Year of the weasel

If there's one theme that emerged from the cast of characters who graced this page last year, it was cluelessness.

At least that seemed to be the defense of choice for everyone from the mayor to that role model in the floor-length fur coat: ignorance, confusion, denial--and when that didn't work, pure amnesia.

On matters small and large, 1996's modus operandi was "anything but the truth."

The Cowboys' Michael Irvin not only didn't participate in any snorting and smoking that fateful night last March that led to his first nasty controversy, he didn't even necessarily know the drugs were there--one of his lawyers argued with a straight face in his opening comments at the July trial. Moreover, the cops and the district attorney were the guilty ones--the police were morons who made numerous mistakes, the lawyer, Royce West, said, doing a bad Johnnie Cochran imitation, and the DA was simply gunning for a high-profile black man. Rachelle Smith's coke-sniffing, lesbian-sex-partying anecdotes on the witness stand dashed that highfalutin defense pretty quick. (You remember Smith, of course; she's the topless dancer whose story of threats and abuse by Irvin and his friends wasn't a hoax.)

Shopping mall magnate Ray Nasher certainly never intended that there be a link between his half-assed offer to donate his $250 million sculpture collection to the city and his more sincere request for a multi-million-dollar zoning change on 39 choice acres on Northwest Highway. Which, through similarly doe-eyed tactics, he fully received. Funny, Nasher hasn't mentioned the sculpture collection since.

Dallas councilman Paul Fielding denied doing anything as a public official that was "immoral, improper or fattening," as he flippantly explained to me. He made that quip despite evidence that on a controversial 1992 zoning case involving Electronic Data Systems, he thought nothing of phoning EDS officials about the zoning application one day and then turning around the next day and negotiating with EDS on a janitorial contract that Fielding's company stood to benefit from.

An absentminded Dallas mayor Ron Kirk not only abruptly blew off a minor commitment--to him, anyway--to be the keynote speaker at a fundraising dinner for a Jewish day school that, unknown to him, my kid happens to attend. He claimed there was no request to attend the dinner in his mayoral files--which only led to more embarrassment when it turned out to be untrue. Ever-forgetful Kirk also would later deny telling me--as he did when I first asked him why he hadn't shown up for the dinner--that "my black churches are all over me, saying I do too much for the Jews already."

Former Dallas councilman Domingo Garcia--with nary a blush on his clean-shaven, newly conservative face--insisted that he saw no moral, ethical, or basic civility problem with trying to steal the seat of an incumbent state legislator who just happened to be one of his closest friends and staunchest political supporters--never mind the father of his godson.

Former Dallas minister to the intellectual elite, Walker Railey, is still sitting out in L.A.-La Land, trying to figure out how in the world his wife ended up with a scrambled brain in an East Texas nursing home. In February, he'll rise from the media ashes where he belongs to star in a lengthy episode of NBC's Dateline, which despite zero developments in how he got away with attempting to strangle his wife, will let the former pastor do his aching-heart, red-rimmed-eyes victim thing on national TV.

Dallas councilman Chris Luna was outraged when we accused him way back when of leaking a supremely confidential city document to the movie-theater company Cinemark, which at the time was threatening to sue the city for blocking construction of one of its megatheaters. Well, he was still denying it last spring when he was dragged kicking and screaming from his post as deputy mayor pro tem by his fellow councilmembers, who had finally gotten hard evidence of his betrayal from Cinemark's zoning lawyer, who admitted in a sworn deposition that Luna had passed him the document. (For his helping Cinemark sue, thanks to that document--Luna received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Cinemark chairman Lee Roy Mitchell.)

The lawyers at Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox, which defended the city in the Cinemark lawsuit, swore it wasn't their fault that the case went down the toilet. Vial, Hamilton's lawyers told me that it had nothing to do with their forgetting to ask a judge to seal the Luna-leaked document when they included a copy of it in a motion to keep the document confidential to prevent Cinemark from using the damaging document against the city.

Thanks to Vial, Hamilton's big blunder--among other mistakes--the judge not only allowed Cinemark to use the document, it forced the city to turn over all the other sensitive attorney-client-privileged communications that had collected on the matter. On Vial, Hamilton's advice, the city finally settled the suit for $5 million. For its bumbling legal work, the city paid Vial $1 million.  

But if those guys are clueless, then Dallas city councilman Al Lipscomb would have to be diagnosed as comatose.

There is no public official who is more obviously for sale to the Dallas business community than Lipscomb. No one more willing to satisfy the status quo keepers' need for political favors and insulation from the race problem than Lipscomb. For more than a decade, Lipscomb has been allowed to wallow contentedly at the public trough, privately pimping his elected position to the monied and comfortable while publicly (and superficially) lambasting them in his self-appointed role as the savior of the poor and disenfranchised.

Last May, when I was finishing up the research on an expose chronicling Lipscomb's long, incestuous financial relationship with the Anglo powerbrokers of Dallas, Lipscomb seemed in a constant state of ignorance.

He didn't know why his janitorial supplies company--which the business community had helped him form in 1993 during a temporary hiatus from the council--wasn't paying its bills. He didn't know how his company wound up in bankruptcy court. He didn't know why 48,720 gallons of disinfectant that his company shipped to Dallas schools was rejected as substandard. He didn't know anything about how his former business partner, Roger Hoffman, got indicted by the feds for something unrelated to their partnership.

But most of all, Lipscomb didn't know why it was inappropriate as a city councilmember to vote on tax abatements, license renewals, zoning requests, and right-of-way acquisitions for his chemical company's customers.

He didn't comprehend that there could be a problem--a little conflict of interest--with his acceptance of cash and gifts and favors from prominent business people who, in return, thought nothing of calling up the always-accessible councilman at City Hall.

Lipscomb scratched his head--so very dazed and confused--when I asked him which Dallas big shot paid off his car loan to the W.O. Bankston car dealership back in 1988 when, as a two-term councilman, he bought a new Mercury for his wife, then promptly stopped paying on it. He laid awake nights back then, peering through his front windows, pistol in hand, successfully keeping the repo men at bay.

When the car finally got repossessed--Lipscomb was apparently dozing at the time--Bankston sold the car as used and sued Lipscomb for the difference. On the first day of trial in November 1988, some young downtown lawyer walked up to a surprised Jimmy Bankston, W.O.'s son, and handed him a cashier's check from some unnamed benefactor for the full amount--$3,828--instantly ending the lawsuit.

Lipscomb was equally confused to learn that his son-in-law, Roderick Dudley--who became his business partner about the time Lipscomb's old partner, Hoffman, was getting federally indicted--was an ex-convict who spent eight years in state prison for holding someone at gunpoint during a robbery.

"When you put in the paper that Rod was an ex-con, I thought perhaps it was a typo," Lipscomb told me after the Observer story ran. "I asked someone else whether it was true, and it was confirmed that it had been. You see, I had no idea."

But if Lipscomb was surprised at that one, he was downright flabbergasted, he told me, when that same son-in-law, Roderick Dudley, was indicted last August for allegedly stealing more than $100,000 from Dallas County's jail bond coffers. (The DA's office, which sure is taking its sweet time putting this case together, now thinks it's more like $300,000.)

"This broadsided me, this one did," Lipscomb said with his trademark gasp of shock and dismay. "It surely did."

It's easy to want to believe Lipscomb. He's a charming man, warm and personable--the very opposite of his acerbic good buddy Paul Fielding. (Fielding, by the way, was the one who set Lipscomb up with Roger Hoffman, a former client of Fielding's who is now going to be a witness against Fielding in his upcoming federal fraud and extortion trial. As part of Hoffman's plea bargain arrangement in a defense-contract kickback scheme he was involved in, Hoffman spent the last year of his partnership with Lipscomb secretly feeding the feds info about Fielding and Lipscomb, who has not been indicted for anything. As you can see, the sleaze trails can be hard to untangle.)

In last May's Observer story, Pete Schenkel was Lipscomb's biggest, most obvious sugar daddy. Schenkel's gifts are many and varied, and they've been extended on a regular basis over two decades--everything from Grambling-Prairie View football tickets for Lipscomb's friends; to the purchase of a used pickup truck back in Lipscomb's fruit-vending days; to crates of dairy drinks for Lipscomb's wife's church group; to cash handouts.  

Most recently, Schenkel gave Lipscomb several enormous stainless-steel milk tanks so Lipscomb's son-in-law, Rod Dudley, could mix chemicals in them--using homeless people as his work force. Although Dudley knew nothing about chemicals, he went from the physical therapy business to chemical manufacturing overnight to help Lipscomb--whom stiffed chemical suppliers had cut off--fill his company's orders. Well, it appears that Lipscomb has another generous benefactor out there--one who emerged when we requested a copy of a tape of a September bankruptcy court creditors' meeting. Early last year, Rod Dudley and his wife, Lavette, Lipscomb's daughter, filed for bankruptcy because they were being pursued in state district court by three women who had invested with Rod Dudley in a physical therapy business that they claimed he plundered.

From the court file in the case, it's clear that Dudley thought bankruptcy was his golden parachute--he'd declare his debts, get protection from his creditors, produce a reorganization plan, and sail away from a whole lot of people to whom he owed money, including these three angry partners who wanted their $100,000 investment back.

Not so easy. The bankruptcy court wanted information Dudley never seemed to be able to produce, like tax returns and checkbook records. The court was displeased that Lavette Lipscomb, who handled Dudley's financial affairs, wouldn't show up for bankruptcy hearings. The court had a problem with Dudley offering to pay his creditors 23 cents on the dollar, while continuing to drive a 1991 Lexus and a 1994 Suburban.

But the court really became irritated when Dudley got in the habit of taking the Fifth Amendment in response to questions about how much money he made from 1993 through 1996--the years he is accused of skimming money from the county's bond fund with the help of a former county employee.

"I'm asking you where you got income from in 1995," Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee Tom Powers asked Dudley at the September meeting. Dudley responded: "I'm going to take the Fifth Amendment on that."

Powers soon discovered other things that Dudley hadn't declared in his bankruptcy petition. (This, by the way, is called bankruptcy fraud, though it doesn't appear that the feds are pursuing Dudley for this.)

For one thing, Dudley did not report a $12,000 gift he made to his father-in-law Al Lipscomb in 1995. (Gifts to relatives made during the 12 months preceding a bankruptcy filing have to be declared, according to federal bankruptcy law.)

Why had Dudley made such a gift to Lipscomb? "He needed some money," Dudley testified. "He had personal bills he had to pay. I had borrowed money because I needed money also."

And where had Dudley gotten that kind of money? From Floyd Richards, owner of Yellow Cab Company, the largest cab company in the Metroplex and a frequent presence down at city hall, where taxicab issues have dominated the city council agenda since 1992.

According to what Dudley told the court, Richards wrote a $20,000 check to Dudley, who deposited it in the account of his physical therapy company, Aggressive Professional Health Services, which then cut a check to Lipscomb--a series of transactions that infuriates Dudley's former business partners, not to mention puts a stink in the nostrils of the bankruptcy court.

It started, Dudley testified, when "I went to them [Richards] asking for some money."

Dudley testified that there was no paperwork executed between himself and Richards on the transaction. In fact, Richards never told Dudley he wanted the money back, although Dudley told the bankruptcy court that he had fully intended to pay Richards back--though he never did.

If Dudley did intend to repay the money, he failed to list Richards as a creditor on his bankruptcy plan. This was a problem for two reasons--not only had Richards given Dudley the $20,000, he had also given him an additional $21,000, the tape reveals, to purchase a bottling machine for Dudley's--and Lipscomb's--chemical manufacturing business.

Here's the incredible scenario: In the fall of 1995, while Schepps Dairy was donating Dudley and Lipscomb tanks to mix chemicals in--and the services of a dairy company engineer to show them how to set them up--Yellow Cab was buying the two men the rest of the equipment they needed to make and sell the chemicals. Since then, Floyd Richards and his attorney, John Barr, have lobbied Councilman Lipscomb heavily on several cab issues important to Yellow Cab.

In fact, Lipscomb has voted four times in the last year on Yellow Cab's behalf, according to city secretary's records. On February 14, 1996, Lipscomb made a motion to allow Yellow Cab to increase its fleet by 175 vehicles--it passed unanimously. On May 22, Lipscomb seconded a motion to require all cab companies to purchase A-plus-rated insurance--an expensive proposition that Yellow Cab was pushing in order to cripple its smaller competitors. When that failed--on a close 7-8 vote--Lipscomb seconded it again on June 12. When it looked like the motion was going to fail again, Lipscomb moved to postpone the vote for two weeks--on June 26, he tried a third time and last time to get the insurance provision passed. Once again it failed 7-8.  

John Barr says both the bottling machine and the money Richards gave Dudley were loans--not gifts. "We loaned the guy money," says Barr. "He owes us the money. He's going to pay the money. We've made demands on him to pay the money. The only reason we haven't pushed on this thing is because of the obvious political issue--we didn't want a big political mess. But, quite frankly, if I thought we could actually get the money back, the political mess wouldn't matter."

But Richards also truly believed that, based on Dudley's business pitch, Richards was going to get a quick return on his investment, Barr says.

"He wouldn't have loaned the money if it was just Al Lipscomb's son-in-law wanting some money," says Barr. "Floyd's a tough, hard-nosed businessman. He'd sue his mother if his mother owed him $20."

Barr says it was Dudley--never Lipscomb--who approached his client both times for money. In fact, Barr says he wasn't aware that any of the cash Richards loaned Dudley went to Lipscomb. (He told me this last Saturday morning, just before he hustled me off the telephone, saying he was headed out the door to go visit his mother in the hospital.)

Says Barr: "Al has never said anything to me like, 'Do something for me, and I'll do something for you.'"

Just a nice old man. That's been Lipscomb's modus operandi around town for two decades now. But it's a tired one--a corrosive one--and the citizens of Dallas should no longer have to put up with a guy who can't separate his pocketbook from his public responsibility.

One thing that Barr and I talked about--and I appreciated his honest comments, which are hard to come by on this sticky topic of how some of our unpaid elected officials make ends meet--is how unfair it is that Ron Kirk openly accepts a six-figure salary from the business community in exchange for being mayor, and everybody thinks that's just a great idea. (He does virtually ZERO legal work for the law firm Gardere & Wynne, which represents new sports arena booster Don Carter among many other big shots who consistently seek City Hall favors.) But if Lipscomb takes a few used milk tanks or a couple hundred bucks from someone, it's a scandal.

"Maybe paying these councilmembers a salary would solve the problem," says Barr.

Maybe. But for a guy like Lipscomb, who clearly has no shame or conscience when it comes to accepting under-the-table largess and then returning the favor, a salary will only be icing on his mooch cake.

Last May, when the Observer story on Lipscomb ran, Lipscomb showed up for the weekly council meeting in a navy-blue sweatshirt with the word "CLUELESS" emblazoned on it--the cover headline of the story. Lipscomb chuckled all day about it--he thought it was all very amusing.

It's not amusing, Al. It's disgusting. And it's been allowed to continue for far too long. Al Lipscomb's secret gravy train is reason enough to vote against salaries for the city council. Maybe then his fellow councilmembers--some of whom may even deserve a salary--would come up with a fast way to get Lipscomb off the council. It wouldn't be hard; he's violated the city's code of ethics probably hundreds of times, and for that, councilmembers can vote to give one of their own the boot out of office.

If history is any indication, though, not only will the council do nothing, Lipscomb's constituents will vote him back in come May. And Al Lipscomb and his benefactors will stay in business.

Maybe it's the rest of us who are clueless.

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