Kickback City

Over a period of months, a Texas House committee has heard sworn testimony that Dallas City Hall is impotent in the face of one of the worst urban crime rates in America and wants to blame private business.

Business people from Dallas painted an ugly picture in which the city sues businesses for reporting crime in their areas; the Dallas City Council is flat-out corrupt and engages in extortion and kickbacks; cops are goons who do the dirty work of connected politicians; and when you cross the cops you get a bullet through your house.

Some of the most shocking testimony before the Texas House Civil Practices Committee was confirmed by top Dallas elected officials testifying under oath.

To the extent it was reported at all in the Dallas press, the testimony was portrayed as an obscure partisan squabble over a nuisance statute. But it was way worse than that. This was a window on civic madness.

This week the Senate is expected to take up a measure already passed nearly unanimously in the House, based on the hearings and aimed specifically at Dallas. The Legislature wants to stop Dallas from misusing an urban nuisance law originally designed to help cities shut down crackhouses, hot-sheet motels and places where landlords rake in profits from crime.

Incensed legislators, who threatened at one point to send the Texas Rangers to get Dallas City Hall under control, decided Dallas had twisted the nuisance law inside out after hearing several businesses and officials testify. But no case angered them more than the story of Dale Davenport, who owns a car wash with his dad in South Dallas.

It's such a hair-raising tale, it would be impossible to believe if the worst had not been confirmed by top Dallas officials.

For reasons that remain mysterious, the city of Dallas chose Davenport and his 70-year-old father to blame for rampant drug trouble that has raged for decades around their car wash on Martin Luther King Boulevard. These two gentlemen from East Texas, who have not so much as a speeding ticket between them, took the elder Davenport's retirement money from Lone Star Steel and dared to open up a business on MLK in South Dallas, where they have never received a single code violation or citation.

City officials told legislators they went after the Davenports because people in the vicinity of the car wash were found in possession of drugs. But then they had to admit they never went after the crackhouse that operates openly like a Narco 7-Eleven right across the street from them. Instead of helping protect the Davenports' honest business, Dallas police came around to beat up their employees and block customers from entering the property.

Dale Davenport testified about one occasion when he and seven other witnesses watched a Dallas police officer Mace a man on the car wash parking lot and then falsely accuse the man of resisting arrest. When that man's trial for resisting came up, Davenport testified on his behalf.

"The next day after I testified, a bullet went through my house," he told the committee.

The man accused of resisting arrest was acquitted. Davenport told the committee that in early April 2002, on the day of the acquittal, "I had 17 police cars and 26 officers on my lot, and they had the driveway blocked to where my customers couldn't get in."

Davenport said he attempted to complain about the incident to the Dallas Police Department's Internal Affairs Department but that IAD refused to take his report.

Dallas police Chief David Kunkle, also testifying under oath, confirmed Davenport's testimony. Kunkle was not chief of police when these events took place. But he told the committee in Austin last month that the FBI had informed him they had investigated the case and had found that someone had fired a shot through Davenport's house on the night in question.

Kunkle went on: "And it is true, and it makes me angry, and it was very unprofessional that we had 11 patrol cars that next day after the verdict that showed up at the car wash. The officers parked their cars, and it was clearly in my opinion designed to intimidate and coerce, and it was unprofessional behavior that should never have occurred."

Davenport says it wasn't 11 cars: It was 17, and he has videotape to prove it. And listen: I know this didn't happen under Kunkle. It took place under his predecessor, Terrell Bolton. But this behavior wasn't merely "unprofessional," like some lapse in manners. This was mafia. And I have to believe most of the goon cops who went after the Davenports are still on the force.

The committee heard testimony from a Dallas legislator that the Davenports continue to be targets of extortion and kickback attempts by sitting members of the Dallas City Council. State Representative Terri Hodge, who represents the area around the car wash, told the committee that the Davenports' problems all come from the personal enmity and bullying of Dallas City Councilman Leo V. Chaney.

"Mr. Chaney, you see, is part of the problem," Representative Hodge testified. "Mr. Chaney, the councilman who should be working with Mr. Davenport to help him as a business person in his district, is not doing that."

Hodge alluded to a competing car wash owned by an ally of Chaney. She said Chaney had leaned on Davenport to contribute money to certain community organizations. "You see, they try to designate who he hires, who he pays and how much. Well, Mr. Davenport went along with that for a while, but it became a big problem."

I've had my own run-ins with Terri Hodge over allegations of vote fraud. She did not return my calls for this story. I'm not presenting her here as the gold standard of credibility.

Chaney was asked to appear before the committee but declined. He spoke to me and denied that he had brought any undue pressure on the Davenports, although he did acknowledge that he sometimes encourages businesses in his district to contribute to worthy causes.

"I do believe in partnerships," Chaney told me. "I do believe the corporate folk that do business and earn millions of dollars in the community ought to give back. As far as shaking people down for personal gain, that's outrageous.

"That's not true, that's not true at all. This is just some vicious politics going down."

But as citizens of Dallas, we need to put ourselves in the place of these legislators, who are from Houston, Austin, Pasadena, Plano and around the state, and try to imagine what impression is created by this kind of testimony.

The committee was amazed and obviously infuriated by the testimony of an assistant Dallas city attorney, Jennifer Richie, who described with evident pride how she had successfully sued the Davenports on the basis of crimes on and near their property. The crimes counted against the Davenports as evidence of their low character included 911 calls they had made for help, the murder of a man who died next door and the discovery by police that a guy wiping down cars for pocket money at the car wash had marijuana in his pocket.

The members of the committee were incredulous and seemed at times on the verge of bitter laughter. Representative Joe Nixon, a Houston Republican who chairs the committee, asked Richie: "Mr. Davenport didn't kill anybody, did he?"

"No, he didn't," she said.

"He's running a car wash, right? Does he want people killed on his property?"

"I would hope he doesn't," she said grudgingly.

"Well, now, do you think he wants drug deals on his property?"

"I would hope he doesn't."

I looked at a transcript of the Davenports' trial, by the way, in which the city of Dallas prevailed against them. The city persuaded a Dallas judge to slam them with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of special security requirements that no small business could possibly afford and stay in business. I want you to hear something that a Dallas judge told 70-year-old Freddy Davenport to do when he's down there on MLK at night trying to keep his business open and deal with the wretched multitude of crack addicts who live in the fields and abandoned buildings nearby.

Please. Just look at this. This is what Judge David Evans in the 193rd District Court told the Davenports to do to deal with the crime problem around them. Exact quotation:

"But, I mean, if they want to give it a go and--where they have, like, an on-site manager and they equip that person with a pretty good water hose and a cell phone so that, you know, in the middle of the night, somebody starts congregating out there and that person steps out of some sort of mobile home or trailer or RV or something and starts--decided that that's the time that they just decide they want to clean down their property, it's their property. And if the drug dealers are standing around getting sprayed while the person's on 911 on a cell phone, that the drug dealers can't stop because they can't--the person may be--if it's a big enough crowd, they may be prevented from or scared to go to the pay phone at the front of the place. But you know, walking around with a spray hose, you know, watering down their pavement or the rest of their property, you know, maybe people won't stay there. Maybe it will be such a hassle, they'll go somewhere else."

Judge David Evans wants 70-year-old Freddy Davenport to cleanse his portion of Martin Luther King Boulevard of drug dealers by spraying them with a water hose.

I just don't know what to say. Is there something in the water in our city that causes people in positions of power, authority and responsibility to be complete morons? What kind of totally separated-from-reality golf-course goofball could even allow a speech like that to escape his lips, let alone on the record, let alone from the bench, wearing a black robe?

Imagine it. The shootout at the Car Wash Corral. Here comes Freddy Davenport. Squish! He squirts water all over those crack dealers! Pause of 1.5 seconds. Next: roar of gunfire roughly equivalent to what American soldiers faced when landing at Normandy on D-Day. Finally: pathetic squirting sound--the gush of water from a car wash wand to clean off the spot where Mr. Davenport used to be.

Listen. By no means was this all about small businesses in minority neighborhoods. The committee was also shocked and appalled by what they heard from major businesses and trade associations, including apartment and hotel owners in Dallas, who testified at length about the city's bizarrely juxtaposed concept of crime fighting.

Paul F. Gaumond, representing Bigelow Management Inc. and Budget Suites Hotels, told the committee: "In practice, the city of Dallas doesn't want to cooperate with the citizens to fight crime.

"Rather, they really don't want to know about it. If they hear about it, they will misuse [the nuisance law] to force legitimate business owners to do the city's business."

When Dallas Mayor Laura Miller appeared before the committee, Nixon, the chairman, told her right up front that the committee had been hearing very bad things about her city, not just from the Davenports but from other citizens, business people and officials:

"Other property owners came to us and expressed to us the same kind of frustration at the selective enforcement of the nuisance statute, which gave us cause to believe there seems to be some kind of extortion or kickback scheme," Nixon said to her.

Miller refused again and again to answer direct questions about her personal philosophy of crime control. Is it the city's job to control crime for the benefit of citizens and businesses, or is it the job of businesses and citizens to fight crime for the benefit of City Hall?

You should have seen it. Every time she got hit with a tough question, Madame Strong Mayor ducked behind the city attorney, ducked behind the police chief, said she wasn't the expert, just didn't know the specifics.

When I spoke with the mayor about it later, she ardently defended the use of the nuisance law to go after problem properties. She said she hoped this week's anticipated change in the law by the sitting Legislature will be "something I can live with."

I, too, hope the Legislature comes up with a good fix for the nuisance law this week, because otherwise I'm just not sure any of it is something we can live with, we citizens, we business persons, we schmoes. I'm like Chairman Nixon: If a guy gets shot in front of my house, does that make me an accessory? Can the city sue me for allowing crime to occur in my vicinity?

We're going to be talking about this stuff, you and I, for weeks to come.

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