Two floors down from the real courtroom Thursday morning, a dozen or so mediatoids sit staring at two flat-screen closed-circuit television monitors in a special media-only annex courtroom, all waiting with bated breath and fingertips poised on keyboards for what we all assume will be the opening day of the season’s ratings blockbuster, the federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
We are waiting. And waiting.
If this trial, scheduled to take as long as four months, ever gets completed, Price, 67, a county commissioner representing mainly minority southern Dallas since 1985, is either going up the river for the rest of his natural life or he’s due for the biggest victory parade in Dallas since 1995 when the Cowboys last won the Superbowl.
Thursday morning, even before U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn struck the opening gavel, The Dallas Morning News was already chumming for readers with a promise of “live coverage of opening statements.” CBSTV (Channel 11) said it would bring viewers “opening statements in the corruption trial of John Wiley Price.” Stephen Young and I are here just looking for something to do.
And waiting, and waiting.
Court finally starts 20 minutes late because the judge had to take time to rearrange jurors and alternates at the last minute. Apparently a juror is in the hospital unexpectedly.
That leaves us with a tiny smidgen of quasi-news-like information to grind out of the morning: the removal of the sick juror, whom we mediatoids agree by deduction and consensus must be a black woman, leaves 12 jurors and three alternates — 8 white and two African-American women, two white and three black men. We tell ourselves we are counting noses by color because, in questioning the jury pool the day before, both sides hinted that race will be factor the trial.
Like that was news. As a righteous challenger of white privilege and a sometimes flamboyantly crass insulter of white people, Price is the most racially polarizing person in the city. Saying race may be a factor in his trial is like saying people in Ireland may drink whiskey.
And then again, eight years ago when a federal jury found black Dallas City Council member Don Hill guilty of corruption, that jury was ethnically diverse. As far as anybody could tell afterward, the ethnicity of the jurors had almost nothing to do with the verdict. Mainly we in the media room are counting the jurors by gender and ethnicity because we have nothing else to do, because we are waiting. And waiting. For something to happen. Anything.
When court finally starts, I am on the verge of trying to guess the combined weights of all the reporters in the room, but I give that up immediately in the vain hope that something news-like will now occur. When the 15 jurors and alternates finally are seated, thank God, Judge Lynn tells them, “This is a long haul, and you will all need to take your vitamins. Take care of yourselves. Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water. We want you be healthy, well-informed and paying attention.”
And then she instructs a clerk to read the indictment.
Read the indictment? Oh, no! The indictment is 107 pages long! Reading the indictment will take the whole day almost. We in the media have already read the indictment.
The indictment is so boring. It says things like, “Price oversaw the daily operations of road and bridge District 3. He was also actively involved in the decision-making related to and the direction of the county’s information technology (IT) systems and services.” I’m sorry to take this all so selfishly, but that’s not at all what we in the media room have our fingertips poised for.
And I don’t mean that any of us wants to hype or distort what’s going on. It’s just that we know, if and when this trial ever gets up a head of steam, the entire city will look to it, fairly or not, for answers even larger than the guilt or innocence of the two defendants, Price and his longtime, very loyal administrative assistant, Dapheny Fain.
Is John Wiley Price a crooked villain who used racial injustice as a pretext for gouging money out of white contractors? And if he is, does his guilt cast a pall of illegitimacy on all claims of racial injustice?
Is he a brave hero who stepped into a racially backward city a third of a century ago and, to its everlasting benefit whether it knows it yet or not, hauled, bit, snarled and pushed that city up to the line of modern diversity? Or is he some of both and somewhere in between?
That’s the kind of stuff the fingers are poised for on Thursday morning. But all we get is the indictment. The droning and droning indictment. We’re allowed to have laptops and cell phones in the fake courtroom, and the government has provided us with a robust Wi-Fi connection, so, yes, I confess that at one point I am checking for Trump tweets. Stephen Young seems to be taking notes. He’s a good man.
Unable to find good Trump tweets, I range around on the internet checking in on other cities and their federal corruption probes and trials. We’re not the Lone Ranger, you know.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is tee’d up for a corruption trial, something to do with hiding bad jail conditions and apparently sending a deputy to the home of a female federal agent to try to scare her out of investigating him. I know for a fact that, whatever else Price may be, he is smarter than the former L.A. County sheriff.
Nassau County, New York (Long Island), county executive Ed Mangano and his wife, Linda, along with Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, have been indicted on federal corruption charges for taking bribes from businessmen, including a so-called no-show job for Linda Mangano, who was paid $450,000 as a food-taster but apparently never tasted the food.
Judge Lynn’s clerk is still reading the indictment.
Federal corruption charges have been announced against two former top aides to New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior state official and six other people. As they say in the song, “New York, New York.” Who else is from there who’s been in the news a lot lately? Can’t think of the name.
Reading the indictment. Page 37. It’s 107 pages long. She’s on page 37. Should I stab myself in the heart with my ballpoint pen now?
Well, back in my hometown, Detroit, all sorts of federal stuff is going on about garbage-hauling, as per usual. At one point a Macomb Township trustee made a surprise appearance in federal court already wearing shackles, the mere sight of which caused the CEO of a major garbage-hauling company to resign immediately. I love Detroit.
Reading. Might be on page 42 by now.
Oh my gosh. New York again. Looks like the City of New York is on the hook to pay $11 million in legal fees to defend Mayor Bill de Blasio in a federal probe into his fund-raising practices. And what’s this? Something about Paterson, New Jersey. Well, I’m not even going to read that. A federal corruption probe in Paterson, New Jersey. Yeah. Snow falls in Alaska, too.
Stephen is just pounding away, taking notes like a bandit. I’ve got to make myself pay better attention to matters at hand.
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So, like I said, we’re not the Lone Ranger. At any given moment there are federal corruption trials going on all over the country, most of them in New York. Who is it who’s from New York again? I’ll think of it.
Aha! Up in the real courtroom, Judge Lynn has announced that after the reading of the indictment has been completed, she will shut down for the day. Because of some additional new juror issue, that’s it for the rest of the week. The opening arguments will happen Monday, if all the jurors can make it.
In the men’s room I confer at the wash basins with another veteran journalist, and we agree that this is really all about us. We need action. Judge Lynn needs to know that. I hope he tells her. Nothing can be done with somebody reading a 107-page indictment that everybody has already read. There’s no way to pound a 1,500-word story out of that.
Or is there?