Some stuff won't spin. Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm is trying desperately to spin the story of her side-deal with Trinity East Energy. But that story is stuck in the ground like a tree.
The Observer reported yesterday that Suhm signed an agreement five years ago with a gas drilling company to help them get all the approvals they needed to drill on city-owned parkland. At that same moment, she signed a lease guaranteeing the same right. All the while, she and her staff were assuring the City Council and park board that drilling on parkland was and would continue to be prohibited.
She has never returned the Observer's calls and emails to discuss the side-deal. Instead, she called The Dallas Morning News and fed them her spin.
The News quoted her as telling them in an email: "To characterize the sequence of events related to the gas drilling lease agreements as a 'back room deal' is inflammatory and inaccurate. The letter is NOT a deal between staff and Trinity East Energy, LLC. In fact, the City Manager could not make such a 'deal' -- that is not the City Manager's authority."
Mayor Mike Rawlings rushed to her defense, characterizing her deal with Trinity as merely a non-binding offer to help a company that was writing a $19 million check to the city.
See also: - Mary Suhm Signed a Secret Side Deal to Push for Drilling on Parkland as She Told Council It Would Be Banned - Drilling Opponents: Plan Commish Chair Pushed Commissioners to Support Fracking
In defense of our own coverage, let me say we never called it a back-room deal. It was a front-room deal, kept secret for years. That's the problem.
The deal was officially signed, dated and sealed by Suhm, providing explicit assurances of help, almost like lobbying. It was a deal the drilling company clearly required before it would sign its big check to the city.
The important points about the deal are two: 1) It flew in the face of the clear direction elected officials had given Suhm to keep surface drilling off parkland, as well as her own promises to do so, and 2) Suhm and city attorneys went to great lengths to keep the deal hidden from the public and from the city's elected officials.
The deal only went public yesterday after City Council members Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt got copies of it from the city. The reasons why it finally popped out into the open are still murky. But rumors of the existence of such a deal have circulated since last May.
In a Q-and-A with Unfair Park then, Steve Fort of Trinity East Energy hinted broadly that he had a kind of secret ace-in-the-hole guaranty from top people at City Hall.
"I'm not gonna name names," Fort told us, "because I'd rather not do that."
Now we know why.
The day that story ran on Unfair Park, we hit the city with a very specific and inclusive demand for documents under the Texas Public Information Act. The letter demanded "all documentation of the city's arrangements with Trinity East, the energy company that leased city land for drilling." We went on to demand "all official and unofficial documentation of agreements between the company and the city."
The city responded with a stack of documents that did not include Suhm's side deal.
We weren't alone in this. Fort's hint prompted some letter-hunting by drilling opponents too, but they also came up dry despite what state law requires in terms giving the public access to its own documents. At City Hall, it seems the best way to get a document they don't want to give you is to already have it in your hand before you ask for it ...
Please take a look at the timeline below, which was sent to me yesterday by Hunt. The most obvious takeaway is that Suhm kept her deal secret for years, also keeping the City Council and park board in the dark. But there is an equally important, if more subtle, conclusion to be drawn from Hunt's timeline.
No matter what the mayor and city manager may say now to spin and minimize Suhm's side-deal with Trinity East, the side-deal was crucially important to Trinity East and to its decision to write the city a $19 million check. This impression is corroborated by what Trinity East's hired City Hall consultant, Dallas Cothrum, told me yesterday.
Rawlings and Suhm now want to emphasize the non-binding nature of the agreement. The deal letter itself did contain wiggle words to the effect that Suhm "can make no guarantees."
But there were no wiggle words in the check. If Suhm wasn't sure she could deliver the right to drill on park land, all she had to do was to wait to cash the check. In Trinity East's view now, once Suhm took their $19 million check, cashed it and spent the money, the deal was a deal.
Rawlings told the News yesterday his motivation in defending Suhm had less to do with any belief that her deal was a good one than his fear that Trinity East would now sue the city if Suhm failed to come through on it. Cothrum told me yesterday he believed that was exactly what was about to happen. So at the very least, both sides seem to agree Suhm's side-deal was important enough to place the city in a very tight spot.
Yesterday here on the blog and in a raucous City Hall hearing before the plan commission, the Suhm side-deal was called all sorts of bad things by partisans in the debate over gas drilling on city parkland. In a way, both Rawlings and his own most fierce critics wound up sort of agreeing that the side-deal was non-binding, Rawlings because he said it contained wiggle words, the critics because they said it was an illegal deal in the first place.
Then Suhm tossed in her own odd wrinkle in her spin for the Morning News by pointing out that she doesn't have the authority to make such a deal.
The problem with that argument is that she made the deal. She and city lawyers kept it under wraps for years. But now we have the deal letter, signed by her and by Fort of Trinity East.
And yet the story persists that the deal was not a deal. If you look at the end of Hunt's timeline below, you will find at the bottom an especially curious document, an amendment to Trinity East's lease with the city, signed by the city and company officials on July 18, 2011. The amendment states explicitly that the City Council "must approve oil and gas drilling on parkland" and that "this authorization is a police power that cannot be contracted away." That's courthouse language meaning the city manager can't contract to do something that defies the City Council.
The amendment suggests that somebody at City Hall knew Suhm's side-deal was a problem. Who could that have been? Could it have been the same City Hall lawyers who hid the deal?
The amendment, by the way, does not directly reference the side-deal, which was still a secret at the time, nor does it really withdraw the deal. If anything, it reads more like a cover story for the lawyers who negotiated the city's lease with Trinity East, showing they were not in on any illegal attempts to contract away the powers of the City Council.
But there is something plainer and more important here: common sense and common decency.
Cothrum is Trinity East's zoning consultant, not their lawyer. He went to some lengths to tell me he had not discussed litigation with his client, but he nevertheless made what I thought was the most important point of the day:
"They [Trinity East] got a letter from the leader of that place [City Hall]," he said, "and now all they are asking for is the benefit of that bargain."
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Think about it. Look again at Hunt's timeline, this time toward the top. In 2008, the minute the council voted to do gas drilling, City Hall signed a deal with Exxon. But it took six more months to get a deal inked with Trinity East, a relatively small independent company. Trinity East only signed its deal and wrote its check on the day Suhm inked her promise.
If these guys go into court, they don't have to be political science majors, Sherlock Holmes or Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. All they have to do is be oil and gas guys who wrote a check for $19 million based on promises from a person they took to be the city's CEO. The more the city does before then and now to defend and harden Suhm's position as CEO, the better their story becomes when they present it to 12 jurors.