Bribe-Payers, Bribe-Takers, Who Walks and Who Gets Slammed

This is an addendum to a thing I wrote yesterday about the recent indictment of Dallas' most powerful county officials on bribery and tax charges. One thing we all have to do in order to figure this out is the math.

We can talk all day about collective guilt -- I think I just did -- but we also need to keep one eye on the way of the world and how these things actually work.

Yes, we do seem to go through this Groundhog Day syndrome in Dallas in which the rich white guys who pay the bribes get something between a slap on the wrist and a peck on the cheek from the feds, while the black officials who take the bribes get penalties just short of death. No, it's not right, and, sure, we would be unfeeling lumps if our consciences were not stirred.

But one reason for the Groundhog Day syndrome is a lesson unlearned. The guy who spelled the lesson out for me five years ago after the last of these trials was Billy Ravkind, who is now representing Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price at the center of today's drama. I cannot find my way back to the exact quote, but I well remember the gist of what Ravkind told me.

I called Ravkind and asked him to help me explain to readers why the white guy who paid bribes got 14 months while Don Hill, the black City Council member who took the bribes, got 18 years, and his wife got nine years. Ravkind, long a dean of the Texas white collar defense bar, is a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked major white collar prosecutions for the government in his younger years, so he has seen the world from both sides.

He explained to me that the severity of the sentence in a federal corruption prosecution has everything to do with how fast and how much the target cooperated. Ravkind said the thing to do for your client, if you know he's guilty and you know the government's got the goods, is grab him/her by the wrist and run -- don't walk, run -- to the federal building and ask what you can do to help.

See also: John Wiley Price and Associates Indicted by Feds in Alleged Bribery Scheme John Wiley Price, Shuffling in Cuffs and Leg-Irons, Enters His Plea Dallas Leaders Walked Arm-in-Arm with John Wiley Price in the Betrayal of Southern Dallas

You run to the federal building to be the first to get there. Whatever you think you've got to offer, he said, is worth half as much the minute somebody else gets down there ahead of you with the same thing. So it's a race to see who does the best flip first.

Brian Potashnik, the contractor who paid bribes to get low-income housing deals at City Hall, balked at first when the feds came sniffing. He came around later and cooperated. He got 14 months, and his wife, Cheryl, got two years probation and a felony conviction, which is not nothing.

Bill Fisher, another low-income southern Dallas apartment developer, got the peck on the cheek and a well-deserved hero's welcome, but only after he went the Ravkind route, rushing downtown to be a witness, not a defendant. Fisher then endured two years of hell including coming close to getting his ass kicked while he wore a wire for the FBI. Being a cooperating witness is not a TV show. It sucks. But it's a job that pays well in terms of the rest of your life as a free person.

Don Hill, the councilman, went the save-me-Jesus route. He protested his absolute innocence to the bitter end and said Jesus was on his side. Every time he said it again, I shuddered. I describe my own convictions as superstitious, not spiritual, but my superstition leads me to believe you shouldn't try to rope Jesus in on your federal criminal problems.

Here is the bitter truth. Let's say you truly believe you are absolutely innocent. OK. That answers Question 1. Question 2 is this: Are you an absolutely innocent person who can get an acquittal from a jury of your peers, or are you an absolutely innocent person who is going to be convicted? Question 3: Are you sure you know what innocent means?

Everybody at Dallas City Hall and in the Dallas political establishment, from the city attorney to political consultant Carol Reed, told Fisher to go ahead and hire security guards from a firm owned by City Council member James Fantroy, with two exceptions.

Mayor Laura Miller found out about the deal in a closed-door executive session where City Hall was trying to keep it a deep dark secret, and Miller, through KTVT Channel 11 News reporter Sarah Dodd, blew it up all over the place. I will say again: Don't tell me Miller accomplished nothing as mayor. She still ranks as the biggest change-agent at City Hall in the third of a century that I've been watching.

Fisher listened to Miller and Dodd, told himself, yeah, this ain't right, and went to the feds early on to help them make their cases against Fantroy and Hill. Peck on cheek, hero.

Potashnik listened to the Dallas establishment for a while, believed he was copacetic, wised up later and went downtown for a deal. Fourteen months, wife a felon. Hill insisted to the bitter end that he and Jesus were innocent. Eighteen years, wife nine years.

Do the math.