Hey Mayor Leppert: Want Ethics Reform To Have Some Real Teeth? Take Away the Power of the Table.

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"I said, 'Look, Shirley, let me tell you something. I'm getting pretty fucking sick of this. We've been working on this thing 15 months, and we're getting nowhere. At the same time we're getting calls from people to sign them up [as consultants], and it looks to me like these are related.

"'So I'm going to tell you what. I don't think there's any substance to the board telling us we have to get a financing commitment letter. This is just a straw to delay this thing.

"'We're going to try one more time, and then I'm going to come to the board tomorrow night and I'm going to tell them publicly what's going on here.'"

Tatum says he had a signed contract in half an hour.

By the way, I happen to know Shirley Thomas, the DART lawyer, as well, and she's not the problem. Tatum's problem was Lynn Flint Shaw.

But now Tatum had a deal. Right? Well, he thought he had a deal.

Once the contract was signed, Tatum's company poured on the coal, assembling plans, doing due diligence with the state historic preservation officer, locking up the financing, getting ready for the final closing at which his firm was to acquire the property and begin refurbishing it as a transit museum for DART.

He didn't hire the preacher's wife. He didn't hire any of Lynn Flint Shaw's cronies. He won. Right?


When the appointed day and hour arrived for DART to transfer the property to him, Tatum showed up for the closing. Others parties showed. But DART never appeared at the closing. They just walked the whole deal.

Here is where it gets really good.

DART had signed a contract with Tatum. Under most circumstances, units of government are protected by an ancient principle in the law called sovereign immunity and cannot be sued. But who would sign a contract with a unit of government if the contract can't be enforced? So the law also provides specific instances where local governments can waive their own sovereign immunity by signing contracts. They can agree to be bound by their word, in other words.

Otherwise their word would be worthless.

One of the instances provided in the law in which a government waives its immunity is a contract for goods and services. Tatum's agreement was a development deal in which the service to be provided was the conversion of the disused trolley repair shop into a museum.

Tatum sued. DART went to court and argued it was not bound by its word. DART said the deal included a transfer of land—the shop—and therefore was not a contract for goods and services but a real estate transaction. Real estate transactions are protected by government immunity.

Judge Carlos Cortez in the 44th Judicial District Court pretty much slammed DART to the floor with a ruling that said DART was totally bound by the agreement it had signed with Tatum. DART appealed Cortez's ruling to the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas.

Last July 28, the appeals court slammed DART again. "We conclude DART's governmental immunity to [Tatum's] suit for breach of the contract was clearly and unambiguously waived..." the court wrote. "We affirm the trial court's order..."

DART is now appealing the appeals court ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. In that appeal, DART has been joined by the City of Dallas.

The City of Dallas' argument is mainly that giving people like Tatum the right to enforce their contracts with local governments could cost those governments a ton of money:

"Disagreements arise," the city's brief says, "and the City of Dallas has claims, threatened litigation and ongoing litigation concerning breach of contract claims that collectively total several million dollars."

God forbid we should give all those beggars the right to pursue justice in the courts. Think of the cost! Especially when justice shows a troubling propensity to come down on their side.

DART spokesman Morgan Lyons told me DART would not comment on this case because it's in litigation. Dallas city attorney Tom Perkins said, in part, "The city believes that the Court of Appeals' jurisdictional ruling was improper and inconsistent with the rulings of other Texas courts of appeals, and has the potential to subject the city to costly litigation..."

This would all be fairly dry legal stuff if it were not for the context. I'm talking about death by a thousand tables—the very process we just saw illuminated in gruesome detail in the three-months-long Dallas City Hall corruption trial.

It doesn't even sound like America, does it? It sounds more like a scene from some 1940s noir movie with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, with lots of sweaty armpits, clattering ceiling fans and that...that dratted sound...that horrible...buzzing.

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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