Willis Johnson and JWP: Friends With Benefits, But Can the Feds Prove the Benefits Bogus?
It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that string. Now everybody's talking about Willis Johnson. But nobody's got the connection.
Last week Brett Shipp of Channel 8 reported on contracts between the county and Southern Dallas political consultant Willis Johnson, and over the weekend The Dallas Morning News published several stories about Johnson's contracts with other local public entities.
They were all good stories -- well reported, interesting, good reads. If the stories were missing one thing, it's the same thing I've been missing as well in my own writings on the saga of Mr. Johnson: the smoking gun.
Johnson is a close associate of embattled Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is the target of an ongoing federal corruption probe. Almost all of the contracts he has gained with government agencies have fallen under the rubric of minority participation "fair-share" agreements designed to help create strong minority-owned companies.
I will spare you the re-tread on all of the reporting we have done at the Observer over the last several years about Johnson and the way he gained his extraordinary access to money and power. As far as I know, there's a two-word summary.
The existence of minority fair-share agreements in the first place is political. The fair-share process itself is political. A smart contractor with his or her ear to the ground knows which minority subcontracting consultant to hire. That consultant invariably tells the contractor to bring in Willis Johnson.
What we have proved thus far is that Willis Johnson is a savvy businessman.
Why does Willis Johnson get to pluck all the plums? For one, he helps get establishment mayors elected. He worked for former mayor Tom Leppert. He worked for the current mayor, Mike Rawlings. You help get a mayor elected, the mayor looks out for you.
Forget all that crap people talk in Dallas about how Dallas isn't like the ward-heeling cities of the Northeast. Dallas is exactly like the ward-heeling cities of the Northeast. All cities are the same in that regard. It's not what you know, it's whom you schmooze. Schmooze pays.
And generally speaking, the public sector is less schmooze-centric than private business. Which brings us to the catch in the whole Willis Johnson story.
If the only thing the FBI comes up with is that Willis Johnson has one sweet deal in Dallas -- even a whole lot of sweet deals in Dallas -- then it will have junk, because it's not against the law to have a sweet deal.
You may think it stinks. I think so. Over the years I've listened to all the honest hopeful minority contractors in Dallas, who have all been frozen out of the Willis Johnson "inner circle" deal.
But it's also just business. Billy Ravkind, Price's lawyer, tells me he hopes he'll have some rich businessmen on the jury if Price comes to trial, because his jury studies in the past have told him that business people don't look on schmoozing as a bad thing. They look on it as the way of the world.
Johnson has some things going for him. He has a reputation as a guy who does the work. Carol Reed, one of the city's top Republican political consultants, told me she prefers to work with Johnson because he always does what he says he's going to do, and he brings back invoices when she asks for them. She told me about another well-known political consultant in Southern Dallas too. Whenever Reed asks that person for an invoice, the person calls her a racist.
So far, nobody has seen a smoking gun on Johnson. Clearly, if the FBI has come up with evidence of a money-trail, a string leading directly from Johnson to Price, that gun will smoke. But up to this point, all we know about Willis Johnson is that he is one successful son-of-a-gun. And that ain't against the law.