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."