Reporters do not gasp, generally speaking, but there were muttered exclamations that might as well have been gasps when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, age 64, was led into a large and formal federal courtroom this afternoon. His hands were manacled behind his back, his awkward gait in leg-irons an ironic echo of the slow-walking technique he made famous in youthful years as a street protester.
The arraignments of Price and three others followed a mid-day press conference in which U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldana laid out the basic case, which has everything to do with business. Dallas businesses large and small used Price and political consultant Kathy Nealy to get contracts, the indictment claims, but also to gain an inside track on projects and requests for proposals as they were being developed. The big picture painted by Saldana was of a climate that could be very business friendly, if a business paid to play, while putting a knife in the backs of those that did not.
Following Price into the courtroom later, also shuffling in cuffs and leg-irons, came Nealy, 64, Price's executive assistant Dapheny Fain, 52, and Nealy associate Christian Campbell, 44. A few people in the public pews stood up and craned to see their leg-irons. One whispered, "I never thought I would see that."
Mixed with the four defendants were four other federal defendants, one in an orange jumpsuit and two others in gray prison stripes. The four high-profile defendants were taken first while the others looked on, one of them unable to stop gaping at Price.
All four defendants in the public corruption case entered pleas of not guilty in a subdued proceeding before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul D. Stickney. The only expression of any feeling was in Price's emphatic "not guilty."
Price's attorney, Billy Ravkind, clearly in diminished health, had to be helped into the courtroom by two women, one his wife and the other apparently a legal assistant. Nealy was represented by Cheryl Wattley and Thomas W. Mills appeared for Fain. Both are considered top-drawer white collar defense lawyers. Campbell also was represented by a star of the bar, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Terence Hart, who has been on both sides of major federal corruption cases in the past.
But both Nealy and Fain told the court they would plead indigence and ask for court-appointed lawyers to handle the balance of their cases. Stickney directed them to fill out paperwork and said the question of their eligibility for publicly paid lawyers would be decided later.
Fain seemed bright, even cheerful, smiling to acquaintances in the room. It was a somewhat surprising demeanor given rumors over the last couple of years that the slow-grinding federal corruption probe was wearing on her. Nealy was grim.
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Dressed in a neat white shirt buttoned to the collar and pleated blue slacks, Price was subdued and distant, as if watching the procedure from afar. When he spoke his voice was almost inaudible except for his not guilty plea.
All were released on their own recognizance after Assistant U.S. Attorney Walt Junker told the court they had been taken into custody without incident. They were ordered not to contact each other or any witnesses in the case, but Stickney made a special dispensation for Fain so that she could continue to carry out her duties as Price's assistant.
The four were required to turn in their passports, surrender any firearms and seek permission before traveling. At the end of the proceeding Stickney asked Ravkind if he agreed with all of the terms of his client's release.
"We always agree with the judge," Ravkind said.