DALLAS – County Commissioner John Wiley Price has been found not guilty of corruption after a seven-week trial.
On Friday, on the eighth day of deliberations, the 12-member jury found that Price was not guilty of bribery and six counts of mail fraud. The jury, which included three African Americans, was hung when it came to the four counts of tax fraud.
Count 1: Bribery— WFAA-TV (@wfaachannel8) April 28, 2017
Counts 2-7: Mail fraud
Count 8: Conspiracy to defraud IRS
Counts 9-11: Tax fraud
Price's top assistant, Dapheny Fain, was also found not guilty on a tax charge and lying to the FBI.
“The commissioner and Ms. Fain are going back to work,” Price’s lawyer, Shirley Baccus-Lobel, said in a scrum of reporters leaving the courtroom. “Hallelujah, citizens they’re back and they’re doing what they’ve been doing every day.
“We’re very -- of course -- pleased, but expected, the verdict of the jury.”
Price did not make any comments immediately after the trial. Fain said simply, "I'm blessed."
Paul Coggins, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, told WFAA it was a difficult case against Price from the beginning.
"I thought that this would be a tough case, as people pointed out it was not the classic bribery case with cash under the table," Coggins said. "It was a circumstantial case. The jury wasn’t going to see a suitcase full of cash, nor audio or video tapes."
WFAA reached out to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who said he didn't have any comment about the trial or decision Friday morning.
Prosecutors will decide in the coming weeks whether to re-try Price on the four tax counts on which jurors could not agree. Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn has given the government a month to let her know.
U.S. Attorney John Parker released a statement Friday on the verdict:
"First, I want to thank the dedicated women and men of the jury for their extraordinary service during this long and difficult process," he said. "I will be convening with the prosecution team over the next several days regarding where we go from here, consistent with the court’s timeline."
Prosecutors must also decide whether to continue to pursue charges against Price's longtime political consultant Kathy Nealy. She is accused of funneling bribes to Price, but because of questions over an immunity agreement with prosecutors for her years of cooperation, Judge Lynn earlier this year ordered that she get a separate trial. With Price's acquittal on the bribery conspiracy, it's unclear if they will follow through on Nealy's prosecution.
Coggins said the decision whether to re-try Price could depend on feedback from jurors.
"A lot of it will turn on if they (federal prosecutors) know how the jury split," Coggins said. "If it was 10-2 for a conviction, that’s one thing. But if is 10-2 for an acquittal, that’s another -- and frankly, if it is a close call, that should tell the prosecutors that there was a substantial group of jurors that did not buy into the case."
Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor, said Friday's verdict was an enormous loss for the U.S. attorney's office.
"This really calls for a complete reassessment of how the U.S. attorney’s office investigates, evaluates and prosecutes cases," Melsheimer said. "This is not just a loss, it’s an embarrassment.”
Jurors began deliberating last Wednesday morning on the case against Price and Fain. They were deadlocked as of April 25, and the judge instructed them to return to continue deliberations.
Over the past seven weeks, prosecution witnesses have told jurors that Price accepted more than $1 million in bribes in the form of cash, cars, and real estate over about a decade from companies seeking lucrative county contracts. In exchange, prosecutors say, Price voted in their favor and then hid the money from the IRS.
The main conduit of the alleged bribes, according to prosecutors, was Nealy, who has pleaded not guilty. Fain was also accused of helping Price hide money.
Defense attorneys said the commissioner took no bribes, and any money he received from Nealy or Fain consisted of innocent loan repayments.
Price could have faced decades in prison if found guilty. But Judge Lynn promised to throw out any convictions on the mail fraud counts citing lack of evidence. Those counts amount to 20 years in prison, and without them, Price looked at a maximum of 13 years if convicted.
Fain faced a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The corruption investigation dates to 2005 when federal investigators first began looking at the commissioner’s dealings. Six years ago, the FBI raided his home and county office. He wasn't indicted until 2014.
Price, Dallas County’s longest-serving commissioner and the first African American, did not testify in his own trial. If he had, he would have been subject to days of blistering cross examination by prosecutors. Instead, he let his lawyers argue for him. It paid off.
So what has the Price case cost taxpayers so far? We don't know the total cost of the years of salaries of the prosecutors, FBI agents and support staff, but we do know some things.
+ To date, taxpayers have paid the lawyers for Price and Fain about $99,000, with an additional $74,600 approved and in the process of being paid.
+ Jurors (12 plus alternates) were paid in total approximately $52,800 (including parking, mileage and $40 a day each, up to 10 days of service, and $50 a day each thereafter).
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