Dallas mayoral candidates want to curb corruption, but is it possible?

The candidates for Dallas mayor say they want to kick the crooks out of City Hall.

History shows that’s a tough task.

For more than two decades, Dallas has been smeared by public corruption scandals that have shaken confidence in City Hall. The latest drama is this month’s sentencing of former mayor pro tem Dwaine Caraway on bribery charges. That followed the March bribery plea deal reached by former City Council member Carolyn Davis.

Nearly every Dallas mayor since 1995 has presided during a public corruption scandal or trial.

"It is not at all unusual in big cities to have elected officials and county officers swept up in that kind of stuff," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. "Some candidates with sufficient contact with government will be familiar with this issue."

In the aftermath of the Caraway and Davis scandals, the major candidates for mayor have developed plans to curb public corruption at City Hall. The proposals range from putting more bite in city ethics laws, developing state legislation that overhauls low-income housing programs and even adding years to council terms. Most candidates are proposing more transparency in campaign finance and lobbying.

Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor and U.S. trade representative under President Barack Obama, said his administration created the first ethics commission and campaign finance reporting system. His successor, Laura Miller, tightened the city’s ethics policies.

But the corruption didn’t stop with either of them.

"Sadly, the biggest thing is people need to get out and vote," Kirk said. "We need people to run for office for the right reasons and greater participation in the political process."

The problems at Dallas City Hall, at least what’s publicized, date to the 1990s.

History of Dallas City Hall corruption

Paul Fielding was the first sitting Dallas council member to be indicted on public corruption charges. He was caught on tape talking to council member Al Lipscomb about forming a "minority front" company that could seek business and payments from corporations and threaten to picket them for being unfair to blacks if they did not succumb. He resigned and pleaded guilty in 1997, spending 41 months in prison.

Lipscomb, a civil rights icon, resigned from the Dallas City Council in scandal after a federal jury found him guilty of 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. He was accused of taking payments from the Yellow Cab Company in exchange for voting in the company’s favor. That conviction was overturned after an appellate court ruled the trial should not have been moved to Amarillo, and it was never retried.

A political protégé of Lipscomb, James Fantroy, attracted the FBI’s attention in 2004 when he attempted to solicit a bribe from developer James R. "Bill" Fisher. But the Dallas City Council member wasn’t charged with bribery. Instead, he was convicted in 2008 of embezzling $21,000 from Paul Quinn College. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison and 180 days of home confinement. Fantroy died in 2008.

In 2009, former Dallas mayor pro tem Don Hill was convicted for his role in a racket that involved a low-income housing developer, a city commissioner and other allies. He was sentenced to 18 years for bribery and was to be released in December 2025 due to good conduct. Hill died in May 2017 after complications from prostate cancer.

In March, Carolyn Davis, the former council member who represented the South Dallas/Fair Park area, pleaded guilty to taking bribes from a real estate developer, Ruel Hamilton, while she was chairwoman of the council’s Housing Committee.

Dwaine Caraway, who once served as acting mayor, was sentenced to 56 months in prison this month for his part in a corruption case that took down an agency responsible for the transportation and safety of schoolchildren.

Dwaine Caraway leaves the Earle Cabell Federal Building on Commerce Street in downtown Dallas on April 5, 2019, after being sentenced to 56 months in a federal corruption case. Caraway had resigned after pleading guilty to accepting $450,000 in bribes and kickbacks in the Dallas County Schools bus scandal.

Then there was the biggest federal corruption probe in Dallas history: the 2009 case of former mayor pro tem Don Hill, which many observers thought would deter potential bribe-takers from serving on the council.

This year’s Davis and Caraway cases show that it didn’t.

The candidates’ plans

"Elected officials and staff at the City of Dallas work hard every day to earn the public’s trust," council member Scott Griggs states on his campaign website. "The recent news of the betrayal of this trust is unforgivable and indicative that we must have a plan in place to prevent such corruption."

Griggs says he would fix the low-income housing tax credit loophole, given that those projects have been the center of several scandals. The council member would also ban contact between developers and the council until proposed projects are reviewed and scored by city staff, tighten campaign disclosure rules to "follow the money," and record closed council meetings on video.

Eric Johnson, candidate for Dallas mayor, answers a question during a forum at Edna Rowe Elementary School in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2019.

One candidate is using his perch in the Legislature to make immediate change. State Rep. Eric Johnson has filed a bill that would take all elected officials out of the process for affordable housing projects.

Currently, state representatives can write letters in support of projects, which would give them a better score on the local level. Former state Rep. Terri Hodge was convicted of tax evasion in 2010, part of a plea deal she made after being charged with bribery for accepting reduced rent and a rug from developer Brian Potashnik. Hodge wrote a letter supporting the developer’s Dallas project.

Johnson replaced Hodge in the Legislature.

"When you have the situation where an elected official is the make-or-break point in a scoring process where millions of dollars of tax credit are on the line, it’s just an inevitable consequence," Johnson said. "It’s something that we need to address head-on, and we are the only people who can fix it."

Dallas developer Mike Ablon has released the most extensive ethics reform plan, a nearly 50-point document that would ask Dallas voters to change the city charter by scrapping the current ethics commission and creating an independent ombudsman and a new, autonomous ethics board.

There would be tougher penalties for ethics violations and more ways for citizens to report potential scandals, including a hotline.

"We have an ethics crisis at City Hall, and half-hearted changes are not enough," Ablon said. "We need to create a new culture of integrity at City Hall where these disgraces are rare exceptions, starting with comprehensive ethics reforms that include reducing the role of high-paid lobbyists and require more transparent disclosures of their relationships with elected city leaders."

Through his campaign manager, Ablon said he has only one project remaining in the city of Dallas and would recuse himself from votes involving his business. He said he doesn’t own any developments in the city outside of the project that’s underway.

Dallas businessman Albert Black Jr. says restoring public confidence in City Hall is his top issue.

"There are certain circumstances in our city where the lack of anger among public officials makes it atrocious," Black said. "Should’t we be outraged about the public corruption in Dallas, Texas, or should we just politely say this is another dark day for Dallas, Texas, and wait on the next episode?"

Black said the council should appoint people to boards and commission without conflicts of interest and make sure those appointees can do the job. But he said strong leadership can blunt public corruption.

"I don’t believe you can sit around the council during all these investigations and say you knew nothing about it," Black said.

Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis has a four-point plan that includes hiring an outside firm to evaluate the city’s ethics code, improve the campaign contribution reporting process and speed up the open-records request process to make it easier for journalists to hold city government leaders accountable.

"Right now it’s the fox guarding the hen house," Solis said.

From left: Dallas mayoral candidates Mike Ablon, Lynn McBee, Miguel Solis, Jason Villalba, Regina Montoya, Scott Griggs and Albert Black at the conclusion of the Engage Dallas 2019 mayoral candidates forum hosted by the Mayor’s Star Council at the Music Hall at Fair Park on March 8, 2019.

Education nonprofit CEO Lynn McBee is pushing a five-point ethics reform plan.

"We need to create a culture of honesty," she said Friday.

Her plan would restrict campaign donations from developers who are doing business with the city, make it easier to investigate potential abuses and require developers to report their meetings that are related to city business. McBee also would restrict campaign donations from children.

The minor children of Dallas lawyer James Stanton gave money to the campaign accounts of council members Philip Kingston, Omar Narvaez and Griggs. In total, the children gave $11,000 to the three politicians. Griggs and Narvaez returned the donations.

Former state Rep. Jason Villalba, who’s running for mayor, also wants to toughen campaign finance laws, among other ethical considerations.

"There’s no accountability for violations of even the most basic rules and regulations," he said.

The Dallas lawyer said developers should face tougher sanctions for bribing or trying to game the system, including lifetime bans from doing business with Dallas. He added that the mayor and council members shouldn’t simply defer to their colleagues about projects in their districts. The single-member system of government in Dallas has historically encouraged council members to become nearly the absolute voice on what happens in their districts.

"If you’re going to buy off your City Council member, you don’t have to buy 15," Villalba said. "You buy one."

Dallas lawyer Regina Montoya has proposed shining the light on meetings between council members and people doing business with the city, as well as making public access to information easier, putting "teeth" into ethics policies and, perhaps, lengthening the terms of council members from two years to four.

"This is a more radical step, but longer terms mean council members are less frequently reliant on big donors and lobbyists who can wield undue influence," Montoya said.

Will it stop crooks?

Analysts applaud the candidates’ plans but concede it’s hard to stop a crook from being a crook.

Jillson points out that ethics have been a hot topic at the state and local levels for years.

"You can declare it to be of primary concern, but if you don’t put your shoulder to the wheel, nothing will happen," Jillson said.

Dallas political analyst Robert Ashley, host of a radio talk show on KHVN-AM (970), said ethics reform is fine, but voters need to ask more questions about the character of candidates.

"You’ve got to have people with integrity, but unfortunately it can be a roll of the dice," Ashley said. "Maybe we all should focus on electing a new breed of candidate."

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