This week in the federal corruption trial of one of Dallas’ most powerful and long-tenured elected officials, an important behind-the-scenes truth has been told about how this city really operates. It raises a question about who and what we are.
For at least a half century, Dallas city and county governments have been steered and dominated by people who simply did not and do not now always have the community’s interests at heart. That does not make them thieves or bad people, necessarily. But it leads to my question.
In the ongoing trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a story was told under oath this week that this newspaper reported exclusively and extensively when it happened. Witnesses connected to a company owned by Dallas’ powerful Perot family testified that in 2007 they channeled money to a person who was a Price operative in exchange for Price’s help sabotaging a massive new rail and warehousing development in Price’s county commissioner district.
Price is the city’s most visible and influential black elected official. His district is in the city’s economically beleaguered, mainly minority southern half.
Price has based his entire political tenure, now more than a third of a century, on a vow to bring economic opportunity to southern Dallas. The project he helped cripple, called the Inland Port or Dallas Logistics Center, was a jobs gold mine so rich — a purported 65,000 new jobs — that an equivalent opportunity is unlikely ever to appear again while poor minority people are still the main occupants of southern Dallas.
Price spat on that opportunity. In a letter to the main developer, Price wrote, “During slavery everybody had a job.” The facts in that scenario were reported in this paper nine years ago.
At that time the mayor and the city’s only daily newspaper were still on Price and Perot’s side. Now those facts are part of why Price is being tried for bribery and tax evasion. But Price is only half the picture.
The other half, confirmed this week in federal court testimony, is the role of the Perot interests in throwing an iron bar into the spokes of the Inland Port. The Perot witnesses were frank, as they have been with me in the past, about their motives.
Echoing past public statements by their CEO, Ross Perot, Jr., the Perot witnesses said again in court this week that the southern Dallas Inland Port was a direct competitive threat to the Perot family’s interests in Fort Worth. The Perots have developed their own massive ultra-modern rail and air freight center at Alliance Airport.
The Perots developed Alliance with typical Texas build-it-and-they-will-come bravado. They put it on raw dirt land they had scooped up with a vulture fund during the 1990s, when Texas real estate was cheap.
Richard Allen, whose family had been in the rail and warehousing business all over North America for two generations, looked at a map of the continent and saw that southern Dallas was the ideal locus for a continental shipping hub. That’s why he came here from California in 2000 and bought more than 5,000 acres of land, then spent five years and millions of dollars on planning and permits.
Allen saw that southern Dallas was at the center of a pinwheel of highways and rail lines, a legacy of the city’s role as a major 19th century shipping hub for the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. In southern Dallas Allen had what the Perots did not have — all those major roads and rail lines already in place.
Even though the Perots had been in business longer and had already made a huge commitment, Allen was the one with the natural advantage. He never said build it and they will come. That’s for baseball movies. He said build it where it belongs.
In this week’s testimony, Perot employees and former employees said their company saw Allen’s advantage clearly. They needed to throw a bar in his spokes, and the bar was named John Wiley Price.
The Perots, you have noticed already, are not defendants in the ongoing trial. The government has made it plain it does not believe they broke the law.
The government’s case gets a little rickety here, which doesn’t make it wrong. They insist that political consultant Kathy Nealy, who represented the Perots and many other special seekers, paid bribes to Price to get him to do things that would make her look good to her clients. The Price bribery chain, the government insists, stopped with Nealy.
Yeah, well. The Perots are sophisticated people with two generations of major business experience all over the world including in a lot of scary countries. We can assume they know when and where to put on the latex gloves. It would have been astonishing to find they had overstepped and broken the law. The government says they did not.
But for one moment, let’s say to hell with the federal case and take a broader view. If we had a significant hill or a mountain to climb in Dallas, I would say you and I should get out of the legal weeds and go on up there to look out on this issue more socially and politically. As it is, let’s just pretend we’re at the top of the Ferris wheel at Fair Park.
While we’re up here, I should remind you that Price was not alone in stalling the Inland Port. Then Mayor Tom Leppert and the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News decided it was very important to call a halt to things and require an entire do-over of all of Allen’s five years worth of planning and entitlements.
Just at that moment in 2007, Allen had big international clients ready to sign contracts for huge high-tech warehouses. But it was a precarious moment. Nobody knew it yet, but there was a cliff ahead called 2008.
If Allen’s big clients saw this planning problem developing — this uncertainty about local government — and they backed out of their un-inked deals because of it, and if the demise of those deals stalled Allen until the 2008 economic collapse, then the Dallas Inland Port would be toast.
That’s exactly what happened.
The News’ editorial page words back then, painting Allen as paranoid, are certainly ironic now, given that the Perot people were in court this week corroborating every single thing Allen said at the time.
In 2008 the paper said, “Harder to grasp is his [Allen’s] significant trust issue with everyone at every level of government who wants to make sure sound public policy supports private enterprise.
“Mr. Allen might see enemies behind every tree, but it’s time he realized that the city of Dallas, among others, already has invested significant public funds in the inland port.”
No. Not every tree. Just one. The Perot tree. This week, in court and under oath, the Perot people finally came out from behind it. I’m waiting for the big apology. Not really.
OK, here we are, remember, on top of the Ferris wheel at Fair Park. If you look way down there, down at the bottom of the wheel, you will see a dusty round-shouldered little hulk of a building called the Dallas Museum of Natural History.
Now imagine we are back in that period when the mayor and the city’s only daily newspaper and the county commissioner for this part of town were all helping put the big stall on the Inland Port. Look at that little museum and imagine it rising up on its stony shoes, giving itself a shake, then stumbling right out the front gate of Fair Park and on up Exposition Boulevard toward downtown.
In that period, the old museum of natural history joined a host of brother and sister institutions that had already abandoned Fair Park and South Dallas over the last 30 years, reconstituting themselves as brand-new shiny show-ups in the city’s much newer, much more glamorous and much whiter Arts District downtown.
Once it got downtown into its fashionable new home, this former Fair Park denizen was re-christened as the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Mayor Leppert and The Dallas Morning News and all of the old leadership expressed unalloyed joy and a kind of ecstatic gratitude to the Perot family for helping get that old dusty nature museum out of Fair Park and into the new arts district.
Sitting up here at the top of the wheel, we look way back over there, to the south, and we see a glow arising, a promise of destiny called the Inland Port. Now, coming from that other direction, the other way, comes a dark cloud called the Perot family, saying they don’t want that destiny to happen.
At the same time, looking down, we see the little hump-backed museum shaking off the dust, rising and then – walkie, walkie, walkie — scuttling on downtown to the arts district to receive its new shiny suit of clothes.
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Is that a deal? I don’t know that it’s a deal. Let’s call it a sequence of events. These events involve the Perots and John Wiley Price, the city’s most powerful black official. Price spits on the promise of new jobs, holds up key approvals and demands new planning.
The Perots get what they want. After Dallas cuts off its own foot foot by stalling the Allen project, the Perots are able to use their lobbying power in Austin and Washington to place a sea of new concrete and rebar around their center. Dallas gets a new museum downtown. Price gets whatever this trial proves he got.
The bottom line, however, is this: There was no new museum, not even an entire district of new museums, that could ever have approached the social communal value that those thousands of new jobs would have brought to southern Dallas and to this city. By ameliorating the terrible economic disparity between the city’s two hemispheres, the Inland Port would have been the most important step forward for this city since emancipation.
So my question: Is this outcome what Dallas wanted? Can Dallas ever achieve what it wants if it allows big rich families to run the city?