Rawlings and the Morning News Want Detroit-style Pension Fund Management Here

Yes, I have campaigned here ceaselessly over the years to get Dallas to be more like my hometown, Detroit, but I was talking about stuff like the farmers market. Not the pension fund, for God's sake!

Yesterday The Dallas Morning News editorial page called for the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System to open its books and its doors to the mayor and his minions, who want a bigger hand in running it. The type of arrangement the newspaper proposes, in which politicians would have major say-so in the core operations of a public pension fund, is more or less the Detroit model. Before we jump into that, we might ponder how that arrangement has worked out for the Motor City.


There, the main liaison between former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the Detroit police and fire pension funds was a gentleman named Ronald Zajac, a lawyer who was general counsel to two separate pension funds for police and fire. Last year when a federal grand jury indicted Zajac and pension fund trustee Paul Stewart for bribery, a Justice Department press release provided what's probably a pretty good window on what to expect:

"During the conspiracy, Stewart accepted thousands of dollars in cash, trips, entertainment and other things of value from people seeking investments from the Police and Fire Retirement System," the press release said.

"Stewart accepted a $5,000 casino chip, a Christmas basket that included an envelope with thousands of dollars in cash, a cash payment of $2,500 during a trip to New York City, a cash payment of $2,500 during a trip to Florida, an excursion to the Bahamas for Stewart and his mistress, and a trip to Naples, Florida, for Stewart and his mistress.

"In addition, Stewart accepted a 'birthday present' of $5,000 in cash at a party at the Atheneum Hotel. Zajac organized the party, and Zajac solicited and collected the cash from people having business before the boards of trustees of the pension funds."

Also indicted in the scheme was Detroit treasurer Jeffrey Beasley, a one-time fraternity brother and political appointee of former Mayor Kilpatrick, who was, you may remember, a resident of this area briefly before receiving a 28-year federal sentence for bribery. The feds say corrupt officials tied to the mayor cost the Detroit pension funds a minimum of $84 million.

Hey, I did not say Mike Rawlings is Kwame Kilpatrick. But think about it. There are reasons why public pension funds are supposed to be firewalled from political interference. And the political interference here could not be more transparent, even if it is more goofy than greedy, at least at first blush.

The Morning News editorial even blurts out the real reason the mayor of Dallas has been trying to batter down the firewall, citing the "$200 million Museum Tower that shined a glaring light on both the Nasher Sculpture Center and the system's investment strategy."

You know what this is about: It's the stupid silly hissy-fit between a sculpture museum downtown and a new glass condo tower across the street from it that is owned by the pension fund. The Nasher Sculpture Center says the building, Museum Tower, reflects too much sunlight. But the building obeys all of the laws on that. So the mayor, who is tight with all the rich culture vultures, is trying to bring pressure on the pension fund to do something anyway to make the culture vultures happy. What, I don't know. Tear it down? Hey, who knows? Anything is possible. Hell hath no fury like a disrespected culture vulture.

No comfort should be taken in the fact that the starting point here is all artsy and goofy instead of scary criminal. The path to a vacation in Florida for a trustee and his mistress may be strewn at first with art and goofiness. It's still the path to Naples, and it begins exactly at the moment when you open the doors and tell the mayor of the city that the pension fund is his to play around with.

Mike Rawlings would never ever in a million years go to Naples, Florida, for a vacation. He would never engage in any of the behavior that landed Kilpatrick and company in the federal long-term residential system. But Mike Rawlings isn't always going to be the mayor.

In fact, you know what? If we're going to go with the Detroit model here? I'm from Detroit. If we're really seriously going to tear down the firewall and allow the mayor and the City Council to get all knee-deep in the operations of the pension fund, then I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to run for mayor.

Laura Miller did it. She got elected. Why can't I? I've always wanted to go to Naples, Florida. And a $5,000 poker chip! Think of it. I see myself on my first day in office: "Sure, tear that sucker down! Just bring me my damn birthday basket."

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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