It may not be Blago in Chicago, but it's definitely malice in Dallas. In fact the word that keeps popping up in relation to a master plan effort for the city's proposed inland port is shakedown.
For a long time, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and The Dallas Morning News editorial page kept saying their idea for a master plan for the southern Dallas County inland port "only makes sense."
But it didn't make sense to Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the region's most powerful politician and a veteran of southern Dallas politics. Not good sense.
Johnson told me last week she views Commissioner Price's role, in particular, as part of a long, bad history: "I see all of these different deals that he's trying to do over the years, shaking people down and all that kind of stuff."
The inland port is an immense rail, trucking and warehousing hub being developed in Dallas and southern Dallas County by many developers, chief among them The Allen Group of San Diego. In an area long blighted by racial bias, unemployment and poverty, the inland port promises tens of thousands of new, well-paid jobs and billions in new tax base.
Johnson represents the 30th Congressional District in southern Dallas and Dallas County. She is chairperson of the House Water Resources and Environment subcommittee and is a recent past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She said she knew what was wrong with the proposed inland port master plan the first time she heard of it. "John was making sure he put a cork in there to stop everything until they did what he wanted them to do."
Just as TAG was completing a five-year development process and was ready to begin selling and leasing property, Mayor Leppert and Commissioner Price threw their weight behind a brand-new 18-month land-use and zoning study for the project. Richard Allen, CEO of TAG, said that starting a study now would create uncertainty and drive off potential customers.
Some of those potential clients might have driven themselves all the way over to Tarrant County to hear a sales pitch from the well-connected Perot family, operators of a directly competing shipping center around Alliance Airport.
For the longest time, Leppert, Price and the News sneered at Allen's concerns, in spite of his having bought 6,000 acres of land in an area long-ignored by Dallas investors.
In prior columns, I've reported on the extraordinary lengths to which Price has gone to oppose The Allen Group project, with help from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.
Last week on December 11, Leppert blinked: Chris Heinbaugh, his spokesman, confirmed for me that the mayor had withdrawn his support from the plan, at least for now.
Then this week on Monday, December 15, the NCTCOG blinked too. The agency's director told a specially convened panel of local elected officials that he was willing to drop it, as well.
I guess that leaves the News.
This has been going on: Congresswoman Johnson told me that in 2005, TAG came to her with a written proposal from a group of men who wanted to serve as TAG's "consultants" in southern Dallas.
The group consisted of Pettis Norman, a former Dallas Cowboys football player and prominent local businessman; Willis Johnson, a radio personality who was more recently the southern Dallas political consultant for Mayor Leppert; and Jon Edmonds, a former Citibank commercial loan officer and small businessman now on the staff of the Foundation for Community Empowerment. The group called itself the Service and Leadership Team, or SALT.
According to the congresswoman, the fee for SALT's services to TAG was to be "several million dollars in a three-year period." After I spoke with Johnson, Richard Allen confirmed for me that the price was to be $500,000 a year for three years and a "15 percent equity."
I asked Allen what "equity" meant in that proposal. He said he did not know. He declined further comment.
Willis Johnson and Jon Edmonds did not respond to my requests for comment. Pettis Norman did call back. He confirmed the existence and membership of the SALT group but declined to show me a copy of its proposal to TAG.
When Congresswoman Johnson read SALT's one-page proposal, she asked The Allen Group what SALT was going to do for all that money and a cut of the company. She told me last week: "They [TAG] said, 'They're supposed to be getting us out so we can know people like you.' I said, 'Well, I can tell you this. Nobody has to pay to get to know me.'"
The initial approach by SALT was made verbally. TAG asked the SALT group, cleverly, to put its proposal in writing, which it did, un-cleverly. Then TAG showed the written proposal to Johnson. Johnson then brokered a meeting of all of the principals.
Allen won't talk for the record about that meeting. Commissioner Price gave me a quite confusing version of it including a discussion of whether Allen was the target of a shakedown.
"I wasn't a part of that," he said at first, "and I don't know anything about it, so I can't speak to it." But a moment later, contradicting what he had just said, Price told me, "When everybody was in Congresswoman Johnson's office, Congresswoman Johnson said to Richard Allen—I was there in the room—'OK, if that's the case, tell the FBI.'"
Congresswoman Johnson told me she didn't remember Price being present. Pettis Norman and his group were upset with Allen for having complained about them to Johnson. She did remember in general terms suggesting to Allen that an apology might help move things forward.
In fact Allen wound up signing a bizarre document in which he basically apologized for being a victim. "By this writing," the document states, "we apologize for the unfortunate use of the term, 'shakedown,' and the manner in which our comments have affected Mr. Pettis Norman, Mr. Willis Johnson and Mr. Jon Edmonds in the Dallas area."
But—and this is a key point—Allen still refused to hire SALT as his consultant.
Whatever calming of the waters Congresswoman Johnson had hoped to achieve with the meeting, the waters did not go flat. Price began opposing TAG on a series of key issues—a bridge, a special trade zone, water and zoning, and other issues. Price appeared at functions where city officials were touting the plan and tried to disrupt the proceedings by shouting "Equity, equity," from the wings.
Congresswoman Johnson was blunt with me about her view of Price's role. "If people want equity," she said, "they have to come up with some money. Most of the time folks don't care what color you are if you come up with money."
At one point Johnson says Price came to her in the company of State Senator Royce West, who represents District 23 in southern Dallas and the county. "Royce called and said it was very, very important that he talk with me," she said.
West confirmed to me that he had discussed the SALT group proposal with Johnson. He said he was not a member of SALT.
Johnson said she agreed to meet with West and Price. "They said to me, 'We're the toughest three people in this county.' That was John talking."
She said Price told her, "'If we stick together, we can get a lot of things done. These people [TAG] are not going to come in here and there not be some blacks making money. They really need to leave some money in this community.'"
I invited both West and Price to comment on Johnson's description of the meeting, but did not hear back from them.
Johnson said after TAG declined to hire SALT as its consultant, she witnessed a clear pattern of trouble visited upon TAG by Price. "What has happened since that time is that every time I hear something about it, it's John doing something."
She believes she knows why. "John was holding out until he could arrange for somebody to get some money."
The Dallas Morning News editorial page has pooh-poohed Richard Allen's concerns over the so-called master plan, painting him as seeing "enemies behind every tree" and asking what can be wrong with a study.
Johnson says she knows exactly what was wrong with the study: "This study that [Price] came up with sounded like a wonderful idea. But when I read about it, I said to my transportation assistant, 'Uh-oh. I know exactly what's taking place here.'
"He said, 'It sounds like a good idea.' I said, 'It is a good idea, but coming from John, I'm suspicious of it. I know he never stops until he gets his way.' As it turned out, that's the way it was."
She said she was pleased when the Dallas County Commissioners Court voted against supporting the master plan effort and against Price at its October 21 meeting, declining to take part in the study: "It was a great idea, but I knew there was something in the crank there if John was leading it."
One thing Richard Allen was willing to say to me on the record: He said he does not believe that any of the behavior he has encountered in this long, sordid saga crosses the line into illegality.
He's probably right. Uncomfortable? Yes. An atmosphere that invites investment in the city? No. But illegal?
I had a long chat with Dallas criminal attorney Tom Mills in which we pretended not to be talking about John Wiley Price or the inland port but only about a theoretical case. I wanted to know what the sequence of events amounts to legally—the visit from the consultants, the turn-down, the campaign of trouble from the public official.
"It sounds like that may come as close as it can come," he said. "But it may not be illegal."
People can propose anything they want, Mills pointed out. The person being propositioned can say no. An elected official may deem a project good or bad for his jurisdiction.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Johnson gave me her own bottom line. "Every time there's an opportunity to do some kind of development in the southern sector, people get discouraged because of all the mess they have to go through with two or three people, and they say they moved on."
She said she has viewed The Allen Group's project as singular and historic in the promise it brings southern Dallas. "What else could we put out there that would be more important?...Because nothing has happened out there the whole years I've been here. I'm ready to do whatever it takes to get it going."
In dropping the master plan idea last week, politicians tried to do all kinds of public face-saving, of course, suggesting they were only dropping it for now and that their only real problems were "misinformation" and "communication." It was clear none of them knew how Congresswoman Johnson feels about it. One even suggested he would be calling her to tell her about the plan being delayed.
Oh, man. To be a fly on the wall for that one.