City Hall

Mayor Sees Ghost Callers, Hackers and Bamboozlers. Pretty Scary!

Over the last two months, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that the city was attacked by ghost callers, hackers, radio wave manipulators and bamboozlers. Next up — the men in the white coats with the butterfly nets?
Over the last two months, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that the city was attacked by ghost callers, hackers, radio wave manipulators and bamboozlers. Next up — the men in the white coats with the butterfly nets? gangis khan
Add this up. On March 16, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters that events he called “ghost calls” were crashing the city’s 911 emergency call center, causing potentially deadly backups in police and fire response times.

Rawlings said solving the ghost call problem needed to be the city’s “number one priority.” He demanded that T-Mobile, the phone service provider for the city’s 911 operation, get to the bottom of it. “I’m very disappointed with that,” he said. “It should have been taken care of, in my mind, some weeks ago, definitely last week.”

And what was a ghost call? After interviewing city officials, CBS Channel 11 reported confidently that, “Ghost calls happen when a person on a T-Mobile cell phone makes a single call to Dallas 911, but that call somehow gets caught in a loop.”

Please, allow me to pause for one brief moment here and offer a tip to my journalism colleagues over at 11. My people, next time you find yourselves reporting something you’ve been told by the mayor, please be sure to stick in a few weasel words like, “Ghost calls COULD BE something that happens when a person on a T-Mobile cell phone makes a call.”

For extra cover, use the word “or” a lot, as in, “… or ghost calls could be caused by unusual solar activity.” That way, you may be able to soften some of the embarrassment I hope you felt later when the truth came out.

In that case, it turned out the hanging up and the calling back was not being done by ghosts but by actual people, citizens in dire distress we assume because they were trying to call 911, driven to distraction by being left on hold for half an hour at a time because the city was saving money by not staffing the 911 center with enough operators.

So, back to adding things up. One month after the ghost-busters crisis, the same mayor announced that all of the city’s emergency sirens had gone off crazily one night because “hackers” had committed “an attack on our emergency notification system.” He vowed that the hackers would be tracked down, arrested and prosecuted.

Several television stations and a local daily newspaper reacted by calling hacker experts. The hacker experts, speaking in a chorus of perfect unison worthy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, said that hackers are a terrible awful threat to everything and that the only hope for mankind is to put more hacker experts on everybody’s payroll immediately.

Oh, but guess what! Hackers hack computers, usually via the internet. That’s pretty much what hacking is by definition. As it turned out a couple days later, the city’s emergency sirens aren’t connected to computers or to the internet. They’re activated by radio signals.

OK, city officials did try to roll with that one. For a while they were saying that malicious radio-signal manipulators had caused all of the city’s 154 emergency sirens to go off crazily one night, you know, by manipulating the radio waves. Somehow. However that’s done. Arm waving and aluminum foil somehow.

I am sure that TV reporters all over town as well as reporters for local daily newspapers must have been scouring the technical departments of universities looking for radio wave manipulator experts, but, as it happens, there are no such experts because, really, there is no such thing.

I am grateful to Tim Rogers at D Magazine for turning me on to a great article in Wired magazine explaining that really the only way a malicious radio wave manipulator could turn on all 154 of Dallas’s emergency sirens at the same time would be by previously breaking into each individual radio siren tower in turn in the hope that the specific radio frequency for that tower was written on something inside, or, conversely (the inside job theory), by getting all of that information somehow from inside City Hall.

I would like to offer a few “ors.” City Hall has what’s called an FTP web site that isn’t advertised to the public but anybody can get in. You can go look at it here. It’s kind of an internal bulletin board where city employees post stuff for each other to use.

I go there a lot. I find all kinds of neat dirty stuff, personnel records with names on them and so on, things I know I’m not supposed to see. I love it there.

So here is one “or” scenario: Or, maybe the city posted all of the radio frequencies for the emergency towers on the FTP site along with instructions on how to make them go crazy one night and a note saying, “Wow, I sure hope some stupid kid doesn’t see this.”

Or, my own theory: Probably, like the 911 thing, the emergency siren event was the product of just general sloppiness, deferred maintenance, bad management and overall half-assedness. The City Council voted yesterday to spend $100,000 to fix the problem, but the nature of the fix is a secret. Re-hab, anybody?

Back to the mayor. On a slightly different note, barely two days after vowing to arrest the tinfoil-fingered radio wave manipulators, Mayor Rawlings came back from a bad negotiating session in Austin on bailing out the city’s police and fire pension fund. He said angrily, “It’s obvious that the city has been bamboozled.”

His anger over the proceedings had to do with his feeling that taxpayers were being held responsible for too large a share of the bailout. Or, put another way, since Rawlings both represents and must answer to the taxpayers, his feeling may have been that he personally was being bamboozled.

Keeping score, then, this would be ghost callers, hackers, radio wave manipulators and bamboozlers, all in roughly a two-month period.

And please let me let me offer one last caution before my fellow reporters all over town start hounding the universities for bamboozlement experts (threat to everything we hold dear, only known cure put more bamboozlement experts on the payroll). You may recall that the mayor launched into this pension bailout business by going down to Austin to the Legislature, which must sign off on any bailout plan, and blaming the whole Dallas pension mess on them.

On the one hand, it’s a true fact that public pension plans are creatures of the Legislature in Texas, so the Legislature created the rules for the current Dallas plan, which is screwed up as a junk pile. On the other hand, it’s an odd way to ask for help, is it not? “Please help us fix this, you idiots.”

I personally would not be moved by it. And here’s a reason. A person deeply involved in the 2010 federal fraud conviction and 18-year sentencing of former Dallas City Council member Don Hill contacted me recently to remind me that Hill also was a trustee of the police and fire pension fund.

The case the FBI brought against Hill included evidence that he and his Plan Commission appointee, D’Angelo Lee, also now in the pen, were trying to get in on real estate development deals by promising developers that Hill and Lee could get easy funding for the deals from the pension fund.

I don’t recall any evidence that any of that ever actually happened. But the FBI did present evidence that Hill was telling developers he could make it happen, if they would cut him and Lee in on their deals.

Eventually, Hill, a top elected city official with direct oversight and fiduciary responsibility for the pension fund, and Lee, an appointed city commissioner, boarded a gray federal van and headed off to the big house, based on evidence that included some kind of nasty hanky-panky with the pension fund, one way or another.

click to enlarge Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says the city is being "bamboozled" by the Legislature on a repair to the police and fire pension fund. - MICHELLE PATRICK
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says the city is being "bamboozled" by the Legislature on a repair to the police and fire pension fund.
Michelle Patrick
So let me ask you something. Do you not think that Rawlings, or his predecessor, Tom Leppert, or any of the old-school members of the private Dallas Citizens Council who put them in office should have said to themselves, “Wow, we better go take a look at that pension fund?”

What really seriously chaps me is that Rawlings has been full of bad things to say about the cops and firefighters on the pension board. In fact he wants to fix the fund by doing a claw-back not merely of pension benefits already paid out but even of personal savings that the members have entrusted to the fund. That’s about one pinch shy of what you might do to a thief.

Here was FBI evidence, meanwhile, that an elected member of the Dallas City Council and his Butch Cassidy buddy were going around town whispering they knew how to break into that pension fund and would do it for the right deal. And nobody at City Hall ever even lifted a finger to call for a serious audit.

I’m not defending anybody on that pension board. Sandy Alexander, a forensic accountant who has been battling the pension fund for documents for a decade, told me he thought it was always entirely wrong for any trustee to be involved in any specific investment decisions at all, ever.

Alexander said the board should have off-shored those decisions to professional managers. Then, if board members ever even went to lunch with those managers, they should all have asked for separate checks.

But now it’s time to do the tally. The 911 call center breaks down. Is the mayor’s first thought that it could be his own fault in any way, shape or form? Nope. Ghost calls.

Dallas makes national news when all of the emergency sirens in the city go crazy one night. Anything to do with the mayor, the City Council, deferred maintenance, not taking care of business? Of course not. Hackers! Hackers not possible? OK, radio wave manipulators!

The pension fund is headed to hell in a hand basket. Hmm. Remember seven years ago, something about the FBI and the pension fund and that City Council member who’s away now? Could any of this be the fault of the mayor or council for not seeing a big red flag back then? Hell, no. It’s bamboozlers!

I’m just asking. When we add it all up, do we see a pattern?
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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