A federal corruption trial still slated for late February may finally deliver the answer to a question that has eluded Dallas for decades. Who loves and who hates Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price?
Lawyers for Price, who is often considered to be the county’s most influential and controversial black officeholder, argued at a pre-trial hearing Monday that they will have to scour the jury pool for haters. Shirley Baccus-Lobel, Price’s lead lawyer, told U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn that questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors show the pool already includes “a number of jurors who say that they don’t like Mr. Price.”
Price is accused of bribery, mail fraud and tax fraud. His longtime administrative assistant, Dapheny Fain, is accused of tax fraud and making a false statement. Monday’s half-day hearing was to resolve a number of pre-trial motions and settle some housekeeping details in preparation for what is expected to be a two-month trial to begin Feb. 21.
Monday’s discussion of potential jurors who say they dislike Price opened a window on what may be a larger argument by the defense. Baccus-Lobel suggested the defense will argue that the Dallas FBI Field Office and the Northern District of Texas U.S. Attorney have engaged in a years-long campaign of “racial profiling and racial targeting of minorities.”
Baccus-Lobel was arguing against a government motion to prohibit broad arguments of racial bias to the jury. “The government might like to leave questions of race out of the whole question of the evolution of the investigation,” Baccus-Lobel said. But she said, “they cannot do so” without hamstringing the defense.
“We have to be able to go into certain things that relate to how the investigation began and how it was conducted.”
Lynn assured the government she will not allow what she called “nullification arguments,” which would be appeals to the jury to acquit the defendants based on a general mistrust of law enforcement or of government in general. But she told the defense she is thinking about their request to be able to grill the other side on broad racial questions.
The federal case against Price grows out of a two-decades-long series of interlocking investigations that have produced two earlier convictions of black officeholders on bribery charges. The seamless course of the earlier investigations has already come back to bite federal authorities in this one.
Barely a month before the Price trial was to begin, co-defendant Kathy Nealy, who is Price’s political consultant, told the court that federal authorities had verbally granted her some kind of informal immunity deal in an earlier case and that her immunity in that case should be extended to cover her in this new trial. Judge Lynn took her argument seriously enough to say the question could not be settled in time for the often-delayed Price trial. Rather than grant still another delay the judge ruled that Nealy would be tried separately later.
At Monday’s hearing, lawyers for both sides huddled with the judge at the bench to discuss whether or not FBI agent Don Sherman will be called to testify and under what circumstances. Sherman, disabled by a stroke and officially retired, has been the main architect of the FBI’s lengthy probe of corruption among elected officials in Dallas.
It is not accurate to paint Sherman’s campaign as aimed only at black officials. In fact his first solid catch was a white Dallas city councilman, Paul Fielding, brother of State Rep. Linda Koop. Fielding spent three years in prison after Sherman nailed him in 1997 for bribery conspiracy at City Hall.
The facts in that case led naturally into an investigation of Dallas city council member and revered black activist Al Lipscomb, who was eventually convicted in 2000 on multiple bribery counts but later acquitted on appeal.
In 2009 Dallas city council member Don Hill, his wife and several associates, all black, drew tough federal sentences in Lynn’s court on corruption charges stemming from yet another Don Sherman-led investigation.
In none of those earlier prosecutions was the FBI case based on a claim that black officials had pursued minority rights or interests too zealously or somehow had crossed a line by pushing too hard. From the Fielding case to Lipscomb and Hill to this one about to begin next month, the government’s argument has been consistently that the accused politicians betrayed the interests of their constituents in order to enrich themselves.
The defense has already signaled with the list of witnesses it wants to call that it will fight hard against that argument in Price’s case. They are promising to bring luminaries like former Mayor and Obama Cabinet-Member Ron Kirk and St. Luke Community Methodist Church Pastor Emeritus Zan Holmes to court to testify to Price’s integrity.
At Monday’s hearing, the defense bench was led by Price’s lawyer, Baccus-Lobel, who is professorial and genteel but steely when pushed. At an adjoining table was Fain’s lawyer, Tom Mills, tall and dapper with a white mustache straight out of GQ.
The government’s table was led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Walt M. Junker, a man who looms when he stands, broad-shouldered with a mop of black hair and a face not easily broken by levity.
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Lynn, the judge, is small, fashionable when not in black, sharply attentive on the bench, with a certain appetite for theoretical argument but an equal tendency when she’s had enough to bring things sharply back to the law and to get on with it.
Some of the argument Monday about people who do and do not like Price extended to the recent presidential election. The judge and Baccus-Lobel went back and forth a little about whether or not potential jurors could be asked whether they had voted for Hillary Clinton.
Judge Lynn told Baccus-Lobel that she would not strike a person from the jury solely on the basis of having voted for or against Clinton, but she would allow Baccus-Lobel to question a potential juror whether his strong dislike for Clinton extended to a strong dislike for Price.
The Clinton card may not be as long a reach as it sounds. Nealy, who will not be tried with Price but whose name and role are sure to come up a lot, has worked as a political consultant for both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Her work and how she earns her money for candidates will be a central issue in the Price trial, even if she herself is not present.