Unintended Consequences, or: How Our John Wiley Price Reporting Helped Birth a Bad Bill

Our coverage of the Inland Port scandal in Dallas may yet produce some new federal law. If it does, I don't think it's going to be anything we will be bragging about.

Yesterday Wilonsky posted a 2-year-old deposition he found on the website of embattled Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. I guess I missed it at the time. It has my own name all over it, but I don't recall ever reading it.

For me anyway -- maybe not for you -- it's more than fascinating reading. I was clenching my teeth and balling my fists all the way through.

In the deposition, Price, who is sitting in the room and has to be cautioned to behave himself, and his lawyer Mark D. Johnson are trying to get former Dallas County Judge Jim Foster to spill the beans. They want him to say who has been feeding Foster and/or me information to the effect that Price has been involved in serial shakedowns of people doing business with the county.

Showing Foster a copy of an article by me in the Observer, Johnson asks him under oath, "What are the multiple shakedowns that are referred to in this article, if you know?"

Foster basically tells them to ask Jim Schutze, which they never did. But they did keep going after him in the deposition to find out what he had said to me in interviews.

JOHNSON: "So when you talked with Jim Schutze and you said that there are people who would believe that Commissioner Price may have committed a shakedown -- or something to that effect, I realize those aren't the exact words, you didn't identify..."

FOSTER: "No, sir."

JOHNSON: "... who those persons were?"

FOSTER: "No, sir."

JOHNSON: "And he didn't ask?"

FOSTER: "No, sir. My -- well, no.

JOHNSON: "Did you explain to Jim Schutze how you knew that there were people who if asked..."

FOSTER: "He didn't ask, and I didn't explain."

By the way, when Foster and I spoke, we didn't have to go through the list of alleged shakedowns, because we both knew what was involved.

With a distressing amount of help from County Court at Law Judge Ken Tapscott, Price and his lawyer continue to poke and pinch Foster throughout the deposition to get him to say who's been ratting out our man downtown, Commissioner Price. Luckily Foster has a lot of help from lawyers Ken Barr and Chris Weil, who do an excellent job of nudging Tapscott back toward the general vicinity of the law.

And Foster himself is tough and wily: He never gives up his sources, but he also never backs down from his contention that Price is a thug.

The bad law in this situation comes from the other half of Price's efforts to run down my sources. He also went after Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who had given me chapter and verse on Price's efforts to force Inland Port developer Richard Allen to pony up 15 percent of his company in exchange for political peace in southern Dallas.

This gets a little complicated. Price was not filing an actual lawsuit against these two. He was using a special provision in Texas law that allows a person to force somebody to give a deposition under oath without filing a lawsuit against the person.

Price tried to subpoena Congresswoman Johnson. She invoked federal law allowing a member of Congress to flip any lawsuit against themselves into federal court. Price's lawyer (who ain't half bad, by the way) argued that what they were doing wasn't a lawsuit, so it wasn't covered by the flip-to-federal law. Johnson could flip a lawsuit against her into federal court, but there was no law allowing her to flip a not-a-lawsuit into federal court.

Like I say: Every little chance you get, just stay away from the law.

In March, 2010, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Price's lawyer. The court said the Texas law compelling sworn deposition before the filing of a lawsuit wasn't covered by the flip-to-federal law.

Soon after, Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas filed a bill in the U.S. House called the "Federal Courts and Venue Clarification Act of 2011," to change federal law to cover pre-lawsuit discovery actions like the one Price had filed against Johnson. That bill has passed the House and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Me, I don't know. Why am I going to be proud about a law that makes it harder to get information out of federal officeholders by granting them even more protection from citizens?

The whole thing is absurd from the beginning anyway. There was never a lawsuit Price could have filed because he was never libeled or slandered. Nobody -- not Foster, not Johnson, not I -- accused Price of extortion, a crime.

Now that the FBI has raided his offices and home, thanks to this search warrant, it seems possible such a charge may emerge in the future, but the word everybody was using back in the day was "shakedown," not extortion.

Shakedown is a colloquial term describing the general tenor of Price's behavior as a politician and public official. Libel and slander laws broadly and clearly allow American citizens to criticize public officials on political and moral grounds. It's more or less what we fought the British to achieve -- basic liberty.

Price wanted Allen, the Inland Port director, to turn over a 15 percent share in his privately held company and $1.5 million to some Price associates, all named in that search warrant, in exchange for peace. When Allen wouldn't do it, Price went to war against the Inland Port, a massive high-tech trucking, rail and warehousing development.

Price threw every roadblock and monkey wrench he could find into the path of the development, which offered 60,000 good jobs to southern Dallas, which has been, as the Reverend Freddie Haynes put it last night at that pro-Price prayer meeting, the city's "economic toilet" since Reconstruction.

Price poured sand in the toilet, in other words, when his friends didn't get their money.

Look, I don't care about extortion. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a cop. Let the feds go for that one. What I said, and what Congresswoman Johnson said, and what Foster said, was shakedown.

Shakedown. By that, I think we all meant the same thing -- generally sleazy behavior, a Judas-like political betrayal of his own constituency and a reprehensible sabotage of the clear economic and social interests of his district.

So run that one through the law books, commissioner. We're not calling you a criminal. We're calling you a sleaze and a Judas.

I don't know what to think about the legal maneuver Price was using to get at Foster and Johnson, called a Rule 202 deposition, or about the change in federal law Johnson is trying to get passed to protect herself from Price.

If you read this deposition, it's a transparent attempt to intimidate Foster and force him to disgorge information without incurring the expense and other downsides of a real lawsuit. If you look at Johnson's (Lamar Smith's) proposed new law, it seems like one more row of razor-wire on top of the barricades already protecting a bunch of elected officials who don't need it.

So what's good and what's bad about the Rule 202 thing and the old flip-to-federal-court law and new flip-even-more-to-federal-court law? You know what? I recommend you talk to somebody smarter on that. Me, I don't like anything in the whole deal except for one part: Jim Foster never gave Judas an inch.

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