City Hall

Maybe Coincidence, but Dallas Attorneys Seem to Fly out Windows when Mayors See Red

Dallas City Attorney Warren Ernst insists his sudden retirement at age 61 after two years on the job isn’t being driven by anything special going on at City Hall at the moment. OK, fine. But I think it has to do with everything happening at City Hall these days. Every single thing.

I think I told you three weeks ago I got a quick call-back from the mayor after emailing his media guy, Scott Goldstein, about an item I had come across in some documents Ernst had been pressured to release in Fingerahzi, the ill-fated investigation of City Council member Scott Griggs on trumped-up charges he had threatened to break a woman’s fingers. None of the witnesses said he did it. A grand jury threw it out.

Griggs had pressed for documents from Ernst and eventually got his hands on some of Ernst’s on-the-fly, contemporaneous notes made during the investigation. One of the notes recounted a meeting with Mayor Mike Rawlings and seemed to suggest Rawlings was the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pushing Ernst to get Griggs.

The mayor called me 45 minutes after I sent my email. Goldstein and his boss tend to return all their calls quickly, so maybe I wasn't so special. But the mayor did tell me in no uncertain terms that Ernst’s recollection was mistaken. Rawlings said Ernst was the one who had suggested the finger probe of Griggs.

Is that enough of a deal to encourage Ernst to retire suddenly this week, at age 61 and after two years on the job? Well, wait. Let me offer a few more tea leaves.

The same day news went out about his retirement, Ernst suffered a potentially serious setback in state district court (see order below) in which District Judge Craig Smith shot down Ernst’s request for a protective order for the city in the Trinity East fracking litigation and also ordered former City Manager Mary Suhm to show up for a deposition.

The events in the fracking litigation long predate both Ernst and Rawlings — Suhm signed her deal with Trinity East, a drilling company, seven years ago — but the failure to protect Suhm from a subpoena in ongoing litigation now did not earn Ernst a gold star, especially after he had repeatedly assured the council and mayor in closed-door sessions that he would soon have Suhm and the city covered and protected.

In fact, all of this stuff is sort of woven together. Former City Attorney Tom Perkins retired in March 2013 , also declaring that nothing going on at City Hall at the time had precipitated his decision, after a quick succession of embarrassments for the mayor. In one, a federal judge pretty much called the mayor and a majority of the City Council liars over a waste disposal policy called “flow control.” 

In another, the city badly lost a suit over a homeless feeding program. In that one, Rawlings, the city’s former “homeless czar,” had warned Perkins he thought the city was headed in the wrong direction and cruising for a bruising, but his advice was ignored.

The last of the three big embarrassments was the beginning of the same matter the city just took a hit on this week — the fracking case. In that one two years ago, Griggs and former council member Angela Hunt dug up a memo in which Suhm, in exchange for a $19 million payment to the city, agreed to help Trinity East get permission to frack in city parks even though the council had expressly ordered her to keep fracking out of parks.

Trinity East never got its park-drilling deal after the memo was outed, and is now suing. Lawyers for Trinity East want to get Suhm with her hand on the Bible answering questions about what she thought their client was paying for with its $19 million. Ernst has been telling the council in executive sessions that he has Suhm protected from any subpoena and not to worry. The ruling against Ernst this week means: “Worry.”

I sent Goldstein an email yesterday telling him my theory.He sent me back a statement from the mayor.

Mayor Rawlings: "When people make major career and life decisions, it's best for them to speak for themselves. But neither Tom nor Warren ever embarrassed me."

So he's a gentleman. But the deal about Ernst’s role in flimsy felony charges brought against Griggs is by no means over. Council member Philip Kingston is still hard-charging the city, fighting for copies of emails and other documents he hopes will cast new light on the whole process that led to the charges. Ernst is in that one up to his eyeballs.

You will remember that a grand jury tossed out felony charges against Griggs two months ago after not one witness, even the alleged victim, would confirm the charges under oath. Ernst had pushed hard for charges accusing Griggs of threatening to break a city employee’s fingers over the timing of an official meeting notice, a felony offense called coercion of a public official.

I told you a month ago that documents forced from the city’s icy clutches revealed a long, ferocious, behind-the-scenes effort by Ernst to make the charges stick, in spite of overwhelming evidence the charges were false, including a signed sworn witness statement from the supposed victim saying Griggs had not threatened her and she would not assist in an effort to prosecute him.

If you were Rawlings, here is what you might be thinking: “Damn. I thought we had a setup at City Hall. I cut the ribbons and handle the behind-the-scenes, country-club stuff. The city manager and city attorney get the work done.

“Yes, we always have some kind of opposition on the City Council, but it’s the job of those two officials to either smooth out the opposition with some extra stop signs for their constituents or find a way to block them.”

OK, this is me talking again. It’s not working. It’s not working at all. If you go back to when Hunt was on the council, then watch when Griggs joins her, then Kingston, Adam Medrano and Mark Clayton and … damn! The young rebels are not a majority yet, but they keep cleaning the mayor’s clock anyway.

This week Ernst took yet another licking on the living wage vote: The council voted in favor of requiring city contractors to pay a minimum wage even though Ernst had been giving them dire back-room warnings that they would get sued over it. They just didn’t believe him.

The progressives on the council carried another vote on LGBT protections, another vote on historic preservation, another vote on obesity at City Hall and no more soda-pop bribes for council members.

Things really are not going the way of the mayor and the old establishment even a little bit. The progressives are geared up for a fresh attack and fresh blood from the beloved and cherished first-born love-project of the establishment, building a gigantic expressway on top of the Trinity River.

If the insurrectionists can bring that one down, the establishment will have to go to the top of the tallest tower downtown and take a mass leap. The Trinity toll road is the Holy Grail, the end-all and be-all, the alpha and the omega of really important establishment moneymaking schemes. If it fails, they won’t know how to draw breath.

The kitchen at City Hall is getting very hot. The old saying, as you know, is that you should get out if you can’t take the heat. Sure, but in real life you always try to cool things down by throwing somebody else out first.

You know who goes out the kitchen window next? A.C. Gonzalez, the city manager. It’s only my two-bit prediction, but you heard it here first. And it won’t work. The kitchen won’t cool back down until the Old Guard is gone, all of them. We are watching it begin to happen as we speak.

289255644 Trinity East vs City of Dallas by Jim Schutze

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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