On Monday jurors heard the opening arguments in the corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, his chief of staff Dapheny Fain. Codefendant Kathy Nealy, Price’s political consultant, will face a separate trial. Here’s what they heard from them and the case’s first witness.
The Government’s Case
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Bunch’s opening argument presents the case against Price as something so simple it can be diagrammed as a straight line. Money from businesses looking for county contracts went to Kathy Nealy, Price’s longtime political consultant and codefendant and then to Price.
In return, Bunch argued, Price influenced the county contract process in Nealy’s favor by providing confidential information on competitor’s bids or leaning on the commissioner’s court. This upped Nealy’s credibility as a political consultant and guaranteed the clients, and money, would continue to flow.
Bunch conceded that Price was knowledgeable, prepared and diligent in the office he’s served in for more than 30 years, before claiming that at some point more than a decade ago, things had gone wrong. “Commissioner Price made a choice that, at some point, he was entitled to something more,” Bunch said.
What that “more” amounted to, in the eyes of the government, is a million dollars, give or take, in bribes, paid with cash, checks or cars. The paper trail, Bunch said with help from an ugly but informative PowerPoint presentation, was voluminous. There were checks from Nealy written directly to Dallas Telco, the credit union of which she and Price were both members, checks made out to Price’s mother, in whose name the commissioner held a bank account, and checks made out to Price himself.
Every couple of years, Bunch said, Nealy bought Price a new Chevy Avalanche, a vehicle Bunch described as a “fancy pickup,” making all the payments and covering the insurance. It was Nealy, Bunch said, who bought Price his BMW 9 series convertible and straw purchased four properties for Price so that Price could own them and collect rent without having his name on the deed.
While there are other elements to the crimes of which Price is accused, like alleged kickbacks from a company owned by his chief of staff and codefendant Dapheny Fain or money laundered through the art gallery of Price’s friend Karen Manning, Price’s deals with Nealy are the essence of the government’s case. Without them, Bunch argued, there’s no way Price would’ve had close to $250,000 in $100 and $50 bills in his safe when the FBI raided his house in 2011.
“None of [the cash or benefits showed up] on his financial statements, none of it on his tax returns, some of it in a safe in his house,” Bunch said.
Bunch elected to use only an hour of the two hours allotted to him for his opening statement by U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn.
With Tom Mills, Fain’s lead council, electing to hold off on opening his case until the government rests, Shirley Baccus-Lobel, Price’s primary attorney, started an impassioned defense. Baccus-Lobel at various times seemed frustrated to the point of anger with the feds’ case against her client.
“Leave no mud unslung,” she said of the government’s 107-page indictment, which she compared to brain washing. “The indictment is 26,000 words. We’ll be here four months. If you can’t show a man’s guilty in two weeks, maybe he’s not.”
Price’s dealings with Nealy, as explained by his attorney, are more complicated than the prosecution let on in its opening argument. Cash, Baccus-Lobel said, flowed freely between Nealy and Price, as it does between friends. Influence wasn’t being peddled, and even if it was it was sold well outside of the five-year statute of limitations on bribery.
The more recent charges against Price and Nealy, the ones having to do with the cars, are just boot-strapping, an attempt by the government to make the whole thing out to be some grand conspiracy, she said.
The Avalanches, and the BMW, Baccus-Lobel said, really did belong to Nealy. She just kept them at Price’s home because the commissioner had a really big car port dedicated to his classic car hobby, she argued. Price didn’t report the cash or the cars as income, his attorney said, because they weren’t income.
In contrast to Bunch’s initial argument, Baccus-Lobel’s seemed scattered. She attempted to poke holes in the prosecution’s theory of the case, but presented no theory of her own beyond blaming Price’s “fondness for women” for his propensity to loan cash to Nealy and Fain.
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The First Witness
Darryl Martin, Dallas County’s administrator, followed the defense’s opening argument with the trial’s first witness testimony.
For the most part, he was stuck with the tedious duty of explaining just what it is a county commissioner does — no one on the jury panel seemed to know anything about county government during voir dire — and authenticate documents the prosecution submitted as evidence. He did, however, explain that Price’s oath of office as a county commissioner should prevent him from voting on any contract that could cause him to have a conflict of interest.
Martin also confirmed that Price listed nothing beyond his salary as a commissioner on his county financial disclosure forms and that other commissioners would have deferred to Price on county information technology contracts, because Price was on the commissioner’s courts IT committee. Many of the contracts for which Price is accused of receiving contracts are IT-related, including a contract given to Unisys for telecommunications at the Dallas County Jail and a contract to provide top-level IT service on the county’s computers.
Testimony in The United States of America vs. John Wiley Price, et al. continues Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m.