John Wiley Price finally gets his day in court

After more than five years of waiting, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price's corruption trial is finally here. Can North Texas' most powerful politician beat the government?

DALLAS – More than five years after the FBI went public with its investigation of John Wiley Price, the controversial and flamboyant Dallas County commissioner and North Texas political icon will finally get his day in court.

Jury selection begins Tuesday in the his long-anticipated public corruption trial.

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For all the latest trial news, check our special section here.

Key players: Price, top; Dapheny Fain, bottom left; Kathy Nealy, bottom right. All have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say Price took more than $900,000 in cash, cars and land as bribe payments in exchange for helping technology companies get lucrative Dallas County contracts from 2001 to 2011. He was allegedly aided by his longtime county assistant, Dapheny Fain, and the once-powerful political consultant Kathy Nealy.

Nealy will be tried separately after her lawyers raised questions about whether she is immune from prosecution because of her extensive cooperation with prosecutors over the years.

Price, Fain and Nealy all maintain their innocence. All are represented by attorneys who are being reimbursed by taxpayers.

Two others who have pleaded guilty to charges in the investigation are expected to testify for the government.

Christian Campbell, right, and his attorney leaving court.

Christian Campbell pleaded guilty in 2015 to working with Nealy to help companies vying for county contracts get favored status with Price, in exchange for cash payments to the commissioner.

Karen Manning pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2015. She admitted not paying taxes on money she got from the sale of pieces of Price’s African art collection in her shop at the South Side on Lamar. Prosecutors say Price used campaign money to buy the pieces and sell them in Manning’s shop.

Prosecutors have amassed a mountain of evidence, which they hope to use to build a timeline showing money flowing from companies, followed by favorable votes from Price.

If convicted of all charges, Price faces up to 33 years in federal prison. Fain faces up to 10 years.

Jury selection is expected to take most of the first week. The jury pool for the Price case is the Dallas division of the Northern District of Texas, which includes seven local counties: Dallas, Rockwall, Hunt, Kaufman, Navarro, Ellis and Johnson.

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Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn is presiding over the Price trial.

Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, who is presiding over the Price case, hopes to have the trial finished by June.

Jurors could hear more than 100 witnesses in the coming months. Prosecutors have logged about 2,000 exhibits in preparation for the trial.

"It's a very strong case,” said Victor Vital, a criminal defense attorney who represented a client in the last huge public corruption case involving former Dallas council member Don Hill. Vital does not represent anyone involved in the Price case.

“If you are intent, being the government, on taking down corruption, you want to go for the powerful to send the message to those who are less powerful, that when you achieve power, you are not supposed to do this.”

But even though the Justice Department has a near perfect track record locally and nationally in getting convictions in similar corruption cases, the government is not infallible, Vital said.

"I'll just say it – John Wiley Price could beat this case,” Vital said. “If he tries the case the right way, he could beat their case. And in my view if he lets his lawyers pick apart the government's case, and keeps himself off the stand, he might walk.”

Price’s former attorney, Billy Ravkind, now deceased, had said publicly that Price will indeed testify. It’s unclear if his current lawyers will let that happen.

“I believe you'll see him take the stand,” Vital said. “These politicians can't help themselves."

“Our Man Downtown”

Price during his protest years.

Price has served 32 years on the Dallas County commissioner’s court, which sets the county budget, awards multimillion dollar contracts to vendors, runs elections, maintains county roads and bridges and oversees the county jail.

Price is known to of his constituents in District 3 – which encompasses west Dallas, downtown and a wide swath of southeastern Dallas, Hutchins and Seagoville – as “Our Man Downtown.”

Among his many vehicles is an SUV emblazed with his face and that logo.

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Within six years of taking office, his over-the-top exploits were cataloged in a now-infamous profile by then-D Magazine columnist Laura Miller, who later became mayor of Dallas.

Price is known for his boisterous protesting, complete with bass-drum beating and traffic blocking. For many years his ire was directed at WFAA-TV and The Dallas Morning News, among others, for their coverage of him.

Kathy Nealy

He has been under FBI investigation since at least the summer of 2011. But agents had been on his trail for long before that.

Kathy Nealy

That trail begins with Kathy Nealy.

The longtime Democratic political consultant once worked for President Bill Clinton’s campaign, and has helped local candidates garner African American support for decades.

In 2005, Nealy came to the attention of the FBI through one of her consulting clients. At the time, she was working for Bill Fisher, a developer who hired Nealy to help him get his low-income housing projects approved by state, county and local politicians in Dallas.

When Fisher was approached for bribe payments by an associate of then-City Council member Don Hill in exchange for Hill’s support, Fisher went to the FBI.

He agreed to wear a wire and helped snare Hill and a web of about a dozen additional people, including then-state Rep. Terri Hodge. All were either convicted or pleaded guilty in the investigation.

Nealy, though, was not charged.

Instead, she began meeting with the FBI and giving them information. Eventually, the FBI got Nealy’s bank records and determined that she, over the years, she had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Price, her closest political ally.

Former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, with his wife Sheila Farrington Hill behind him, after they were sentenced to prison in 2010.

At Don Hill’s trial in 2009, Nealy testified that even though she was involved in potentially criminal behavior, she was told she would not be charged in the Hill investigation.

That investigation did not involve Price, but did lay out a pay-to-play scheme in which an army of associates of Hill funneled him money from developers in exchange for his vote in favor of their low-income housing projects.

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Hill was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in 2010.

Focus on Price

In 2011, with Hill in prison, the FBI turned its attention to Price.

That summer, dozens of federal agents searched his home and office, and the home of his top aide, Dapheny Fain.

Nealy’s home and office were also searched.

Agents seized more than $229,000 and a collection of expensive watches from a safe in Price’s Oak Cliff home. They seized an additional $230,000 from a Dallas County builder who was set to pay that money to Price for the purchase of a then-vacant 9-acre tract of land at 7001 Grady Niblo Road in Dallas.

Price's county salary is $163,497 a year. He lives in Oak Cliff in a house appraised for tax purposes at about $170,000.

FBI agents searched John Wiley Price's SUV, house and office in 2011.

For years after the FBI search, no criminal charges followed. In 2012, federal prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit to keep the cash.

According to court documents in that civil forfeiture case, the scheme began when Price filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Months before, he opened a bank account in Forney in his mother’s name in order to, the FBI alleged, hide cash. Prosecutors say he also acquired property and put it in Fain’s name to keep it from being seized in the bankruptcy.

It wasn't until July 23, 2014, that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Dallas unsealed a 107-page indictment. It accused Price, Fain, Nealy and Christian Campbell in a bribery case that spanned a decade.

Test case

Helena Tantillo

In 2016, prosecutors got to test their evidence against Price indirectly – at the Austin trial of a former computer firm executive who once sought a contract with Dallas County.

In 2005, Helena Tantillo’s company BearingPoint won a lucrative technology contract from Dallas County. Durign debriefings of Nealy, agents learned that the company had help – from Price – getting the contract.

In 2011, FBI agents asked Tantillo about a mysterious pay increase she approved for Christian Campbell, who was working for her as a consultant at the time. Was that money actually meant for Price in exchange for his help getting BearingPoint the contract? No Tantillo told them.

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At trial last year, Campbell testified that the money was meant for Price. Jurors believed him and the documents and emails presented in the case. Tantillo was found guilty and sentencded to six months in federal prison.

Email jptrahan@wfaa.com

Read the John Wiley Price indictment here: