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Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze and Dallas Park and Recreation Board President Robert Abtahi faced off — or, really, mostly avoided eye contact — on Facebook Live last week.EXPAND
Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze and Dallas Park and Recreation Board President Robert Abtahi faced off — or, really, mostly avoided eye contact — on Facebook Live last week.
dallasobserver.com via Facebook Live

Facebook Live, Me and Bobby Abtahi — Feelin' Good Was Good Enough For Me

At the end of last week, I did a Facebook Live interview with Dallas Park and Recreation Board President Bobby Abtahi in which Abtahi gave evasive answers on some key questions. I did not nail down those issues in the interview, for which I blame myself. I do think it’s my job here to put down truth on a page.

And before I get into the weeds on this, I won’t blame you if right now you are saying to yourself, “Who in the hell cares? Some newspaper guy had an argument with some guy I never heard of who’s on some board I don’t know about. Spare me the details, please.”

Here’s the thing. Next year, the city will engage in the most important mayoral election in almost a century — important because it will be the first time a new, younger and very different style of leadership will challenge the deeply entrenched oligarchy that has dominated City Hall since the 1930s .

Something that emerged in my Facebook chat with Abtahi is that he clearly is exploring running for mayor. He tried to be demure about it — sort of ducked it, kind of admitted it — but that is not at all what I’m talking about when I say he gave evasive answers.

Yes, he was evasive about running for mayor. So what? Seeking elective office is sort of a courtship. Everybody has the right to pop the question when he or she feels like it, not just because some reporter asks about it on Facebook Live. If you go back and look at the interview, you will agree with me that Abtahi’s heart yearns to run, but his head won’t let him say so yet. That’s up to him.

If he runs, he definitely will not be running as a representative of the new, younger leadership I’m talking about. He’s a young man in years, 35, but an old man in loyalty. When he ran unsuccessfully for the District 14 (Old East Dallas) City Council seat in 2013, his candidacy was an instance of the old private Dallas Citizens Council’s biennial efforts to wrest that seat away from the new, young, progressive leadership that is always a thorn in the side of the oligarchy.

On Abtahi's campaign contribution list that year, the names alone were enough to kill him — Ronald Steinhart, former chairman of Bank One Corp.’s Commercial Banking Group and a former chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council; John Scovell, longtime consigliere to oilman Ray Hunt and a former chairman of the Citizens Council; Erle Nye, former chairman and CEO of TXU Corp. and a board member of the Citizens Council. Abtahi was soundly trounced by Philip Kingston, whom East Dallas loves in part because the Citizens Council despises him.

Since then, the old guard has rewarded Abtahi for his failed council campaign with a couple of appointments, both closely related to the old guard’s most sacred secret society — the board of directors of the State Fair of Texas. Abtahi isn’t on the board yet, but he is being groomed.

I think Abtahi is an empty vessel and a suck-up. He’s the young guy whose path to glory consists of currying favor with the geezers.

On Facebook Live last week, he took pains to point out that my opinion was only that — just my opinion — and that it proved nothing. I disagree. I think my opinion, in his case, is based on a lot of fact and observation over the years and proves a lot.

The things I have observed in him were on full display during our chat on Facebook. That is why I want to share some key particulars with you.

One of the subjects he and I discussed on Facebook Live last week was his tenure as a director of a private group called Friends of Fair Park. It’s supposed to be the fundraising and booster group for the aging and underutilized 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas where the State Fair of Texas takes place every fall.

A vetting process is underway at City Hall for three competing proposals to take over Fair Park. The proposers want to reimagine Fair Park as a public-private enterprise like other much more successful exposition parks elsewhere in the nation.

As president of the park board, Abtahi has had and will continue to have an important influence on that process. From an early point more than two years ago, Abtahi has been closely identified with a particular proposal designed to protect and enhance the dominance of the State Fair of Texas at Fair Park.

Politically, Friends of Fair Park, of which he was a director for several years before being appointed to the park board last year, comes straight out of the State Fair's pocket. It should be renamed Friends of the State Fair For Sure and of Fair Park Maybe.

Friends of Fair Park has special significance here because the old guard support it, and therefore it should be taken as a pretty good indicator of the old guard’s generosity and sense of responsibility over time. The State Fair-dominated proposal for taking over Fair Park as a public-private venture — the one Abtahi has promoted — includes a lot of very broad promises of financial support from the old guard in years ahead. We should be able to look at the financial support for Friends of Fair Park to see how much faith we ought to place in the old guard’s promises to financially support the State Fair/Abtahi plan for Fair Park.

In 2013, when Bobby Abtahi ran against Philip Kingston for the District 14 East Dallas City Council seat, Abtahi rode in on the money.
In 2013, when Bobby Abtahi ran against Philip Kingston for the District 14 East Dallas City Council seat, Abtahi rode in on the money.
Daniel Fishel

On Facebook Live, I asked Abtahi to address the steep decline in financial support for Friends of Fair Park during his tenure. In 2011, the organization’s annual gross revenues were $451,457. By 2015, gross revenues had dwindled to $198,164 – 44 percent of what they had been five years earlier. According to declarations filed with the IRS by Friends of Fair Park, Abtahi was a director in 2013, vice chairman in 2014 and chairman in 2015. Under his chairmanship, the group’s annual expenses in 2015 were $236,468, leaving a deficit for the year of $38,304.

I did not have those specific numbers at my fingertips when we talked on Facebook, nor did I have the 990s themselves. I characterized the decline in revenues at too high a rate at first, then corrected myself, saying the revenues had fallen to half what they were before Abtahi joined the organization. I had a manila envelope with a page of rough notes on the table before me.

In response to my question, Abtahi said, “Let me kind of address a bigger issue, and this is kind of why I agreed to do this.

“You are saying things, and you’re saying that they are just blatant facts, but they’re just typed up on your paper, and there’s no source.

“I don’t know what the budget is. How do you know what the budget is? So where did you get the numbers from?”

I told him the numbers came from the organization’s IRS Form 990s.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “Based on my recollection — I haven’t been on the board for a couple of years — but based on my recollection, that was not the yearly budget.”

It was. He’s wrong. I’m right. Financial support caved to half, leaving Friends of Fair Park with $38,000 in red ink when Abtahi left. He was a director, treasurer and chairman of the board for several years. If he really didn’t know that the entity’s revenues were declining disastrously on his watch, then he really wasn’t watching.

Another issue came up on Facebook Live. In January, a Dallas Morning News investigation by Holly K. Hacker, Tristan Hallman and Miles Moffeit revealed that a company at the center of a school bus contracting scandal had given $78,000 to various Dallas politicians as campaign contributions.

Two of the recipients, Kingston and District 1 City Council member Scott Griggs, announced almost immediately they were making contributions to charity in the full amount of the money they had received from the controversial contracting firm.

The biggest recipient by far of funds from the firm was Abtahi, who received $12,000 in 2013. But since the Morning News exposé, Abtahi has been silent on the subject. So I asked him about it on Facebook Live.

“I didn’t even know about it,” he said. “I was kind of surprised, to be honest with you. It was years ago.”

I asked him if he ever went over his campaign contributions to see who was funding him.

“Someone from our campaign probably did,” he said. “It wasn’t a majority of the money we made. I really didn’t even know about it until someone from the Morning News called me.”

I asked him why he didn’t give the money back.

“I’m not sure how that would even work,” he said.

I said, “You write a check, and you send it to them.”

“No,” he said. “Then that would be a personal check.”

I thought of offering to instruct Abtahi in how to write a personal check, but I didn’t do it because I was afraid someone might get the wrong impression that I’m a smart aleck, or, you know, an ass.

Facebook Live is an interesting way to do business, and I want to assure you that I am a huge fan of all of the new media. I am totally up to speed on all of it, and I think I may be the hippest person on earth new-media-wise if anybody’s asking. I’m thinking of doing my next Facebook Live wearing a pork-pie hat.

But I admit that I was off my mark last week not to have had the 990s in front of me and not to have closed the circle on Abtahi on some of these questions. I think Abtahi is an important figure in local politics — just not for very good reasons. I hope this helps.

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