City Hall

Did the FBI Meddle in Dallas Politics to Catch Corrupt Politicians?

The developer's lawyer claims the FBI was looking for cases of bribery and when they didn’t find any, they decided to mischaracterize Ruel Hamilton's “acts of charity” as bribes.
The developer's lawyer claims the FBI was looking for cases of bribery and when they didn’t find any, they decided to mischaracterize Ruel Hamilton's “acts of charity” as bribes. Kiwiev via WikiCommons
Authorities say it went down like this: A woman pulled up in a Corvette to hand former Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway some cash. The money, prosecutors say, came from Ruel Hamilton, part of a $3,000 payment to Caraway for help with permits related to a parking issue at one of his properties.

Hamilton will be in court for the next few weeks. Current and former local officials, such as City Council member Carolyn King Arnold and County Judge Clay Jenkins, will take the stand as prosecutors try to nab the local affordable housing developer on bribery charges. He’s alleged to have paid Carolyn Davis and Dwaine Caraway for help on the City Council with his real estate developments.

But one of Hamilton’s attorneys, Abbe Lowell, claims the FBI knew Davis and Caraway were corrupt years before it took any legal action to expose them and facilitated the former council members’ corruption. Lowell says the feds were looking for cases of bribery and when they didn’t find any, they decided to mischaracterize Hamilton's “acts of charity” as bribes.

In a court filing, Lowell said the FBI allowed Davis to remain in public office and “put its thumb on the scale in a contested city election by giving substantial money to Caraway while he was seeking re-election to public office.”

Citing the ongoing trial, an FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the case.

Documented on tape and in government records,  the FBI’s plan was to have Davis and Caraway extort money from people seeking the lawful assistance of their elected officials, Lowell alleged.

One of the people they solicited money from was Hamilton.

The FBI knew Davis was corrupt as early as November 2014, according to Lowell. Around then, an undercover FBI agent met with the former City Council member and discussed paying her a monthly retainer in exchange for help in securing city approvals to develop real estate in her district.

Instead of facing legal ramifications, Davis was allowed to continue serving on the Dallas City Council until reaching her term limit. This helped create more opportunities for interactions between her and people who had interests before the council.

Hamilton’s lawyer argues that his client's dealings with Davis were legal and they were only being made to look like bribes. Lowell also claimed that before Davis and her daughter died in a car crash, the late council member told people the feds intimidated her into pleading guilty and characterizing the “charitable donations” as bribes.

“Before her death, Davis told at least four people that she only pled guilty because the government threatened her with a lengthy sentence that would leave her daughter, who suffered from mental illness, uncared for,” according to Lowell’s court filing. “Davis also told these people she intended to reverse her guilty plea, and if called to testify, would admit that Mr. Hamilton never bribed her or did anything wrong.”

Lowell also claims the government allowed Caraway to stay in office after discovering he was corrupt and facilitated him in getting elected in the first place by paying him bribe money throughout his campaign.

“Davis also told these people she intended to reverse her guilty plea, and if called to testify, would admit that Mr. Hamilton never bribed her or did anything wrong.” – court documents

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Two undercover FBI agents were posing as developers when they met Caraway in February 2016. A few months later, they found out he was planning a run for City Council. They encouraged Caraway and even paid him in exchange for his promise for help on real estate development in his district once elected.

On one occasion, an agent paid Caraway $1,000 “as a retainer.” On another occasion, an agent paid Caraway $1,000 and told him he would let him know what he needed after the election. Then, in February 2017, an agent allegedly handed Caraway a cigar box with $8,000 in it. On the night he was elected, an agent handed him another cigar box, this time with $5,000 in it, telling him they were “in a new relationship.”

Throughout the campaign, agents routinely took Caraway to dog racing tracks and men’s clubs. They even took him and a friend to WinStar to celebrate the City Council victory. But, it kept going.

In August 2017, the agency gave Caraway another $10,000 in another cigar box to advance their development plan for Cadillac Heights. Between 2016 and 2017, the feds gave Caraway over $20,000.

Prosecutors claim Davis received $40,000 from Hamilton in “illegal campaign donations for candidates of her choice.” It was an illegal quid pro quo, the prosecutors said.

They maintain that Davis was supposed to be established as a political consultant after her council term with the plan being to lobby for Hamilton and others. She was chair of the Housing Committee at the time. In 2019, she pleaded guilty. Four months later, Davis and her daughter died in a car crash.
Hamilton's lawyers say the FBI knew Carolyn Davis was corrupt as early as November 2014.
Photo by Brian Harkin

But Hamilton’s lawyer argued that it was all legal and that he was just helping Davis raise money for the candidates to “help her preserve goodwill with those candidates once she left office.” Hamilton later hired Davis as a consultant, paying her $20,000 in fees from 2015-2018.

It’s also alleged that Hamilton and Davis used the nonprofit Hip Hop Government as a middleman for bribes and to bypass the $1,000 limit on campaign contributions.

Jeremy Scroggins, the owner of the nonprofit, is listed as a witness for the FBI in the trial. In 2015, Davis told Scroggins “there’s nothing the FBI could do” about checks going to a nonprofit set up by a public official’s spouse, according to the indictment.

However, according to court filings by Lowell, Scroggins said he had never met Hamilton or had any telephone conversations with him. Additionally, he “was not present when Davis got money from Hamilton,” and he “did not know that Hamilton sought Low Income Housing Tax Credits,” according to court documents.

Hamilton is also alleged to have paid Caraway $7,000 in 2018 for help with a proposed real estate development in Caraway’s district. The developer also needed help from Davis with his Royal Crest Apartment Complex so it could receive over $2.5 million in public subsidies through City Council, prosecutors say.

Hamilton’s attorneys claim the $7,000 check he gave to Caraway in 2018 was actually to pay for medical expenses for the council member and his mother. Court filings describe how Caraway begged for money to pay for his and his mom’s medical problems.

At the direction of the FBI, Caraway set up a meeting with Hamilton in 2018. When Hamilton walked into that meeting, Caraway was on the phone with his sick mother on speaker talking about needing to pay her medical bills. But, prosecutors alleged bribes to Caraway came on more than one occasion. The most recent allegation is that Hamilton worked to “corruptly influence public officials” from November 2013 to August 2018.

The FBI calls public corruption its top criminal investigative priority. They're pulling off these kinds of stings in cities all over the country.

Last year in Calexico City, California, a councilman, the mayor pro tem and a commissioner on the city’s Economic Development and Financial Advisory Commission were charged in federal court with accepting cash bribes in exchange for promises of official action by the city.

In Cincinnati, FBI agents arrested Alexander Sittenfeld, a City Council member, after a federal grand jury charged him for allegedly accepting bribes. However, Sittenfeld too is arguing in court that transactions are being misrepresented as bribes and that evidence actually shows he took steps to ensure they were legal.

Undercover FBI agents posed as investors in a local development project. The agents tried to get Sittenfeld to say the project would be a sure thing if they contributed to his campaign. “… the investors would want to know from Mr. Sittenfeld that ‘it’s going to be a yes vote’ on project 1 ‘without a doubt,” according to court documents. Sittenfeld responded: “nothing can be illegal. … nothing can be a quid pro quo.”

He instead assured them he’s always “super pro-development” and “voted in favor of every single development deal that ever been put in front of me.” This is one of the things the FBI is calling a bribe.

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Former mayor pro tem Dwaine Caraway was convicted in an unrelated bribery scheme in 2019.
Stephen Young
In 2019, about three years after the FBI learned of Caraway's scheming, he was sentenced to more than four years in prison for federal corruption charges involving the former Dallas County Schools bus agency. Lowell described the sentence as a "very sweet deal," the result of a plea agreement to work with the FBI.

In court this week, Lowell told jurors prosecutors weren't giving them the full story. “Snapshots will always give you a first impression,” Lowell said, according to The Dallas Morning News. “But the entire picture will tell you what really happened.”

He said Hamilton is a good man and that everything he did was legal.

Hamilton is one of three Dallas developers tangled up in court on allegations of bribery. The developer responsible for the Grand Park Place apartment project, Devin Hall, pleaded guilty in August this year. Sherman Roberts, president of affordable housing developer City Wide Community Development Corp., is also accused in federal court of paying bribes to Caraway and Davis. 
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn