Legal Battles

Feds Need to Stop with the Girlfriends in Price Trial and Show Us Some Perots

The real issues in the John Wiley Price are not about pickup trucks and girlfriends.They are about  a tsunami of public works construction around North Fort Worth that changed history forever.
The real issues in the John Wiley Price are not about pickup trucks and girlfriends.They are about a tsunami of public works construction around North Fort Worth that changed history forever. Shutterstock
Great, I have an answer to a question. Now, after hearing opening arguments in the John Wiley Price case, I know why no Perots are indicted. I get it.

But given the government’s theory on why no Perots should or could have been indicted — and given the opening arguments made Monday by the defense, as well — it’s all the more crucial that some kind of a Perot or other at least take the stand at some point and help explain some things. Otherwise, after the opening arguments Monday, I was left wondering why anybody should care about this trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Nicholas Bunch spent 45 minutes hammering down a straight clear case against Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, on trial for bribery and tax fraud.

Price’s lead lawyer, Shirley Baccus-Lobel, took longer and was all over the map, but in the end she was pretty effective at scattering the government’s accusations to the wind. Far from evidence of bribery and conspiracy, she told the jury, what the government had was an enormous and absurd trove of boyfriend-girlfriend stuff.

“He does have a fondness for women,” she said. “We’re not going to hide that.”

Strangely enough, some of the most complimentary things said Monday about Dallas County’s most powerful politician came from the side trying to send him to the pen. Bunch told jurors: “You are going to hear from a number of people who have worked with him over 30 years, and they speak very highly of him.” He said jurors will hear Price described as hard-working and intelligent. “In his position, he has done a number of good things for Dallas. He sponsors a charity event every year for health care and community services.”

This is the prosecutor?

Yes, but his point was that the jury must put all of Price’s good points aside and focus instead on what the government will prove were Price’s crimes. Price’s lawyer, of course, told the jury to do just the opposite — focus solely on the good things about Price and give him a pass for being a sloppy bookkeeper.

Calling the government’s case, “leave no mud unslung,” Baccus-Lobel said the thing for the jury to remember is Price’s virtuous character, which she proceeded to explain in great detail:

“He’s a single man. He doesn’t spend much money at all. He doesn’t drink, do drugs or travel. He’s not an extravagant person. He’s flamboyant somewhat. That’s his schtick. But behind his public persona, this is the most diligent, hard-working, devoted public servant you will ever encounter in your whole life.”

Beyond that point of contention — he’s good but forget it versus he’s good and don’t forget it — the government appears determined to drag the jury straight down into a dense mountain of contracting minutiae. Bunch was already tutoring them on important terms like RFP (request for proposals), RFQ (request for qualifications) and BAFO (best and final offer), a term I believe I could have gone to my grave happily enough without ever having heard. I lost count, but I believe before the morning was out I heard at least three BAFOs.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think BAFO can beat Price. They’re asking the jury to take this 67-year-old guy who is fervently beloved by his own constituency as a warrior-savior-prince and send him to prison for the rest of his life. I’m not taking sides on whether that should happen. But I will take sides enough to say BAFO ain’t going to do it.

Which brings us back to the Perots and the real reason Price is on trial. In 2006, billionaire industrialist and real estate tycoon Ross Perot Jr., who will be called as a witness by both sides in this trial, told a luncheon of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that a huge shipping and warehousing project starting up in Price’s southern Dallas district called the Inland Port was a “direct threat,” as he put it, to Perot family interests at Alliance Airport and the Global Logistics Hub in Fort Worth.

On the surface, that should have been an easy call for Price, given his storied devotion to southern Dallas. Anything that bad for the Perots in Fort Worth had to be seriously good for Price’s economically beleaguered constituents in Dallas. The Inland Port in southern Dallas promised an avalanche of new jobs and development.

The mystery — and again the underlying reason for this trial — was that Price went the other way. Egged on by political consultant, lobbyist and close and dear friend Kathy Nealy, Price went to work sabotaging the Inland Port in his own district to the benefit of the Perot company, Hillwood, that controls Alliance.

As Bunch, the prosecutor, correctly characterized it Monday, Price’s play was not to kill the Inland Port –just choke it enough to put its momentum on pause: “Commissioner Price created delay so that one of Kathy Nealy’s clients, Hillwood, could catch up in that process.”

Catch up they did. In the ensuing years, the Perots used their massive lobbying power in both Austin and Washington to bring a virtual tsunami of rebar and concrete to their own turf 10 miles north of Fort Worth — enough highway, rail and other massive infrastructure to tip the scales of economic advantage away from southern Dallas and toward them forever.

That was all the Perots ever needed. Some time. They got it. And in that time, southern Dallas’ shot at a truly transformational economic opportunity withered away forever.

So on Monday Bunch solved the riddle of why no Perots were on the indictment list: They never bribed anybody, he said. They gave money to Nealy to get Price to betray his own constituency and dance to their tune instead. Nealy gave the money to Price. She bribed him, not the Perots.

It’s why I love white people. They are sooo good at this stuff.

“Businesses hired her,” Bunch said, “not because she was paying bribes but because of the perception that she was successful.”

Well, of course. Bunch said what the businesses wanted was influence with Commissioner Price and his influence with the rest of the county commissioners court. You know, see if you can influence Commissioner Price to stick a big knife in the back of his own constituency. But do it by, you know, just talking to him or something.

She did it. She was a wizard of influence. But now the jury can see how she did it. Bunch told them, “Kathy Nealy pays bribes to Commissioner Price. Commissioner Price provides the influence.

“It was designed to help Kathy Nealy,” he said. It was “a tight knot of conspiracy” whose goal was “votes, access, leaked confidential information, Price’ argument and persuasion with his colleagues.”

click to enlarge Why did the Prince of southern Dallas choose an airport in Fort Worth over his own district? - SHUTTERSTOCK
Why did the Prince of southern Dallas choose an airport in Fort Worth over his own district?
Bunch warned them: “Sometimes you are going to see benefits to Kathy Nealy’s clients. But two people always prevail — Kathy Nealy and Commissioner Price.”

Well, yes, because this trial and her trial later are, after all, about them.

I thought Bunch’s argument was streamlined and hard-hitting. It painted a clean picture jurors could easily grasp. And I thought Baccus-Lobel was disjointed and helter-skelter as hell. But other reporters, watching it with me on closed circuit TV in the adjunct courtroom where they keep the media, disagreed. They thought Baccus-Lobel was warm and empathetic, likable, where Bunch, they said, came across like a cold cop.

Who knows? It was Day 1, way too soon for solid bets. But if the government hopes to lift this thing up out of RFQ and BAFO, get it away from girlfriend stories and show the jury what the real stakes were and are, they’re going to have to paint a picture of that tidal wave of highway construction all around North Fort Worth.

That could have been southern Dallas. It wasn’t. It won’t be. That’s what real power and influence do. Real power isn’t getting your girlfriend to buy you a new pickup truck. Real power changes history. If the government in this case is too shy for some reason to put the real history on the stand, then maybe they don’t deserve a win.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze