'Pay to play' at center of Dallas corruption trial

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by By BRETT SHIPP / WFAA-TV

wfaa.com

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 5:54 PM

News 8 Investigates

Brett Shipp reports

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DALLAS - As the Dallas City Hall corruption trial enters its ninth week, some observers say more is at stake than just the fate of a former City Council member and his associates.

The questions go beyond guilt and innocence and extend to the sensitive topic of how business and politics are conducted in the southern sector of the city. Some call it "pay to play." Insiders say it's the elephant in the room that has rarely - if ever - been acknowledged by city leaders.

At issue are questionable business practices long ignored and perhaps hidden from the general public. And at the core of the trial, this question: Were former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill and his associates breaking the law, or merely conducting business as usual in the southern sector of the city?

The scandal was made public when the FBI swept down on Dallas City Hall four summers ago, sending shock waves through the political community.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill was suddenly under a cloud of scrutiny and charged with accepting bribes in exchange for his vote. He told the public he was innocent.

Now - four years later - Hill's trial has raised the specter of ethical impropriety involving business and politics in the southern sector of the city.

Hill's attorney Ray Jackson told jurors one day in trial, "The way business is done in South Dallas is in some people's minds a little bit different from the way it's done in North Dallas."

In fact, Jackson's assertions have become a central theme in the trial as the defense attorney tries to convince jurors that his client's side dealings with developers and contractors is not illegal or unusual.

"In South Dallas, you are dealing with minority Council people, so you are having to appease the council people and the people in their districts," Jackson said. "You don't have that same concern in North Dallas."

Reginald Gates, president of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, said Hill's attorney is unfairly portraying the entire southern sector as unscrupulous and unethical.

"It's offensive to hear someone say that that is, in fact, what you have to do," Gates said. "No - in fact, you have to have good business practices that are accepted, ethical, moral, like you would anywhere else - and that's the expectation we should all have."

But not everyone agrees.

Among those who say they have personally been harassed is white businessman Ralph Isenberg. "Anybody who has done business for any length of time in the southern sector knows the game, and it's a sad game," he said. "And there are those of us that don't play."

Isenberg has successfully managed property in Oak Cliff for 20 years and is a former Dallas City Park and Planning and Zoning commissioner. He said he's been approached many times by some insisting that he "pay to play" in the southern sector.

"My answer has always been real simple: 'Go to hell; you're not going to get money from me,'" Isenberg said.

Despite the pressures, Isenberg says he has prospered and is not alone.

Inland Port developer Richard Allen said he was encouraged to pay specific African-American consultants if he wanted his multi-million dollar investment to succeed in southern Dallas County.

"I've done business for 40 years in 50 cities and never seen anything like it," Allen told News 8, adding that he, too, refused to bow to the pressure.

But when housing developer Brian Potashnik began pursuing projects in southern Dallas, he said he did, in fact, "pay to play."

Potashnik, a central figure in the City Hall corruption scandal, has pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Hill and to his Zoning Commissioner, D'Angelo Lee. Potashnik said he funneled the payoffs through Hill's girlfriend, Sheila Farrington, whom he hired as a consultant. Potashnik testified in court that he paid Farrington $14,000 a month to do little more than launder his bribe money.

Farrington, who is also charged with extortion, insists she was a real consultant doing real work, even though Potashnik was her first client.

But on her own contract with Potashnik, Farrington's name is misspelled in type with her correctly spelled signature just above it. And when Farrington opened her business bank account, she listed her profession as "consulating."

Another way Potashnik and others secured support in the southern sector was through donations to churches. Potashnik testified he gave $50,000 to a minister whose church was near one of his prospective housing developments in southeast Dallas.

But that transaction is not under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.

In 2007, mayoral candidate Tom Leppert listed two payments to southern sector churches as a campaign expense.

Betty Culbreath has served on civic boards and commissions in Dallas for years. She says while she doesn't believe the pay-to-play theory, she does believe questionable business is being conducted in all sectors of the city.

"It's almost like it's a can of worms and they are all in it together," Culbreath said. "Everybody who's anybody is in this together making money off of everything, this influence and this politics. It makes me very, very uncomfortable."

It's worth noting that none of the major political office holders nor their consultants would speak with News 8 on the record for this report. Most would not even return our phone calls.

This is hyper-sensitive subject matter made manifest in one politically-charged corruption trial that becomes more revealing by the day.

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