As Federal Grand Jury Begins Calling Witnesses in JWP Case, the Past Collides With the Present
I have been looking back at the federal corruption conviction that forced the late Al Lipscomb off the Dallas City Council in 2000. That conviction was set aside two years later by a conservative panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
We have lessons, people. Lessons.
Lipscomb, a revered black leader, was convicted of taking cash bribes from Floyd Richards, the white owner of Yellow Cab, in exchange for votes Lipscomb cast on the council that helped Richards by driving minority cab owners in Dallas out of business. So Lipscomb was convicted of screwing people of color to help a white guy.
Just as he was about to pass sentence on Lipscomb, U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall traipsed into his own mini-scandal over a story published by the Observer showing that lawyers who practiced in Kendall's court had been making anomalously generous campaign contributions to Kendall's wife's city council campaign in an affluent new-money suburb.
Kendall, viewed as aggressively pro-prosecution in his handling of the trial, suddenly found mercy in his heart and sentenced Lipscomb to 41 months house arrest instead of a stretch in the penitentiary. Not long afterward, Kendall stepped down from the federal bench -- a thing federal judges do not often do.
I say he was viewed as pro-prosecution because his handling of the trial was the basis for a conservative appeals court panel's voiding of the verdict two years later. I'll get to that.
But the first thing that leaped out at me from my reading of the clips on the Lipscomb trial was something I found in a story by one of my favorite reporters of all time, a guy I have always really admired, trusted and found quite good-looking -- myself. In it I quoted Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, before he was called as a witness for the defense in the Lipscomb trial.
Price, of course, is now the focus of a federal inquiry in which grand jury proceedings begin today. The FBI has been carting off boxes of files from the homes and offices of Price and a coterie of associates, as well as from Hillwood Development, the company owned by the wealthy, quite white Perot clan.
Photo by Sam Merten Al Lipscomb outside the courthouse during the trial of Don Hill
In 2000, Price gave me his view of Lipscomb and the charges against Lipscomb: "He is charged with corruption," Price said. "He isn't charged with taking money.
"If you're asking me if Al Lipscomb takes money, I'll say, sure, Al has always accepted money. Most civil rights leaders in this city have probably always had beneficiaries in the white business community who could not afford to be identified. That comes all the way from the era of the Underground Railroad.
"But if the question is, was Al Lipscomb corrupted by that money, then the answer is definitely no. Al Lipscomb was never corrupted."
I look at that quote now, and even though I'm usually high on my own stuff, I wonder why I didn't challenge Commissioner Price a bit more, back in the day.
Why didn't I say, "Where do you get this junk about the question? I don't think the law gives a crap if he was corrupted. They just want to know if he took the money. That's what you get sent to the pen for -- the money, in exchange for the vote. Corruption is a concept better dealt with by songwriters, like, 'I did it my way.' In court they don't care about your way. They care about their way."
But I didn't challenge Price more. A shame. Maybe some problems could have been avoided.
But here is the other larger thing that leaps out from a rereading of the Lipscomb verdict at the appeals court in New Orleans. You know how some people are always saying Al got off on a technicality?
No way. This was a major finding of judicial bias. That panel in New Orleans was known for being very conservative on civil rights issues. In spite of that, they found that Kendall had stepped all over the law and into some serious doo-doo by taking it on himself -- not at the request of either side in the trial -- to ship the Al trial to Amarillo, where the federal jury pool was all-white and very West Texas ... not that there is anything wrong with that, if any friends of mine from places like, say, Canyon or somewhere, might be reading this.
Before Kendall shipped the trial out there, all kinds of rumors were flying around town to the effect that Al could not be convicted in Dallas. Some of it had to do with his revered status in the back community. But there were other reasons.
The defense had leaked information showing that, before the feds got Floyd Richards to flip against Al, Richards passed a lie detector test with flying colors to the effect that he had never asked for votes in exchange for the money he gave Lipscomb.
Yeah, well. Al was no dummy. You didn't have to write it out.
What bothered the appeals court was that Kendall had not tested any of this before kicking the trial out of town. He had made none of the tests required by case law to see if the jury pool in Dallas was irreparably poisoned. The appeals court said he should at least have tried to voir dire a jury -- fill a courtroom with potential jurors and grill them to see if he could fill a jury with people who could be impartial. He never did.
I called a prominent defense lawyer in Amarillo right after Kendall announced he was sending the trial out there for a story about the federal jury pool, which was drawn from 18 sparsely populated counties. We spoke on background, because he said he couldn't afford for people in Amarillo know he talked to the foreign press.
We spoke for about 10 minutes -- I was explaining the case -- and suddenly he interrupted me. He said, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are you telling me this guy's black?"
I said yes.
He said, "Oh, he's toast. Toast. A black guy? He'll be found guilty by virtue of the fact that he's inside the courthouse."
He told me whenever he had difficult capital murder cases to defend in Amarillo, he always tried to fill his jury with Baptists.
I said, "Why Baptists?"
He said, "To keep the Church-of-Christers off."
And even that only worked for white guys.
Look, sending the Lipscomb trial out there was a death penalty for Lipscomb's side. If white people in Dallas think Lipscomb got off on a technicality, everybody black in town knows better, whether they admired Lipscomb or not, and there were plenty who did not. This is about the federal justice system. It can have a bad name in black Dallas, and there are reasons. The Lipscomb trial is only one of them.
In my re-readings, I came across this interesting summary of Lipscomb's conviction by the Amarillo jury. This was from the late Tony Garrett, a political consultant and friend of Al who had followed the trial very closely. I wasn't allowed to name Tony at the time, but I can out him now because he is no longer with us, and I am relatively though not totally confident that he can't get to me.
Tony said of the outcome in Amarillo: "They railroaded a guilty man!"
The more recent trial and conviction of Dallas City Councilman Don Hill may have cut the other way. A lot of people, black and white, seemed to have been persuaded by the government's case against Hill, and anyway there was no obvious herky-jerky going on like sending the trial to Australia.
I am thinking of the rally at St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church over the weekend and of Gromer Jeffers's pay-waller column in The Dallas Morning News today, in which he writes about the deep misgivings of the black community as it confronts another federal prosecution of a black elected officials, this one the city's most revered.
There are reasons -- reasons and reasons. We have a history. Some good. Some very bad. I'm not making excuses for anybody. I'm just saying that everybody needs to go into this chapter with Price, which will be our most difficult to date, with just a tiny little bit of understanding for everybody else.
(In anticipation of possible comments to follow, I would like to stipulate to the following facts in advance: 1) I love white guilt. 2) I am a libtard. 3) I have never produced a proper birth certificate showing I was born in this country. 4) I agree that crazy people high on meth should be allowed to buy small shoulder-fired nuclear weapons without signing anything. What else you got?)