Former County Judge Paints Picture of Dallas Corruption in John Wiley Price Trial

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Hard to tell what the jurors get out of a particular witness, but I know what I got from watching former Dallas County Judge Jim Foster on the stand Monday in the federal bribery corruption trial of County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Affirmation.

Affirmation is good, but in the weird twisty way trials sometimes work, Foster’s testimony, which I thought was very damaging to the defendant, was sort of dragged out of him by Price’s own lawyer. Shirley Baccus-Lobel, lead attorney for Price, kept asking Foster questions to which Baccus-Lobel herself seemed not to know the answer.

I always thought that was a big courtroom no-no. Never ask the witness a question unless you know ahead of time what his answer will be. In this case Baccus-Lobel’s seemingly unstructured badgering elicited from Foster his most damaging narrative.

One major question in the trial is whether Commissioner Price, lifelong hero and champion of African-American southern Dallas, stabbed his own constituency in the back seven years ago by helping torpedo a huge economic development project called the Inland Port, a planned 5,000-acre complex of rail yards, truck terminals and gigantic high-tech warehouses purported to be worth 65,000 well-paid new jobs for the city’s southern racial reservation.

If he did help stymie the Inland Port, the criminal allegation is that he did so to collect bribes from a lobbyist working for a competing shipping facility in Fort Worth owned by Dallas’ powerful Perot family. If he was not acting corruptly, then Price was only being a good steward of the interests of his district by insisting on proper land-use planning. The trial will tell.

Foster was the county’s top elected official in 2007 when the Inland Port question arrived at a crisis. The project’s lead developer had amassed 5,000 acres of land and spent millions of dollars over seven years getting all of the zoning and other permits he needed for the vast project. He was just about to ink deals with major international companies to build vast high-tech warehouses in what was supposed to become a continental shipping hub.

Top executives for Hillwood, a Perot company, have already testified in the trial that in 2007 they saw the Dallas Inland Port as a grave competitive threat to Hillwood’s Alliance Global Logistics Hub in Fort Worth. They wanted to slow it down long enough to regain the advantage.

The Perots had a connection to Price through lobbyist Kathy Nealy, who had helped the Perots get a bond election passed in 2000 to support a new basketball arena in Dallas. The government’s allegation in the ongoing trial is that Nealy paid Price to use his official powers to sabotage the Inland Port, even though the Inland Port project might have been the single greatest promise of economic opportunity in the history of southern Dallas.

All of a sudden in 2007 a lot of things started to happen, seemingly out of the blue. Price began insisting that a long difficult process of federal permits and local planning needed to be cranked up again from scratch. He was supported in his efforts by a major regional planning agency, by then Mayor Tom Leppert and by the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News, all of whom were asking the same question: What can be wrong with planning?

Nothing is wrong with planning in the abstract. Everything is wrong if it’s being used as a monkey wrench.

Some of the people asking that question at the time had no knowledge of the role of the Perots in seeking to stall the Inland Port. Nor did people in the public know back then (unless they read the Dallas Observer) that the Inland Port developer was just on the verge of signing major deals when Price tossed his planning idea into the spokes.

You might think after a parade of Hillwood executives and lawyers had already traipsed through the courtroom admitting under oath to their own agenda, Price’s lawyer would have the story down by now. Maybe she did and her handling of Foster yesterday was a ploy too clever for me to comprehend, but it seemed as if she kept tossing Foster these long slow softballs and then allowing him extra strikes if he missed.

I know Foster had decided at some point in 2007 that Price was carrying water for the Perots and that his intentions in slowing down the Inland Port were suspicious if not outright corrupt. In court yesterday, Baccus-Lobel wanted Foster to admit that the mayor of Dallas had called Foster in 2007 to support Price’s position and to persuade Foster to line up behind Price.

Well, yeah. After former Mayor Leppert got elected in 2007, the Perots threw him a private closed-door no-media victory party in a Perot penthouse downtown. One of Leppert’s major brags as mayor was supposedly persuading the Perots to pay for a new science museum in the Arts District downtown, effectively abandoning the old one in southern Dallas. Leppert was at least as close to the Perots as Kathy Nealy was.

But yesterday Baccus-Lobel seemed to think Foster should admit to the jury that even the mayor of Dallas was on Price’s side. Foster, who has trouble hearing and doesn’t like to admit it, stumbled and stammered several times as if reluctant to answer Baccus-Lobel’s questions.

But finally, after she pressed him the third or fourth time, he came to life. Referring to a particular outcome on the commissioner’s court one day that had angered Price, Foster told the court, “After we did not pass the original court order, I got a call from the mayor. His call was to go back and change my mind and put it on the agenda.”

Baccus-Lobel scoffed at the notion that the mayor’s call could have had anything to do with Price. Foster said, “Commissioner Price and [state] Senator [Royce] West had asked Mayor Leppert to call me.”

When Baccus-Lobel scoffed again, Foster said, “Senator West and Commissioner Price called me to his [West’s] office, and they raked me over the coals to put it back on the agenda.”

When Lobel asked why Foster thought Price and West had anything to do with the mayor’s call, Foster said Leppert had told him the two had asked him to call Foster.

Baccus-Lobel went from there to the question of what can be wrong with more planning, trying to paint Foster as unqualified or too befuddled to properly question the judgment of an august regional planning agency. Foster said the issue was delay.

Baccus-Lobel said, “You’re going to have to tell me what was delayed by having a master plan.”

“OK,” Foster said. “Developers were refusing to come to the area because of the uncertainty of the master plan study. When this announcement [of the need for a new master plan] came out, the developers withdrew their offers.”

Lobel wanted to know which developers.

“Whirlpool,” Foster said. He didn’t get a chance to add other names to his list, possibly because it finally dawned on Baccus-Lobel not to lob him any more softballs.

In the end, Foster, under questioning from Price’s own lawyer, gave jurors a more complete picture of the allegation against Price than Foster had been able to deliver in response to earlier direct questioning by the government. I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work.

And for me, sitting in the pews? I talked to Foster a lot during those years, after we got over my writing a column saying he should never have been elected dogcatcher. He was a good source. He’s a good guy, but he was also always very careful about confidences. He didn’t give me a lot of names and almost never re-created private conversations. Among other things, I think he thought that would be bad manners.

But I always suspected that Leppert and West had helped Price grind on Foster, unsuccessfully, to get him out of Price and Nealy’s way. Sitting in the pews yesterday, I found it satisfying to finally have the picture painted in full.

As I say, who knows what it all means to the jury. I watched them carefully while Foster was testifying. Two of them were … ah … resting their eyes maybe?

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