Before I interviewed Tom Leppert, I wanted to research several controversies that came up during his term as Mayor of Dallas. Unfortunately, because of The Dallas Morning News paywall (and, as you can read below, possible DMN involvement in some of those controversies), information about them was hard to come by.
Lacking a good Dallas political connection to pump for information, I ended up reaching out to Jim Schutze, one of the writers for the Dallas Observer‘s Unfair Park section on local Dallas politics. Schutze had
foolishly generously offered to dish the dirt on Leppert’s term as mayor, and when I called him up I was evidently the first person who had taken him up on the offer. I ended up talking to Schutze on the phone for over an hour.
I’ve edited the notes from that phone call into the semi-coherent form found below, and the material in block-quotes represents the gist of what I was able to transcribe from Schutze’s description (I can only type so fast, so word-by-word transcription of a one-hour phone call in real time is quite beyond me). I’ve also included some links to columns where he covers some of the issues we discussed.
I should point out that neither The Observer (which is the Dallas equivalent of The Austin Chronicle, but not as sad) nor Schutze could be considered conservative (though Schutze says that a quarter-century of observing local politics firsthand has “beaten the bleeding liberal” out of him). As such, everything said below should be taken with a grain (or several grains) of salt, and adjusted as needed for bias. However, while Schutze’s version of events should not be treated as gospel, all of the below seem to be real controversies that occurred during Leppert’s term as mayor, and I believe all should be looked at and investigated more thoroughly than they have been heretofore.
I conducted the interview with Leppert on September 19, and I really meant to have all this up considerably earlier, ideally just a week or two after that interview, but events intervened. I’ve been both busy (including a new job) and lazy, and this material needed considerable editing, which meant it got put on the back-burner while I grappled with the endless press of current events.
Trinity Toll Road Controversy
Angela Hunt (East Dallas progressive City Council member) put up a referendum on wonk infrastructure issues. Leppert mischaracterized it as an attempt to kill the toll road, but it was really a debate over where to put it: outside the flood plain or (as Leppert wanted) inside the flood plain. The 1998 election to authorize the bonds for the original project didn’t say “highway,” it said “park road” on top of the levee, not a highway. When it became a freeway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said you couldn’t build one on the levees, because it was unstable and too big a risk. Plan B was to build the highway between the levees. None of the numbers for this road work, because the road is way too expensive for the amount of traffic to be carried.
Angela Hunt referendum said the road would flood, and the plan would diminish the carrying capacity of the floodway and increase flood risk. Five rightaways were under consideration, only one in the flood plain. A levee collapse would be worse than Katrina.
In 2007, Leppert was anointed by the business leadership to defeat the Hunt referendum as Job One. Leppert could sell any board of directors on anything. He was a developer in Hawaii. He was the one who moved to Dallas, Turner Construction didn’t. He wasn’t CEO for long, and I [Schutze] don’t know why he left.
Carol Reed (of a consulting company now called The Reeds) lead the campaign to defeat the referendum. Leppert said the Corps of Engineers had signed off. But the Corps said: “We haven’t signed off on anything.” The North Texas Toll Road Authority told reporter Michael Lindberger they hadn’t signed off on the money. The Dallas Morning News sat on the story; the owners are landholding families in favor of the road.
The referendum was narrowly defeated, meaning the road stayed between the levees.
The estimated $400 million turned out to be $1.4 billion (2007), $1 billion over budget, now over $2 billion. (Leppert’s dodge: “I am very comfortable with their [the Corps’] position.”)
Leppert said there were fewer issues with a toll road than there actually were, and promised numerous recreational facilities would be built as well. Angela Hunt said that “Leppert’s not a liar, he’s a salesman, and he believes his pitch.”
After Katrina, the Corps of Engineers reexamined levees and said they were useless even in a hundred year flood.
Urban Crime statistics have been dropping nationally. When Leppert came into office in 2007, Dallas had the highest crime overall per capita for cities of over a million people. Leppert vowed to change that. Leppert called in Police Chief David Kunkle (a tough, respected chief) and said he wanted the crime numbers down. DPD changed the way it reported crime statistics to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Statistics. Dallas Morning News did a terrific series of investigative news on the process. For burglary, an incident would no longer be counted unless something was stolen. Most other cities disagreed with the Dallas redefinition and called it a “Lawyering of the language.” As soon as they put in the new guidelines, crime rates dropped, and Dallas was no longer number one.
Another Leppert crime controversy was the creation of SAFE (Support Abatement Forfeiture and Enforcement) teams: A team of cops, code inspectors, health department inspectors, etc. would “wallpaper” cheap apartment complexes with code violations in order to seize properties. The Property Owners Association got involved, since property rights were being trampled, and in some cases apartment buildings were turned over to connected city council friends.
The City-Funded Hotel
Built by the city, owned by the city, funded by bonds, unless there’s enough revenue. Trammel Crow was against it and said the Dallas hotel market was flooded. Leppert pushed it forward anyway.
Lynn Flint Shaw and Willis Johnson
What role did Lynn Flint Shaw and Willis Johnson play in Leppert’s campaign and administration? And what role did they have in steering/approving minority business contracts with City Hall and/or DART?
Shaw was a black woman who was well liked by sophisticated white arts people, a liaison between rich white Republicans and poor blacks. That vote has been important in pushing big Business Establishment initiatives (sports stadiums, etc.). Shaw was chair of Leppert’s fundraising committee.
As soon as he was elected, she sent an email to all business contacts to go through Willis Johnson (then a radio DJ). The email said that all requests for minority contracts with the city should go through Shaw, Johnson and a small cabal of black leaders who called themselves the “Inner Circle.” Willis Johnson is at the center of an FBI investigation as a major minority contractor and lobbyist. He had a regular weekly meeting with Leppert when he was mayor.
Shaw had no official roll in City Hall, and an unpaid role at DART.
Rufus and Lynn Flint Shaw’s Murder/Suicide
Lynn Flint Shaw and her husband, columnist Rufus Shaw, were found dead of an apparent murder/suicide on March 8, 2008.
Shaw was about to be indicted on a fraud charge that had nothing to do with politics, on a debt/signature forging issue. Circumstances of her death are mysterious. She had started to run for the council, then lived on the campaign funds, and made up phony expenses. Police determined there was nothing there to investigate. She was still Leppert’s campaign chair at the time of her death.
The Inland Port
Richard Allen in California buys up 5,000 acres, says he’ll create an “inland port,” a transshipping hub in south Dallas that will create 65,000 jobs. This would compete with a Ross Perot initiative in Ft. Worth. (Perot was a big Leppert backer; Leppert had his mayoral victory party at Ross Perot, Jr.’s pad). Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, longest tenured and most powerful among Dallas’ black politicians, stopped the project. He said there needed to be more planning, and Leppert backed him up. Allen had been planning for six years. Price sent cronies (the SALT group), including Willis Johnson, demanding $1 million to be paid to them, and 15% cut of profits. It was a classic shakedown. Allen refused, they blocked the project, and now Allen is in bankruptcy. (Note: The FBI raided the offices of John Wiley Price on June 27, 2011.)
Despite all the foregoing, Schutze wasn’t universally negative on Leppert. He said Leppert’s friends thought he was a good guy, more of a chamber of commerce guy than a politician, and would would probably be naturally somewhat shy and retiring if he weren’t in politics.
As soon as this goes up, I’ll send a query to the Leppert campaign to let them respond, and I’ll post their reply (if any) unedited here.