John Wiley Price Wants the Government to Pay for His Lawyer. That's not as Crazy as It Sounds.

Showing what The Dallas Morning News' Rudy Bush derisively called "moxie," Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says that, despite his $141,000 salary, he is unable to pay for his defense as he faces a bevy of federal corruption charges. Bush, among others, thinks this is ridiculous, that Price is just running one more game on the residents of Dallas County. What's actually going on isn't as clear, but let's take a look at some of the factors at play.

Price claims that many of the assets he could have used to pay his lawyers are tied up in the forfeiture case related to his corruption charges. He does have $60,000 in a campaign fund that he could use, but his longtime attorney Billy Ravkind says that amount isn't nearly enough.

"I don't think if the Lord himself walked in here he could get a lawyer to handle the discovery and the trial of this case for anywhere near $60,000," Ravkind told the paper.

It's not unheard of for courts to appoint lawyers for politicians accused of corruption. The final tab paid by taxpayers for Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor rung up by the feds on corruption charges, was $813,806. But Kimberly Priest Johnson, a defense lawyer a former federal prosecutor, says she doubts Price would get anything close to that much, even if he were found to be indigent.

Price's financial standing has already been ruled on once, by U.S. Magistrate Judge Renée Harris Toliver. Toliver rejected Price claims. Price appealed, and U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn will hear his claims on January 27.

"I can't see our judges in the Northern District of Texas, especially Judge Lynn, allowing his defense to be a million dollars. They can control what is spent because with court-appointed counsel they monitor frequently; they're called vouchers that the court-appointed attorney is supposed to submit," she said. "I'm a former law clerk of hers. I can't imagine her allowing a million-dollar defense on the federal government's budget."

Johnson called a $100,000 tab more likely for a publicly funded defense. The cost of a private defense for a case as intricate as Price's, she said, would start at $1 million.

In claiming indigence, Price is taking a risk, Johnson says. Although he has asked the court to appoint Ravkind and another of his current attorneys, Shirley Baccus-Lobel, to represent him should he be declared indigent, Lynn is not required to do that.

Assuming, as Bush does, that Price is trying to "stick it to the taxpayer" is misguided, Johnson said.

"In white collar cases, I see this a good bit. It's a perception problem. It's hard for the public to look at someone who was driving luxury cars and living in a really nice house and was wearing nice clothes and then they hear that they're asking for an indigent defense," she says, "but if they've either blown through all the money that they've made living the high lifestyle they were living and/or the remaining assets have been seized by the government, they truly may have no money."

It's simple to imagine Price as just trying to get over on the system he is accused of grafting from, but it's not clear at all that's what's going on. People can be crooked and broke, after all.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young