To win a Dallas City Council vote on a construction project, Methodist Dallas Medical Center in North Oak Cliff (“Methodist”) hitched its wagon and its long good name in the community to Dallas landlord and investor Ralph Isenberg. That’s a hitch.
The last time we had much to do with Isenberg here at the Dallas Observer, he had threatened to anally rape one of our interns. To explain the incident fully, I guess I have to explain why Isenberg did it, which takes me into the Isenberg domestic situation, a realm I had hoped fervently never to revisit.
Not that humiliating his own family has ever seemed to give Isenberg a moment’s pause. In his new partnership with Methodist, Isenberg, with some extremely regrettable help from lawyer and former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, has made publicly shaming his own wife the absolute centerpiece of the Methodist legal strategy.
Two weeks ago, Isenberg got up in front of the City Council and painted his wife, Yan Hong (Nicole) Isenberg, a 20-year resident and citizen of the United States, as an immigrant just off the plane who couldn’t understand legal matters. Speaking of an affidavit bearing the notarized signature of his wife, Isenberg said, “The document that you have before you pure and simple is a fraud. Understand that my wife is from mainland China, and while her English is good, she does not understand the nuances of zoning.”
Isenberg said that someone had betrayed his wife into signing a document opposing Methodist's plan to chop down a grove of mature pecan trees to build a wellness center. That happened in his absence, a thing he would never have allowed had he been present. “That affidavit would have never have been signed,” he told the council adamantly. “I would have been the one making that determination based on my experience working with the city.”
His wife was not present at the council meeting where Isenberg spoke so disparagingly of her. He offered a new affidavit with her signature saying that she now favored the Methodist project.
Isenberg’s claim that his wife was not allowed to sign papers without his permission ruffled few feathers among the council members hearing it, perhaps because it had been presaged already from an entirely surprising source: Hunt, known far and wide in the city as a forceful and thoroughly modern woman who definitely signs her own name to papers.
“Ms. Isenberg did not have the authority of both property owners including her husband,” Hunt told the council with an absolutely straight face.
But this being the 21st century, not the 19th, Nicole Isenberg did not need her husband’s authority to sign anything. In case there was any doubt about that — hard to believe among normal people — interim City Attorney Christopher J. Caso came to the microphone and explained to the council that in Texas, in matters of community property, the signature or agreement of either spouse is considered sufficient and binding on the other.
Isenberg’s speech, however bizarre and offensive, was totally predictable, given his history. But Hunt’s speech was flat shocking. I texted Hunt last week and said, “I am writing about Methodist trees/Ralph Isenberg for Monday. Isenberg has a long history with us here at the Observer as an unstable personality of questionable credibility. Can you tell me what role you or your client had in bringing him into the Methodist case at the last moment?”
Hunt texted me back: “Hi, Jim. You can contact Ryan Owens, Director PR, Methodist Health System.” She gave me his phone and email contacts.
I emailed Owens: “I am Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer, working on a story about the Methodist Hospital trees zoning case. I contacted attorney Angela Hunt this morning to ask her, among other things, what role she played in bringing Ralph Isenberg into the case at the last moment. She referred me to you. Please tell me what role Angela Hunt played in bringing Ralph Isenberg into the case at the last moment.”
Owens emailed me back: “Thank you for reaching out. As I’m sure you know, this matter is currently the subject of litigation so we cannot comment. So if you need a statement from us it would be simply: ‘It is Methodist Health System’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.’”
I emailed him back: “Thank you. Can you refer me to anyone else who might know what role Ms. Hunt played in bringing Mr. Isenberg into the matter?” Sadly, I did not hear back on that one.
I attempted to reach Isenberg and his wife, but both of the listed business phone numbers for them have been disconnected, and no one answers his phone at home. I sent emails to half a dozen email addresses for them, but all of those addresses had been extinguished. I couldn’t tell how recently the email addresses were snuffed.
The question at hand two weeks ago was a zoning issue in which Methodist was asking the City Council for new zoning to allow construction of a fitness center on wooded land that had been set aside as a legally prescribed “no-build zone” in previous zoning granted Methodist over the years. Scott Griggs, who represents the area on the council, told the council at its meeting two weeks ago that Methodist had specifically agreed never to build on the land in question and had done so to gain neighborhood acquiescence to its earlier zoning requests. He said the neighborhood opposition to the current request was the most fierce and unified he had ever seen in eight years on the council. Neighbors, he said, had agreed to allow new industrial uses elsewhere on the vast acreage owned by Methodist because they felt they were being guaranteed that the wooded no-build zone would serve as a permanent buffer.
“To keep the hospital in harmony with the neighborhood,” Griggs said, “you have to have a buffer. It’s what we do in so many different cases here at the council. We recognize the need for that, and here in this case the buffer should stand. It was what Methodist pledged within the zoning that we see now before us.”
Referring to a document describing the current zoning, Griggs said, “This says, ‘No-build zone.’ They want to build in a no-build zone. Of all of Methodist acres to the east and west of Beckley Avenue, the immense holdings Methodist has, there is one spot labeled, ‘Please do no build.’ It is a small corner next to the residential neighborhood, and that is the very place Methodist wants to build.”
The Methodist zoning request would have been defeated, under council rules, had the council honored Yan Hong Nicole Isenberg’s original affidavit opposing it. Her signature placed the number of nearby property owners in opposition at just over 20 percent, triggering a requirement that two-thirds of the council or 10 members vote to grant Methodist’s request over the opposition of the neighbors. By allowing Ralph Isenberg to flip his wife’s affidavit the other way at the last moment, the council caused the number of opponents to fall just below 20 percent, releasing the council from the two-thirds requirement. The Methodist request was approved by 8 votes to 7 – a tally that would have been a defeat for Methodist without Ralph Isenberg’s new affidavit.
Before the council voted to accept Isenberg’s story, Caso told the council that the new affidavit was being offered too late. The legal deadline for affidavits had passed, and Caso said it would be illegal for the council to accept the new one. A majority of the council, with Griggs and council member Philip Kingston leading the opposition, did it anyway.
Referring to the green shirts worn by the neighbors in opposition, Kingston said, “So all these fine people here in these green shirts, any one of them that live within the notice area, could sue us.”
Caso, the city attorney, said, “Yes.”
“And not just sue us in the way that anybody can sue anybody for anything,” Kingston said. “We would have to prove that we followed our own rules.” Turning back to Caso, he said, “They could win this, right?”
Caso said he would have to go into closed-door executive session to answer that question.
A week after the vote, Katherine Homan, one of the green shirts, filed a lawsuit in Dallas County district court asking that the council’s decision on the Methodist zoning request be set aside, seeking a temporary restraining order to bar cutting down the trees and asking for attorney’s fees for the plaintiff.
So why did Ralph Isenberg threaten to rape Greg Howard, our intern? Howard wrote about it afterward, and I will allow his words to serve as explanation:
Before heading to Isenberg's office, Schutze left me with a little parting knowledge: We sorta called Isenberg's wife a hooker. Like, several times. It's a long, complicated saga, but basically the gist is: He married a Chinese woman who had been busted for prostitution.
Isenberg said that he didn't want anyone to call his wife a prostitute. I was silent. He was red. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, he told me that he would summon some of his security guards, who would henceforth pin me to his desk while he, Isenberg, fucked me in my ass and made me his prostitute. Or he would be my prostitute, he reasoned, fairly. His wife, though, would not be the prostitute. That seemed to be the underlying point.
This is the man whose word Hunt asked the Dallas City Council to accept. And they did. Over their own attorney. And now, thank you, Ralph, I am back writing about something I had wished I could go to my grave without ever mentioning again. Was there really no way you and Hunt could have left her out of this?
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