Witness List for Price Trial Has Some Heavy-Hitters on Both Sides

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is slated to go on trial next month on federal corruption charges.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is slated to go on trial next month on federal corruption charges.
Alex Scott
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The federal corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, still scheduled to begin next month, will offer a two-month cavalcade of the city’s power elite, according to documents released Thursday by both the prosecution and the defense, but the documents disagree about which side the power elite will come down on.

A witness list filed by the government includes top corporate and civic names, all of whom the government must believe will help federal prosecutors win a conviction of the city’s most influential black officeholder on bribery and tax charges.

Topping the list in terms of local power and glory is H. Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Perot Companies and Hillwood Development. Close behind are former County Judge Jim Foster, current County Judge Clay Jenkins, County Commissioner Elba Garcia, former County Judge and current University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson, former County Judge Margaret Keliher, former County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, Methodist Health System board chairman Levi Davis and Dallas school Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

Those are all names on the government’s list as prosecution witnesses. But some of the big ones on that list also show up as defense witnesses on lists presented by Price’s lawyers.

Price wants to call Perot, for example, who will testify, according to Price’s lawyers, that, “his company did not engage Kathy Nealy to bribe Commissioner Price and did not bribe Commissioner Price or anyone else.”

Nealy, who is Price’s political consultant, is charged with taking part in a decades-long shakedown operation to squeeze bribes from companies seeking to do business with or gain favors from the county. Her case was pulled out of the Price trial earlier this month for a separate trial later due to an argument over an immunity issue.

One thing is clear from the documents filed by both sides last week: The so-called inland port issue will be front and center in the upcoming trials, and that issue more than any of the other matters in which the defendants are charged is what will bring the drama.

The inland port is a shipping and warehousing development in Price’s district. The accusation against Price is that he sabotaged the project as a favor to Perot, whose family controls a competing facility in Fort Worth. In last week’s filings, the government listed dozens of emails and other communications showing that Nealy was heavily involved as Price’s go-between with Hillwood in the inland port matter.

Price’s witness list includes a host of heavy hitters in local business and politics whose testimony, according to Price’s lawyers, will paint him as an honest broker and “flamboyant” champion of the interests of the Dallas black community. Among those names are retired real estate mogul J. McDonald “Don” Williams, Levi Davis (also on the prosecution list), former Dallas City Council member Vonciel Hill, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown and current Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell.

Also on Price’s list is Tom Dunning, who is a prominent establishment civic leader, former chairman of the private Dallas Citizens Council and one-time mayoral candidate. Price’s lawyers say Dunning will testify to the “defendant’s advocacy of economic opportunity for minorities, including affirmative action and minority set asides, including the Dallas historical context,” and also to “defendant Price’s efforts and performance as a public official in Dallas.”

A good deal of attention will be paid by the defense to Price’s reputation for what the defense calls his “flamboyance,” almost certainly intended here in the political sense. Price’s lawyers want to call Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson as an expert to explain flamboyance and its uses in American politics.

The defense also wants to call John Fullinwider, whom the Dallas Observer named Best Community Organizer in 2016. According to Price’s lawyers, Fullinwider will testify to “Dallas civil rights history and concomitant necessity to address economic deprivation aggressively, defendant Price’s efforts on behalf of minority set asides and affirmative action, reasons for hostility toward Commissioner Price, defendant Price’s independence, defendant Price’s efforts and achievements on behalf of Dallas, defendant Price’s performance as a public official.”

The fact that the two sides want to call these witnesses doesn’t mean the judge will allow all of them to take the stand. Each will have to be qualified and accepted into court by the judge on a one-by-one basis. But the names and justifications for calling them expose broad outlines of a contest that will cut to the city’s soul.

The defense will have no problem establishing Price’s history as a flamboyant champion of the southern Dallas black community, because those chapters are already written in history. Nor will it have a hard time demonstrating that Price has always claimed a particular interest in the economic development of southern Dallas.

But the government clearly intends to argue that it’s that personal history and that claim to be the main champion of southern Dallas economic development that make the crimes of which he is accused all the more heinous. That twist is what will raise the inland port question into sharp focus.

Price, Nealy and Price’s administrative assistant Dapheny Fain are accused of conspiring to shakedown several companies seeking business with the county, most of them in the information technology area, but the inland port matter rises above the others as an accusation of direct betrayal.

The developers of the inland port claimed it would produce over 30,000 new well-paid jobs in southern Dallas in the port itself and an equal number of new jobs in ancillary and support businesses. The public record and his own statements confirm that Price delayed key infrastructure projects and stalled certain important permits. Eventually the developer wound up in personal and business bankruptcy, and the project now is a shadow of what was originally envisaged.
But the city’s only daily newspaper, the mayor at the time and influential members of the business community sided with Price, not the developer, who was an out-of-towner whose project the Perot family had called a “direct threat” to their own holdings in Fort Worth. At the same time, Price derided the promise of jobs by saying that manual labor was identified with slavery and that “during slavery, everybody had a job.”

If all or even most of the witnesses on these lists wind up on the stand and if they are allowed to speak to the issues the lawyers seem to want them to address, then the city will hear a fascinating discussion of how things are done in Dallas. For example, one witness, Jon Edmonds, was part of a group called “The Salt Group,” accused by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of trying to get inland port developer Richard Allen to pay them to get Price off his back. According to the defense witness list, Edmonds will testify to “the conduct of Richard Allen.”

That should be interesting. Also interesting: Allen himself is not on either list.

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