Last week an attorney for indicted Dallas housing developer Ruel Hamilton filed a federal court document (see below) describing “outrageous government conduct” by FBI agents going after Hamilton. Outrageous government conduct is a legal term.
But let me tell you what’s outrageous to me as a non-lawyer. I’ve been out here covering city politics in Dallas for about 100 years. I don’t mean to be dismissive of anybody’s personal fate in the criminal case — Hamilton is accused of bribery — but I have my own very different reasons for seeing what the government did here as outrageous.
We are talking about the FBI aggressively reaching into and taking sides in a decades-old machinery of local political corruption — and way over on the corrupt side. According to the facts claimed in this filing, it looks like the FBI wet its finger, noted which way the wind blows in Dallas and decided to blow with the bad guys.
Here is where the smell starts leaking out of this soggy cigar box: Only by banging away on the government for months did defense lawyer Abbe Lowell pry the facts out of them. He got this evidence in the process of discovery — the legally compelled production of information that the defense has a right by law to see ahead of a trial.
The prosecution held onto it with white knuckles until Lowell jacked it out of them. You will see right away why they probably were not eager to let go.
The main witness who will go to court this spring and testify that Hamilton paid him a bribe is former City Council member Dwaine Caraway. Caraway is already a federal inmate convicted in an unrelated case of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during his multiple terms as a Dallas City Council member.
In a motion to have the court dismiss all of the charges against Hamilton, Lowell makes a persuasive case that Caraway’s evidence is bogus. But you know what? Lowell is a great lawyer. That’s his side of it. Let’s leave that one to the judge or jury.
What leaps out at me as a journalist, however, is the behavior of the FBI as described in Lowell’s motion, and I don’t mean in legal terms. I’m talking strictly about politics.
Lowell says when the government finally answered his questions in discovery, the evidence showed that undercover FBI agents posed as real estate developers beginning in 2016 and began going to Caraway to give him large amounts of cash:
“On one occasion,” the motion states, “an undercover agent paid Caraway $1,000, and Caraway agreed the payment would serve ‘as a retainer.’ On another occasion, an undercover agent paid Caraway $1,000 and told him he would let Caraway know what he needed after the election.
“At Caraway’s actual campaign announcement party in February 2017, an undercover agent gave Caraway $8,000 in a cigar box. And the night Caraway was elected, undercover agents gave him another $5,000 in a cigar box, telling him that they were ‘in a new relationship.’
“During the campaign, federal agents routinely took Caraway to dog racing tracks and so-called ‘men’s clubs.’ And the federal government even took him and a friend of his to Oklahoma to gamble at the WinStar Casino to celebrate his victory.”
So you and I know that one part of this story is not news — Dwaine Caraway taking bribes. Nor is it new news, very sadly, that some Dallas African American council members have sold out their own impoverished constituents over the years for bribes from rich people in North Dallas.
Caraway has a long personal history — a record established by the courts — of taking money in cigar boxes or some other kind of boxes. Until prison, taking bribes was his way of life, probably his main source of income, maybe his only source of income most of the time. But for what?
I can’t tie a proven bribe to each and every Caraway vote that was clearly against the interests of his own constituents. Nor can I prove there was bribery every time federally convicted former City Council member Don Hill voted to screw middle-class black neighborhoods or every time former council member Al Lipscomb voted to screw minority cab drivers.
But generally speaking, you don’t screw your own people for free. And for decades, maybe longer, that commerce — the cigar box from the north — has been the principal means by which the old, white, rich North Dallas and Park Cities oligarchy has kept the plantation inside the fences.
The main threat to the old way of life in Dallas has always been the new urban sensibility. I’m talking about the people sometimes simplistically labeled progressives, the ones who like living inside the city, who are comfortable with diversity, who prefer fresh air and parks to freeways and carbon monoxide, density to sprawl, walking to driving.
So look how a guy like Caraway votes. Eight years ago, he voted in favor of a thing called “flow control,” eventually termed a crooked scam by a federal judge, in which all the solid waste trash from North Dallas would have been trucked to Caraway’s own part of town. Do we think there might have been a cigar box or two in that one?
Seven years ago, he supported the city’s use of eminent domain to force minority owners in southern Dallas to sell their property for a horse farm and private golf course.
Two years ago, he wanted the city to slow way down on removing monuments to Confederate slave owners. I can’t even make a joke about that. It goes on and on. And on. It’s his whole career.
You know what the white people up north will say if you talk to them about that? They’ll say, “Oh, no, Dwaine was very committed to bettering his own community. He had that campaign to get black men to pull up their pants.”
I think we’re done here.
So let’s talk about the feds and their role in this whole narrative. They used Caraway and the cigar box system to go after Hamilton, who has no real ties to the North Dallas establishment that I know of.
The U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Texas isn’t going to get a call from a Republican North Dallas congressman asking him why he’s picking on Ruel Hamilton. Hamilton’s not a nobody, but politically he’s a free target.
So who isn’t a free target? When and where have the feds been less aggressive and creative? Well, three years ago in the federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, his relationship with the powerful North Dallas Perot family was part of the evidence. But, gosh, I don’t think I remember mention of any cigar boxes traded for the dirt on the Perots.
Four years ago, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, which was represented by and connected to multiple white shoe law firms, came up missing $2 billion under their tutelage. It seems to me the mayor did have a sit-down with the FBI about that at one point, but I don’t remember cigar boxes.
Two billion dollars. That’s a lot of cigars. So what’s going on here? How do we understand the larger picture?
The bitter downside of the cigar box system over the years has been that guys like Caraway, Hill and Lipscomb were the ones who always got nabbed — black guys without a pot to piss in. But the rich guys paying them the bribes had friends in white places. They either went free or got a four-month vacation at Club Fed.
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a nosy, cynical, ink-stained wretch — but I do notice things. The feds needed a white guy. People had been saying that for years. Why don’t they ever get a white guy?
When the feds decided to dip their toes into politics, when they started carrying cash to a candidate, it wasn’t to nail him for taking the cash. It was to use him in office, just like when those North Dallas guys give money to minority council members. Same deal, done the same way. Get him up to WinStar. Run up those losses real bad. Now he’s hooked!
And when they needed him to snag a white guy, they stuck to the local political script. They stayed strictly away from the connected protected white guys, the ones who know the congressman who knows the U.S. attorney.
Ruel Hamilton walked up. If the feds were deer hunters freezing in a stand all day, Hamilton would have been a 12-point buck who came up to the salt block and lay down to take a nap.
Is that all speculation? Absolutely. Can I prove any of it? No way. But here’s the thing. Politics is not the law. It’s not court. If the feds step into the middle of a game I know all too well, I can’t help spotting some moves.
I didn’t ask them to take part in a seamy, decades-old, corrupt system of politics that has been used to preserve injustice and kill progress. I didn’t tell them to join on the plantation side. That’s on them.
Wouldn’t it have been totally amazing if they had gone after one of the guys who actually have been running this stuff all these years? That would have been way bigger news than Dwaine Caraway accepting a trip to WinStar.
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