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After Another City Council Arrest, Eric Johnson Takes on Corruption at the Capitol

State Rep. Eric Johnson has an idea to cut corruption in Dallas.
State Rep. Eric Johnson has an idea to cut corruption in Dallas.
Mark Graham

The plan from Dallas mayoral candidate and state Rep. Eric Johnson was on its way anyway, but Friday's developments certainly didn't hurt. Monday afternoon in Austin, three hours south of the city that's seen three current or former City Council members arrested since August, Johnson unveiled his plan to cut back on what he calls one of Dallas municipal government's biggest sources of corruption.

Johnson's plan — he said he'll file a bill in support of it later this week — is single-faceted. He wants to remove the influence local government officials have on which projects get federally funded affordable housing tax credits.

"We saw it again last Friday when a former Dallas city councilwoman pleaded guilty to taking some $40,000 in bribes in exchange for her support of an affordable housing development," Johnson said. "And, sadly, she is not the first elected official who has been caught trying to profit from their role in the affordable housing tax credit award process."

Allowing developers to benefit directly from winning the support of city politicians makes corruption too easy, according to Johnson.

"The affordable housing tax credit has become the mother’s milk of political corruption in Dallas," Johnson said. "It needs to be reformed … swiftly and comprehensively."

It should be up to neighborhood and community groups to score and recommend which housing projects get put in line for affordable housing cash, Johnson said, rather than the City Council, which has veto power over which projects in the city get funding. When approved, the tax credits are issued to developers who agree to meet targets for providing low-income rental housing. Developers can sell the credits on financial markets, raising capital they need to start a project. Unfortunately, that means developers who need money for their projects and local politicians who want cash to line their pockets both have incentives to cheat.

Friday, former Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis admitted in federal court to taking $40,000 in bribes from a developer seeking the tax credits for one of his projects. Johnson said he hoped to address crimes like those to which Davis has admitted, and he also called out Terri Hodge, his predecessor in Texas House District 100. In 2010, Hodge pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges related to the low-income housing project bribery scheme that also took down former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill.

"It's a response to several situations, unfortunately, emanating from Dallas, where we've had elected officials at multiple levels — we've had a state representative, we've had multiple city council people — all who have converted their support in this process into currency to be traded with developers."

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Dallas state Rep. Angie Chen Button, the Republican chairwoman of the Texas House's Urban Affairs Committee, said Monday that she supported Johnson's anti-corruption charge.

"Low-income tax credits are a very important resource for creating workforce housing in the United States and Texas. I'm happy that Representative Johnson is bringing his idea on how to best address this issue to the table," Button said.

Despite being in the middle of Dallas' tense mayoral contest — and focusing throughout his press conference on Dallas politicians' crimes — Johnson said his proposed bill was about doing what was right to protect his  constituents through the state Legislature, rather than making a point in the local race.

"This is a state law issue," Johnson said.

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