The forest, in the case of the United States of America v. John Wiley Price, is almost impossible to see for the trees. There is so much evidence, history and context swirling around the trial of Dallas County’s longest serving county commissioner that even starting to understand how we got here, and where we might be going is difficult.
Thankfully, the Observer archives have decades of clips detailing Price’s heyday as South Dallas’ “man downtown” and his apparent fall. As Dallas gets ready for its biggest public corruption trial since the feds took down former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill in 2009, let’s take a stroll through Price’s Dallas.
The reputation — Despite having mellowed significantly over the last half decade or so, Price maintains a reputation in certain parts of Dallas as someone to be feared physically, as well as politically, thanks to a series of incidents stemming from the mid-eighties to mid-aughts during which Dallas County’s longest serving public official was repeatedly accused of committing acts of physical violence, including breaking a construction worker’s ankle during a protest, punching a police officer and tackling a jogger. Each and every time, Price managed to wriggle free without significant legal punishment, but the damage, or help, to his reputation was permanent.
The raid — Price’s current criminal predicament began nearly four years ago, when the FBI executed a series of raids focused on Price, his longtime political consultant and co-defendant Kathy Nealy and his longtime personal assistant and co-defendant Dapheny Fain. Agents took nearly $400,000 in cash from Price’s home near Lake Cliff Park, money they would later say came from the bribery scheme for which he was eventually indicted. For a long time though, the raid was something of a running joke in Dallas: Despite its having taken place in June 2011, Price wasn’t indicted for another three years.
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The indictment — The FBI finally indicted Price on July 11, 2014, accusing him of being at the end of a scheme that saw businesses, vying for Dallas County contracts or otherwise needing Price to vote a certain way on the court, allegedly funnel money to Nealy, who would then make sure the money got back to Price.
The Inland Port — To understand Price, one must understand the Inland Port. In the mid-2000s, an investment group from San Diego headed by developer Richard Allen discovered that South Dallas would be the perfect spot for a massive new inland port project because of the area’s confluence of rail lines and interstate highways. If completed, the project would’ve been a direct competitor to Ross Perot Jr.’s Alliance facility in Tarrant County. The feds charge that Price delayed a key vote on the project after Nealy received cash for political consulting from a company affiliated with the Alliance port. Before that ever happened, however, Price had long been dismissive of the port project and the jobs it would create. “During slavery, everyone had a job,” he famously said.
The pre-game — Despite evidence so voluminous that it’s caused multiple delays as Price’s case finally headed to trial and Christian Campbell, who admitted serving as a bag man for Nealy, agreeing to testify against Price, federal prosecutors still have their work cut out for them. District Judge Barbara Lynn recently agreed to give Nealy a separate trial after a dispute arose over how an immunity agreement she reached in order to testify against Hill all those years ago might affect her culpability for more recent crimes. Lynn also refused to further delay Price’s day in court, opening the possibility that Nealy could be a defense witness for Price.
The witnesses — Witness lists on both sides of the trial are stack with heavy hitters. Price wants to call former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, former head of the Dallas Citizens Council and mayoral candidate Tom Dunning and former Dallas City Council member Vonciel Hill to vouch for his character and to dismiss some of his wilder actions as mere “flamboyance.” The feds intend to have Perot, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, among others, give evidence against Price. Interestingly, Perot is actually on both sides’ witness list’s. He will, according to Price’s attorneys testify that “his company did not engage Kathy Nealy to bribe Commissioner Price and did not bribe Commissioner Price or anyone else.”
The strategy — At a pretrial hearing Monday, Price’s lawyers made it clear that their theory of the case will show that Price was targeted by an FBI probe specifically directed at black city leaders. Judge Lynn made it clear, however, that she would not allow any arguments that hinted at jury nullification — basically, she doesn’t want Price’s defense team arguing to a Dallas jury that he should be acquitted despite having broken the law.