Let's do this.
Colleen McCain Nelson of The Dallas Morning News editorial board has suggested it was tasteless of me to publish former DART chair Lynn Flint Shaw's personal e-mails on our blog, Unfair Park, on March 11, the day after Shaw and her husband, Rufus, were found dead of an apparent murder-suicide.
"I would have delayed publication," Nelson wrote that day on the Morning News editorial page blog. "This article feels like a somewhat random jab at the dead. Why not wait a week?"
Why? Let me try to answer.
The first answer, the more personal one and less important, is that I realized I had transacted some difficult business with the Shaws shortly before their deaths, and I thought I needed to be the one to say so.
The less personal and more important reason was this: The e-mails I published on Unfair Park raise serious questions about the way public money and public contracts are handed out in this city and about the ethics of high public officials. Delaying mention would have played to the advantage of people eager to paper over these problems with platitudes, very much including The Dallas Morning News editorial page.
Generally speaking, the News' coverage of the Lynn Flint Shaw story—by the paper's regular news reporters—has been aggressive and comprehensive. But the paper, especially the editorial page, gets suddenly very tasteful and shy where the Shaw story collides with the story of Mayor Tom Leppert.
The ownership of the News is engaged right now in a strong-arm push for the development of a city-owned hotel downtown near large properties owned by the owners of the News. Leppert is carrying that water at City Hall, as he carried the News' water on the Trinity River referendum.
Like it or not, Leppert is a central figure in the Lynn Flint Shaw story. It was important to get the real story out and into the public discourse immediately. The best time to disinfect is while the wounds are fresh.
Lynn Flint Shaw, as my collection of e-mails clearly shows, was engaged in setting up a small group called "The Inner Circle" to control minority contracting with public entities in the city, especially at City Hall and at Dallas Area Rapid Transit. The Inner Circle's leverage comes entirely from the role this same handful of people played in getting Leppert elected mayor and helping him and the Dallas Citizens Council defeat the Trinity River toll road referendum.
Willis Johnson, the lead member of The Inner Circle, was Leppert's paid political consultant for his mayoral campaign in southern Dallas, a fact he still advertises on the Web page for his public relations company, JBJ Marketing.
In the e-mails I published, Lynn Flint Shaw promises the members of The Inner Circle that she will see to it Leppert pays up. In one e-mail, Shaw tells Leppert in very direct terms that any and all contacts between him and the black community must go through Johnson, a radio personality and entrepreneur:
"Willis is the guy," she writes Leppert. "He is the 'go to' person in all things southern sector and African-American. No one and I mean no one should be going around and usurping his authority..."
After receiving this e-mail, Leppert named Flint Shaw treasurer of "Friends of Tom Leppert," his political fund-raising committee, then helped engineer her ascent to the chairmanship of DART, an agency that carries roughly half a billion dollars' worth of public contracts at any given point in time. She told friends proudly that she was serving as DART chair, "because the mayor wants me to."
Johnson, the "go-to guy," is himself a contractor at DART and with other public entities in the city, providing radio and security equipment through another of his companies, Wai-Wize Inc.
A consistent theme in the e-mails is the stream of helpful information that Shaw fed to Johnson concerning contracts at DART, where she was a board member. For example, in one series of e-mails Johnson was fishing for information about how certain people "got on the GEC team." GEC is an abbreviation for general engineering consultant.
A former DART board member, speaking to me not for attribution, told me, "The GEC is a gigantic slush fund for contracts." He explained that only the prime contractor—the main general engineering consultant—has to go through intense scrutiny and vetting.
There is much less scrutiny of the subcontracts. "No one cares who does the lighting fixtures," the former board member said. Therefore, a person with access to inside information about GEC subcontracts, not to mention access to a key board member, could shoulder aside other contractors on the way to the gravy train.
When Johnson asks Shaw about it in the e-mails, she answers him back quickly: "I need to talk to you about this. Found out some stuff."
Rule 21 of the DART board's rules of procedure provides: "If a Board member is contacted by anyone concerning an active DART procurement or ongoing procurement dispute, the Board member should not discuss any specific procurement information."
Leppert's response to any and all inquiries about these e-mails, the existence of an Inner Circle or the role of Willis Johnson has been sarcastic and dismissive. When Dallas Observer reporter Sam Merten asked him at a public event last week if Johnson had a special role as gatekeeper for minorities seeking contact with him, Leppert said, "If you look at my schedule, and you look at what I did, and anybody does, they would laugh in your face."
So I looked at his schedule. I'm not laughing.
The Inner Circle is not a mere figure of speech. It is a fairly formalized organization with a semi-monthly schedule of meetings. One of the e-mails, providing the schedule for the full year, starts out, "Subject: Inner Circle group schedule. Mayor Leppert has asked me to invite you to a meeting on Friday, August 17th at 7:30 a.m. and the location will be the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce...He would like to meet with the entire group every other week."
I asked Leppert's chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, if Leppert had attended meetings at the Black Chamber on any of those dates. He e-mailed me back: "The calendar indicates 8/17 and 10/26."
I am taking that as a yes.
Let's talk about the Shaws. Not in news stories but in columns and editorials The Dallas Morning News has portrayed the Shaws as brave martyrs. The day they were found dead, the News published an editorial on its Web page calling Rufus Shaw "a gruff political analyst and stinging critic of Dallas' power structures."
No, he wasn't. He was a grifter with no visible means of support. His wife was smart, charming and a hard worker, but she, too, could be ruthless, cutting others dead in order to save her own skin. I spoke with one woman who was so wounded and humiliated by a scam Lynn Flint Shaw pulled on her that she had to leave the state for several years.
One story the News broke about the Shaws a day after their deaths was that police found evidence in their home indicating they had been paying their mortgage out of her city council campaign funds, which would be illegal.
I had been reporting for months about her misuse of campaign funds. I recently asked Heinbaugh, Leppert's chief of staff, why the mayor had never addressed her misuse of campaign funds, in spite of his very public call for higher ethical standards in the matter of campaign finance reports.
Heinbaugh answered me: "They are allegations, and the Mayor prefers not to respond to allegations. As you probably know, allegations of campaign finance disclosure violations are not handled at City Hall or under the City Ethics Code, but usually by the Texas Ethics Commission or in some cases, a District Attorney. Those would probably be the correct venues to have your allegations addressed."
Well, in fact, Section 12A-10 of the city's code of ethics is devoted entirely to campaign finances, and, as far as I have been able to determine, the proper party to go to the district attorney and make a complaint about violations would in fact be the city or a high city official. Like the mayor. But Leppert's response, through Heinbaugh, is a total blow-off.
Nelson of the Morning News editorial page asked "why not wait a week" before publishing the e-mails and raising questions about the Shaws. My answer is this. The questions aren't about the Shaws. The questions are all about Tom Leppert. About City Hall and DART. About that damn hotel the Morning News is pimping for so hard.
How many more crucially important public policy votes are going to tilt one way or the other because somebody in The Inner Circle got a contract?
In the last week I have received calls and communications from a number of people who have been involved in the development of DART, the Dallas Center for Performing Arts and various City Hall initiatives. I mean people who were involved at the top.
One person said to me: "Dallas should be taking the Shaw story the same way it took the Kennedy assassination," as an urgent call for a profound and searing self-examination.
Nothing in the lives of the Shaws merited their deaths. None of it was worth depriving their son of his parents. In that, there is no proportion. Instead, I see a sense in which they were victims, too, of a system that uses people cynically for its own narrow gain. I refer specifically to the Morning News editorial page.
But who are the ultimate victims? You're right. You. And me. We are. That's why we're the ones who have to clean up this cesspool. And I'm not just talking about South Dallas. The place to start is with Leppert and the Citizens Council.
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