Paying Some of Commissioner Price's Legal Bills a Good Investment in the Rule of Law

Now The Dallas Morning News is in a wad, sort of, because a federal magistrate has ruled that taxpayers must pay some of the legal bills for criminally indicted Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Editorial writer Rudy Bush has personally opined that it's "moxie" (gentile chutzpah) on Price's part even to ask.

Gee, I don't know. Back when Price was doing most of the deeds the feds have indicted him for, the News couldn't love him enough. They went to some length, as I remember, to explain to their readers why he was doing just the right thing.

See also: Morning News Denies Its Own Sorry History in Price-Inland Port Story

I have sort of a sharp memory for those days, because it was this newspaper, the Dallas Observer, that was reporting a lot of the information about what Price allegedly did that got him indicted, especially Price's role in slowing down a big real estate development in his own district to the distinct benefit of an old Dallas family.

See also: Dallas Leaders Walked Arm-in-Arm with John Wiley Price in the Betrayal of Southern Dallas

We even reported some of the smaller imbroglios that the feds are using to pad their case, like the "going once, going twice" incident in which the commissioner purchased the same parcel of real estate twice in one day. How can you buy the same land twice in one day, you ask? Exactly.

See also: John Wiley Price Investigation: Commissioner Buys the Same Land Twice On the Same Day

So, given the very different roles of our newspapers in this matter in the past, it's with a good deal of moral confusion that I confront today this question about paying for Price's legal counsel. He makes about $140,000 a year, and the FBI found a lot of cash in his house when they raided it five years ago. He owns other assets including a collection of cars.

But then there is this. The feds own the FBI. They own the Justice Department. They have had at least a decade to prepare this case, assembling millions of pages of documentary evidence alone. Price could hire an entire law firm and still have not have enough legal muscle working him just to dig through the documents.

And here's another little thing I find sort of hanging around me like a flea in one ear. Sure, my own newspaper could be viewed as having some kind of investment in Price's guilt. But I know from a lifetime of watching trials that things like that don't have jack to do with real guilt. Courthouse guilt. Go-to-prison guilt.

I'm not saying we just get it wrong. I'm saying there is a big difference, a very wide gap, maybe the Grand Canyon between the kind of personal or political behavior that makes somebody the legitimate target of a newspaper story and the kind of law-book guilt that sends that same person up the river.

Here is another damn flea, the fact that the feds can spend years investigating, assemble millions of pages of stuff, put who knows how many of their own lawyers on the deal, and still make a mistake. At least if we believe in the jury system, which does date back, after all, to 1066, and if we think juries can get it right sometimes, then we have to concede that the feds can get it wrong.

A week ago the "Kettle Falls Five," a family who grew marijuana on their Washington farm, were acquitted by a federal jury on four out of five criminal charges against them. One defendant was dismissed from the charges when he proved he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

During the trial of the rest, their lawyers were not allowed to tell the jury that some of them had medical marijuana permits or to present any evidence about changing public opinion regarding medical uses of cannabis.

Nevertheless, after hearing the government's case the jury tossed most of the charges. "The jury saw through the deceit of the federal government and rightly acquitted on almost all charges," Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access said afterward.

Last summer a federal jury acquitted former University of Georgia football coach Jim Donnan on elaborate federal fraud charges, apparently believing Donnan's story was more credible than the one told by the feds. Donnan argued he was no mastermind. He told the jury he was as much a victim of a major real estate fraud as other investors, and the jury believed him.

Two months ago Clive Higgins, a cop in Connecticut who had been looking at 10 years in the pen in a federal prosecution for brutality, went home free after a federal jury decided he wasn't in on a videotaped beating of an arrested person.

We don't know now if Price is guilty of a crime or not. The jury will tell us. In the meantime he faces legal bills that could bust a multimillionaire.

What if he's not guilty? Should he not have been afforded a fair defense? I think we Americans are supposed to get a good defense even if we are guilty. Right?

So there is my confusion. I still don't like the things he did that we reported on in the past. But it doesn't hugely bother me to see him get some help with his legal bills. Look. If this one goes the other way, if the feds win, he'll be paying us back for a very long time, the hard way.

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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