Corruption probe spurs ethics questions at Dallas City Hall

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on August 29, 2011 at 10:16 PM

Updated Monday, Aug 29 at 11:01 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS — There are new questions about one of the central figures named in a federal corruption probe in Dallas.

News 8 has learned that political consultant and businessman Willis Johnson has been wearing two hats at the same time while doing business with the City of Dallas.

Johnson wears many hats in Dallas, including telecommunications specialist; marketing guru; City Hall lobbyist; and political consultant to the last two mayors.

Now, in the face of a federal investigation, current Mayor Mike Rawlings is calling for greater accountability when it comes to doing business at City Hall.

"I think it's important that the citizens believe that how we do business is on the up-and-up," Rawlings said. "More information is better, and we have got to discuss that at City Hall — how to do that."

Mayor Rawlings has said that since before he took office this summer in the wake of a corruption scandal in which a Dallas City Council member, his wife, and a planning commissioner went to prison.

Rawlings wants sweeping reforms and greater transparency when it comes to lobbying at City Hall.

"I don't want to go about trying to solve one problem," the mayor said. "I want to go about it in a whole-cloth fashion and make sure we take care of all the issues at once."

But those changes could affect the way one of Rawlings' own political consultants, Willis Johnson, does business.

According to city records, Johnson is a registered lobbyist for 11 businesses, including some of the biggest contractors for the city, including Motorola and H.J. Russell, one of builders of the new convention center hotel.

City ethics rules require lobbyists to first register, then disclose their relationship with the company they are lobbying for.

Much of the information on Johnson's disclosure forms are left blank, but four of those forms stand out — his lobbying for a ACS, Alpha Business Images, H.J. Russell and Motorola.

Not only Does Johnson lobby for those companies, he has a special interest in them.

Johnson is a former subcontractor with ACS, earning, according to city records, $2.7 million.

Alpha Business Images, which paid Johnson $23,000, was owned at the time by Johnson's future wife.

Johnson is also a subcontractor for H.J. Russell, making $170,000 with that company. In addition, he is a subcontractor for Motorola, earning an estimated $200,000.

SMU political science professor Cal Jillson says while the arrangements may not violate city rules, it certainly fosters government mistrust.

"When you get a story and you begin pulling the strings and it starts to unravel and you find people who are involved in campaigns and then involved in lobbying and then involved in contracts, people these days say, 'That's what I thought; that's what I assumed what was going on,'" Jillson said.

What's more, the Justice Department has informed the City of Dallas that Johnson's contract with the hotel construction firm is a matter connected to the public corruption investigation of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

The Justice Department made a similar declaration when News 8 requested contracts between Willis Johnson and Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Neither Price nor Johnson has been accused of committing a crime.

Mayor Rawlings says he is disturbed by any allegations of potential corruption in the city. He says it is one of the reasons he's calling for ethics reforms, and for Council members to become less involved in the day-to-day operations at City Hall.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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