Six Weeks Before Trial, Federal Case Against John Wiley Price Is in Trouble

John Wiley Price in the offices of his lawyer, Billy Ravkind, five years ago.
John Wiley Price in the offices of his lawyer, Billy Ravkind, five years ago.
Alex Scott
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It’s early. Maybe the feds can still pull a conviction out of the ragged hat that has become their corruption case against Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. At of the end of this week, though, I wouldn’t bet my own money on it. Talk to me Monday.

The thing I do like very much about what I see unfolding is that this trial or trials will turn out to be exactly what I have been hoping for all along: This trial could turn out to be every bit as much a window on rich white Dallas as on the poor black side of town. Now that would be a show to see.

Today, several sealed motions in the federal corruption trials of Price and two associates are supposed to be unsealed. Maybe they will shed light on how the case stacks up, almost five years after the FBI raided the home and offices of Dallas’ longest-tenured county commissioner. But for now, the case against Price, his administrative assistant and a political consultant looks more like a junk-pile than a stack.

Two days ago U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn cut Kathy Nealy, Price’s political consultant, out of the main trial. That trial is slated to begin Feb. 21. Instead, Nealy, a successful national and local Democratic Party consultant in her own right (she ran Hillary’s campaign here in 2008), will get her own trial later on.

Problem: Price, Nealy and Daphney Fain, the administrative assistant, are accused of engaging in a decade-long conspiracy to shake down county contractors for bribes. As his political consultant, Nealy was his go-between with contractors. That she was the go-between is not contested. The question to be decided in her case eventually will be whether her going between was done for legal purposes or illegal.

Lynn took Nealy out of the main trial because Nealy is claiming the feds gave her immunity seven years ago for her testimony in the successful federal corruption prosecution of Dallas City Council member Don Hill.

There are several different kinds of immunity the feds can grant – proffer immunity, letter immunity, statutory immunity – and I don’t know what all of that stuff means. My own layman’s reading of the kind of immunity Nealy seems to be claiming here is what I would call – and this is strictly my own term for it, not a true legal definition — total license to rob banks for life immunity where you can leave your immunity to your children in your will so they can rob banks, too.

But I’ll come back to that. After all, I have been writing about Nealy and her legal autoimmune system that's blessed by North Dallas and City Hall for the better part of a decade, so I have a few things to remind you of.

Confronted with these thorny questions of immunity barely six and half weeks before the opening day of the big trial, Judge Lynn took Nealy out of the trial so the immunity questions can be addressed later in a separate proceeding.

But what does severing the trials do to the trial of Commissioner Price? One thing it could do is change Nealy from a defendant to a defense witness in that trial. The feds want to prove to a jury that Price, Fain and Nealy agreed to take part on a conspiracy. So naturally the defense lawyers will want to call Nealy and ask her in front of the jury if she ever agreed to take part in a conspiracy.

With her own trial hanging fire ahead of her, Nealy will do one of two things, the first far more likely than the second. The first likelihood is that she will invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. Then the defense lawyers will object that she can’t be incriminated if she has immunity, so she can’t plead the Fifth.

Nealy’s lawyers, of course, will tell the judge the question of her immunity is unresolved (I said I was coming back to that, right?), which the judge well knows, because she is the one who unresolved it. So what then?

Well, seeing all of this ahead of her, Judge Lynn could bar the lawyers for Price and Fain from calling Nealy. But what is Nealy’s role here? If she has immunity, then she’s a snitch and an accuser. Price and Fain have a constitutional right to cross-examine an accuser. Barring them from exercising that right is at least good grounds for appeal if they get convicted.

But how can they even be convicted with Nealy not present? Every time Nealy’s name comes up, all the defense attorneys have to do is turn around three times and gaze into the distance. Ah, Ms. Nealy, the mysterious Kathy, is she really real, this Nealy? If the judge says no one can mention her by name, the lawyers can just cough and say “Really!” every two minutes.

The second less likely possibility is that Nealy, now no longer a defendant in the Price trial, can come charging into court as a government witness and testify against him. If that’s what’s going on, the government probably would have a very strong case, and I probably should be ashamed of myself and apologize for having said it’s a mess.

Former Dallas City Council Member Don Hill and his wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, on the day of their conviction.
Former Dallas City Council Member Don Hill and his wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, on the day of their conviction.
Sam Merten

I just don’t find anybody who thinks that’s what’s going on. The people I talk to think Nealy probably is close to walking away from everything based on her immunity claim, which the judge seems to be taking seriously. At this point any deal she might do to become a government witness against Price almost certainly would still involve some prison time. Why do time if you can walk? It all comes down to that claim of immunity.

So here is what I wanted to tell you about that. In 2009 Billy Ravkind, then the dean of the Dallas white-collar criminal defense bar who was Nealy’s lawyer at the time, told me Nealy did not have federal immunity in the matters she testified to in the Hill trial, but he did tell me she and the feds had come to a “meeting of the minds.”

I quoted him at the time, and later some lawyers told me I had allowed myself to get semi-snookered by an old master of the verbal snooker. A “meeting of the minds,” they said, is contract language meaning they had a deal, which would mean she did have immunity.

All I know is this: If she did have immunity, the feds were the last ones to want anybody to know about it. Hill, his wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, and Hill's appointee to the Plan Commission, D'Angelo Lee, all were convicted of several crimes including a relatively new federal offense at the time called deprivation of services. Nealy was a government witness against them.

During her testimony, she was asked whether she had been granted immunity by the government, but she was asked by the wrong side. And, look, I’ll just tell you right now, this is all screwed up. But it’s the beginning, way back then, of why the Price trial is all screwed up today, so stick with me.

Normally it should have been the defense, Hill’s lawyers, who grilled Nealy about her immunity. They would have wanted to say to the jury: “See, she saved her own bacon by snitching. They paid her off with an immunity deal. You shouldn’t believe her, because, in effect, she’s been bought and paid for by the feds.”

But the defense didn’t ask her about her immunity until later in the trial, and then only very gingerly, which weird. Initially only the prosecution asked. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Meachum asked her if she was not concerned, given her own role in some of the matters in which Hill was accused, that she might be prosecuted herself. Under Meachum’s kid-gloves treatment, Nealy said almost demurely (for Nealy) that she was not worried.

I can tell you how I read it at the time. Former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb, himself convicted and then acquitted of federal bribery charges, had been down in the courthouse lobby that morning telling reporters he had come downtown to watch “the black snitches choir.”

Lipscomb was sending a signal. Nealy probably didn’t need it. She knew there would be eyes upon her in court that day. Out there in the public pews, certain people would be watching to see if she was the snitch who put Don Hill away.

The way I read Meachum’s otherwise weird questioning of Nealy was that he was trying to provide her with cover in the community. Here was Nealy testifying to things that sure didn’t help Don Hill, but Nealy and the government wanted everybody to know it wasn’t because Nealy was a snitch.

The other thing to know about Nealy is that she was never just some bag-lady or rag-lady from nowhere. Nealy worked for Carol Reed, for years the mastermind of all establishment political campaigns in Dallas from the mayor’s race to bond campaigns to the Trinity toll road referendum.

Nealy was always very covered up and protected by City Hall. In one instance, Nealy had forged a deal by which a contractor agreed to hire security guards from a company owned by a sitting City Council member whose vote the contractor needed and subsequently got. The Dallas city attorney at the time ruled that the deal did not constitute bribery as long as the contractor only used the council member’s guards on jobs that were outside the city limits.

I thought at the time, “Yeah, and he should not use the guards on Wednesdays when the council is actually in session.” In other words, talk about a deal. In other words, talk about Kathy Nealy.

By delving into this claim of immunity, sooner or later the court might even find itself wading into Nealy’s truly important relationship — not the one with Price, the one with Dallas. That’s the show I’m waiting for, out here in the bleachers.

Could Dallas have told Kathy Nealy she had lifetime hereditary immunity as long as she did what Dallas wanted? Oh, you bet. And would Dallas have been dumb enough to believe it was true? Sure. Would Nealy have believed it? I don’t know. Would the feds believe it? Hell no, but they might not have wanted to disabuse Nealy until they got what they wanted. Where would that leave it? Stay tuned.

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