Federal agents of both the IRS and FBI persuasion have fanned out across our fair county and state, maybe even traveling to exotic shores, trying to tease truth out of the densely woven fabric of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price's financial affairs.
Lots of luck.
As of last week, Price, the county's most powerful black officeholder, is the unindicted target of a massive corruption probe. His own lawyers have hired forensic accountants to comb through his finances, an effort to keep up with the feds. Lots of luck to them, too.
I spent last week combing myself, focusing on one little corner of the empire amassed by the 61-year-old Price in his almost three decades in office. Just thinking about trying to sort all this out makes me want to go fishing. Forever. Maybe I was imagining it, but I swear I heard some of the same sentiment in the voice of Price's own lawyer, Billy Ravkind.
"I know what the explanations are," Ravkind told me last week. "I am waiting to see what the records say."
My little corner involved a plot of land out by Mountain Creek Lake. As far as I can tell, one little transfer of ownership involved an almost 10-year process of multiple deed-filings, money borrowings, mystery documents, missing documents, renunciations of interest and accusations of undue pressure and trickery against Price, not to mention the involvement of two of the more flamboyant con men in Dallas history (not including the commissioner). Other than that, it's just a straight-up land deal.
It goes like this: According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District, Commissioner Price bought nine acres of land on Grady Niblo Road in 1999 from an antiques dealer named Wayne White. But that's not what the records at the county clerk's office show.
According to those records, Price didn't buy the land from White until three years later, in 2002. On September 10 of that year, the records show, Price received a warranty deed from White—a deed in which White swore he owned the land free and clear and was transferring ownership of it to Price, in exchange for $150,000.
With me so far? Well, you won't be for long. There are more records. On the same day the warranty deed was filed with the clerk—at the same minute, in fact—a "quit claim" deed was also filed. In this one, Price's own administrative assistant at the county, Dapheny Fain, conveyed to Price her "right, title and interest in and to the property" for the same exact parcel of land.
White says Fain had no right, title or interest in the land. The property was never hers, he says, nor did she have any right to it. Records back that up. Nothing in the county clerk's records shows that anybody ever gave or sold or conveyed any interest in this property to Fain. But there she was, conveying her interest to her boss.
OK, time for law school. A quit claim deed does not contain a "covenant of title," meaning it doesn't say you have an actual interest to sell or give away. When you sign it, you're not swearing that you own the property. If you sign the other kind of deed, a warranty deed, yeah: That means you swear it's yours to give. But if you sign a quit claim, it just says you won't ever claim you have any interest in the future.
So, wait. She signed away a non-existent interest? Maybe. I'm not sure. I could not reach Price or Fain. I did speak with their lawyers, both of whom said they had no idea what it was all about.
And Mr. White? I'm not sure about him, either. His story has a lot of peaks and valleys, frankly. He says he bought the land from an old guy he liked to play dominoes with, who also happened to be the landlord to his antique dealership out on U.S. Highway 80 in Forney. That landlord happened to be Danny Faulkner, one of the more notorious bank swindlers and real estate scammers in Dallas history.
Indeed, county records show that Faulkner sold White the land shortly after Faulkner got out of the pen for bank fraud. Then, by coincidence, another fella started stopping by the antique dealership to play dominoes with White—that old domino nut, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price! The commissioner, White says, kept pleading with him: You've gotta sell me that land.
There's another person with a role to play in this saga: White's ex-wife. I can't find her, but records seem to indicate that she did have an interest in the property, even though White signed documents on file with the county saying that she didn't.
You know, the deeper I get into this story, the more I think it should be a Ken Burns PBS documentary. I think of Faulkner and White and Price all out there on Highway 80 at White's antique store playing dominoes, and Dapheny Fain and White's ex-wife just kind of floating around somewhere in the distance, and I hear that sad violin theme music Ken Burns always has. I love that music.
It gets better. White claims that while Price pestered him again and again to sell him the land, he didn't actually want to buy the land directly from White. He wanted him to pass the property through a middleman first: the late Jack Madera, a person who ranks almost up there with Danny Faulkner in the drama department. Madera was a notorious jail concessionaire—the guy who sells cigarettes and candy bars to the prisoners—with contracts in counties all over Texas. He was a flamboyantly generous host and entertainer of sheriffs, a role that cost former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles his re-election when it was revealed that Madera had been hosting and entertaining Bowles a bit too generously.
Do we digress? Just listen for the violin.
In the end, White says—and the documents confirm—that Price bought the plot directly from White, borrowing $150,000 from the bank to do it. And Fain—well, she gave up her non-existent interest in the land to the commissioner for a measly $10. How generous of her.
Lots of people have offered me theories about why Price might have wanted his administrative assistant to give away interest in land she had no interest in, but they're mostly fantasies based on what we know the feds are looking for: money laundering and that sort of thing. It's not obvious how any laundering would have worked, and there's no evidence in the public record anything like that happened.
The county clerk's office probably wouldn't have noticed if there was. Dallas County Clerk John Warren tells me that, for the most part, his staff just records the documents people bring in.
"The law does not require me to authenticate or police the documents filed with my office," Warren told me in an email. "With the volume of records filed daily that would require me to hire about 10 staffers with legal experience."
If the staff sees something glaringly wrong with a document, he said, they won't file it, and they might even refer it to the district attorney. But I think we're talking Republic of Texas wacko wrong, not Dapheny Fain not-quite-right wrong.
I put the question to Robert Webster, an attorney with Fitzpatrick Hagood Smith. Until 2007, Webster was chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas. I asked what it means if somebody files a quit claim deed giving up an interest they do not possess, but there's no obvious scam attached to it—no tit-for-tat. Is it nothing?
"It may very well be nothing," he said. The tit-for-tat, he said, is the issue.
"If it were an act in the furtherance of another crime, it's conspiracy. But anybody could file a quit claim deed on somebody else's property, and it could be nullity, especially if they're a nut. If I'm not a nut and it's done with some purpose, then it could be criminal."
Got that? I sure don't. I just know that the law is a many-splendored thing, and I want to keep away from it every little chance I get. Commissioner Price, on the other hand, apparently has the opposite reaction.
Take this one little deal, nine acres of undeveloped land in southwest Dallas, multiply it by about a thousand, and you begin to get the scope of what the feds are looking at. Price's annual Kwanzaa Fest alone represents about a million dollars a year in money nobody seems to be able to count. The feds are talking to a number of antiques and art dealers across the city with whom the commissioner does large volumes of cash business. The federal search warrants show that investigators are looking for broad patterns of money-laundering and "structured cash transactions"—deals where you put cash in and out of the bank in just under $10,000 increments to avoid federal reporting requirements.
I really shouldn't wish the feds luck, because that would be un-objective of me as a journalist, Heaven forfend. I do express my sympathy. I know how difficult it can be to sort out the affairs of people who move around real fast. There is even a personal anecdote I would be tempted to share, which I think would be parallel, drawn from an unhappy experience I had once with my wallet on vacation, but I am afraid this story might be offensive to Gypsies, or, as I believe we should call them now, the Roma people. So instead I will say once more, as I said up top:
Lots of luck on this one, boys and girls.
Price wanted him to pass the property through a middleman first: the late Jack Madera, a person who ranks almost up there with Danny Faulkner in the drama department.
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