was in law school the year before, 'Go get me the statutes.'
"That's all it is. So they brought me a pile of statutes, and I sent 'em to that little guy, Zoey, Joey, whatever, Zapata [Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata], and said, 'Here,' and he gave them to the city attorney.
"Look, A.C. Gonzalez didn't meet at midnight, swap blood and take a sacred oath. And you know what? I kept jumping his ass. I said, 'Look, it's time to fight or get out the way and let me go fight, and I'll sue you and I'll sue the city for failure to enforce, for violating our civil rights, and I'll go sue these Uber fuckers.'"
Barr's main message to me on the phone that evening was that A.C. Gonzalez, far from being the goat in this saga, is the hero according to John Barr: "This son of a bitch is the only guy that's worth a crap at the city of Dallas."
That, and I would say the other lesson I drew from our talk was, if you're about to park at a restaurant and you see John Barr coming toward the same spot, just get out of the way. It's really not worth it.
Correction: The mayor's spokesman, Sam Merten, took me to task in an email yesterday for stating several times that the mayor's investigation of the Uber issue would cost the city $50,000. I looked back and saw what the mayor said was that the investigation would not cost more than $50,000 -- the amount of city money that can be spent without triggering a City Council vote. Merten said to me in his email: "At this point, all we know is it will cost less than $25,000, but we haven't even seen the final bill yet." That was my mistake.
Also wrong: my prediction the mayor would issue only a very vague and cleaned-up version of the investigation. Looks like he let it all hang out, for which I take no credit whatsoever although I can't stop people if they give it to me anyway.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.