City Hall

John Wiley Price Case and Mayor's Fair Park Deal Are Strangely Parallel

Walt Humann and John Wiley Price, two insiders doing business the Dallas way.
Walt Humann and John Wiley Price, two insiders doing business the Dallas way. Photo illustration by 355A
If you put aside the issue of bribery in the ongoing federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price — the jury will decide that one — and just look at what he did, his behavior may look mild next to the way public business gets done in this town every day.

Compare Price, who is accused of giving unfair advantages to bidders seeking county contracts, with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and his friend, retired oil executive Walt Humann. Price is accused of having lunch with bidders and leaking inside information to them about county bidding processes. Humann, a bidder seeking to take over Fair Park, the city’s 277-acre beleaguered exposition park in South Dallas, wrote his own bidding process. He told a city consultant what to put in a report framing the process, and he told the consultant what to take out. And the consultant did it.

When dissidents on the city’s Park and Recreation Board wanted to ask questions about Humann’s involvement, Humann dictated that the next park board meeting be run in such a way as to bar the dissidents from piping up. And that’s how the park board chairman ran it.

Maybe a third of the way into the Price trial, which is expected to last for months, two themes have emerged. One is a pattern of behavior by which Price is alleged to have delivered favorable treatment to companies seeking lucrative county contracts. The second is the allegation that he did what he did in order to be paid bribes.

No one is accusing Humann of seeking bribes or doing anything but giving selflessly of himself to the betterment of the city. But, remember, that’s exactly what Price says he was doing, too. The bribe part is what the trial is about. Meanwhile, the parallels between the underlying behaviors, Price’s and Humann’s, can be striking.

An extraordinary document outlining Humann’s history in the Fair Park bidding process was filed last week with the city of Dallas purchasing director. It’s a dense brief in a three-ring loose-leaf binder written by a law firm.

The brief demands that Humann be disqualified from bidding to take over Fair Park. The argument of the brief is that Mayor Rawlings has allowed Humann a level of access, privilege and conflict of interest that violate city and state procurement policies.

The sponsor of the brief is J. McDonald Williams, a longtime southern Dallas philanthropist who thinks the Rawlings-Humann plan for Fair Park is ill-advised. “To me, what’s at stake here is the most significant near-term economic generator available for Dallas,” Williams says. “That’s the revitalization of Fair Park. Secondly, it is a major social justice issue with me.

“That means parks and health, recreation, and that means radiating value out to a ... blighted neighborhood. So that’s why I am pushing on this.”

I tried to reach Humann to speak about the brief, but he did not respond in a week’s time.

The contents of the brief are drawn from the public record and media accounts but also from an extraordinary trove of records Williams was able to acquire only after an eight-month battle with the city and the State Fair of Texas over public records demands.

Price has been accused, among other things, of having lunch with a county bidder during a legally required “no contact” period. The bidder testified there was “absolutely nothing discussed” about the pending contract at the lunch. Price also has been accused of leaking confidential information to bidders.

The Rawlings and Humann partnership began more than a year ago with an already baked-in decision that Fair Park, a city asset, needed to be taken out of city hands and delivered to a private entity. But the question from the beginning has always been, take it over and do what? What does Fair Park need?

In April 2016, the Dallas Park and Recreation Department commissioned a study to determine those needs. But by then Humann, with the mayor’s explicit public blessing, was already campaigning to become the person to whom control of the park should be delivered.

Humann had compiled a thick binder of photographs and charts, a compendium of falling plaster and flooded basements depicting what he felt needed to be done first. In meetings with community leaders and reporters, he preached from the binder as if it were a Bible. What needed to be done was obvious: repair the park’s decaying infrastructure and buildings.

But in October of last year, Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston challenged the city to open the process to bidders other than Humann. As soon as fresh eyes came to the project and new voices were heard, Humann’s approach seemed less obvious.

Other interested parties now say they think pouring tax money into fixing up every old building in Fair Park would be a cart-before-the-horse mistake. Williams, a retired real estate mogul, is not a bidder, but he says whoever does wind up running Fair Park should hunt first for permanent rent-paying tenants to fund the park, then decide later how to allocate money based on what those prospective tenants need.

The biggest problem in deciding anything at Fair Park has always been Fair Park’s biggest tenant, the State Fair of Texas. The fair has made it plain it does not want anything done that would force it to materially change its business model or its act, as in withdrawing to a smaller footprint or giving up access to key buildings.

Last April, six months before Kingston got the bidding process opened up, the Dallas Park and Recreation Department engaged a company called AECOM to assess the needs of the park. Rather than an arms-length objective process, the AECOM study was practically run by Humann and heavily influenced by the fair.

Dallas Park and Recreation Director Willis Winters persuaded the fair, which owes an annual sum to the city anyway, to use some of that money to pay for the study. In other words, Winters set it up so that the consultant, AECOM, would draw its paychecks from the fair, the entity that was the most ticklish part of what AECOM was to study.

If that didn’t get the message across, Humann then launched a densely detailed email correspondence with the AECOM manager in charge of the study to tell him what the study needed to find. He sent Kurt Engler, an associate vice president in AECOM’s asset management division, information taken directly from Humann’s own thick three-ring notebook. When Engler sent the city a draft of his own study, he obligingly incorporated all of Humann’s conclusions in it whole-cloth.

But Engler made a mistake. In addition to the conclusions Humann had told him to present, Engler’s study also included some $400 million in additional longer-range needs of the park. Humann wrote back to Engler telling him to “strip out” all of the long-range needs, which Humann called “blue sky.”

Engler did exactly as he was told. Out came the $400 million in long-range needs, leaving the focus strictly on what Humann had told him to include.

Let’s pause here and offer Humann an olive branch — well, maybe a fig leaf. At this point in the spring of 2016, Humann can’t be accused of trying to load the dice against his competitors, because he had no competitors.

The mayor, acting on his own and without a vote of the City Council, had unilaterally deemed Walt Humann the czar of Fair Park and had decreed that he should be given the keys. In steering this and other early studies, even issuing direct orders to the consultants, Humann merely was behaving as what the mayor had deemed him to be.

But even for a czar Humann had extraordinary power. In August 2016 when a dissident caucus on the Dallas Park and Recreation Board demanded to know more — and, remember, the park board in this situation is the landlord of Fair Park — Humann sent a letter to Park Board Chairman Max Wells directing him not to allow the dissidents to ask their questions.

Wells did as Humann directed him. Only by walking out of a meeting and depriving it of a quorum were the dissidents able to force a discussion of their questions at a subsequent meeting.

To put this in perspective with the situation of Commissioner Price, the equivalent would be this: Let’s say a company is seeking a big county contract. We’ll call it Inside Bidder Inc., or IBI. The county has hired a consultant to determine the framework that will guide the county’s upcoming request for bids.

IBI is able to ship the consultant detailed information, findings and conclusions that IBI wants to see included in the consultant’s final report to the county. A draft of that report is sent to IBI. IBI doesn’t like some things it sees. IBI thinks some of the long-range needs described in the report could get in the way of things IBI wants right now. IBI demands that those things be redacted. The consultant does it.

Later, when an element on the board of commissioners gets wind and wants to ask questions, IBI sends a letter to the county judge telling him how the next county commissioners court meeting is to be run so that dissidents won’t be able to ask a bunch of questions. The judge does exactly as IBI has instructed.

The argument of the Williams brief is that Humann’s early role disqualifies him and he should not be allowed to continue as a bidder, now that Kingston has forced open the process. That argument, like the bribery allegation in the Price trial, probably is one for the lawyers.

Strictly in terms of the underlying behavior, however, Price looks like a bit of a piker when it comes to privilege, access and deals behind doors. He could learn a few things from some of these rich white boys.
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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