DALLAS — A former Dallas City Council member, who later became chairman of the Dallas County Schools board of trustees, was sentenced Tuesday to probation for tax evasion in connection with a public corruption investigation involving school bus cameras.
Larry Duncan, 73, appeared in court Tuesday morning before Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn in Dallas. The judge sentenced him to three years of probation and six months of home confinement. The judge cited several reasons including his health conditions, history of public service and being a first-time offender.
"I take full responsibility for what I've done," Duncan told the judge Tuesday. "No excuses. No equivocation."
"I've devoted a large portion of my life to public service," he added. "I have embarrassed and humiliated my family, friends and constituents. For that, I'm sincerely sorry."
Duncan faced up to one year in prison for not paying about $40,000 in taxes on more than $184,000 in what prosecutors said were phony campaign contributions he received from New Orleans businessman Bob Leonard Jr.
Duncan used the money from 2012 to 2016 on car-related expenses, cash withdrawals, and money for him and his wife, court records show.
During the time he was getting the campaign contributions from Leonard, prosecutors say, Duncan led the Dallas County School's board, which approved millions in purchases of stop-arm cameras from Leonard’s company, Force Multiplier Solutions.
Barry Sorrels, Duncan's lawyer, told the judge Tuesday that Duncan was not charged with bribery -- unlike others in the Dallas County Schools investigation -- and therefore deserved probation.
Sorrells said his client led a life of public service, including serving his country in Vietnam. He said if jailed, Duncan's Veterans Affairs health benefits would be interrupted, which given his long list of ailments, could put his life in danger.
Sorrells also called three character witnesses, one of whom talked about how, while on Dallas City Council, Duncan worked tirelessly to help the southern Dallas community of Joppa, an area long neglected by local leaders.
"Mr. Duncan listened to the community in Joppa," said Delveta Thompson. "He's considered, to this day, a friend of Joppa."
Another character witness, attorney Michael Jung, said Duncan worked to rehab blighted Pleasant Grove neighborhoods.
"None of us is the worst thing that we've ever done," Duncan's daughter, Sarah Duncan Jacobs, told the judge on her father's behalf.
Prosecutor Andrew Wirmani argued that although Duncan was not charged with bribery, his tax crime was still an "abuse of trust" because Duncan was only able to commit it because he was an elected official at the time.
"Mr. Duncan's role was different than the other defendants," Wirmani told the judge. But, he added, "I disagree that this is not an issue of public corruption."
Wirmani pointed out that Duncan received tens of thousands in campaign contributions almost exclusively "from the largest vendor of Dallas County Schools." While maybe not a crime, "it's abuse of trust," Wirmani said.
Judge Lynn said she would not characterize what Duncan was specifically charged with -- not paying taxes -- as an abuse of trust. She pointed out that he didn't conceal the money, but reported it on campaign forms.
Still, she said not paying taxes is serious. "It's a form of a stickup."
"This case is being portrayed as a bribery case," she said. "It may well be," but she can only sentence Duncan based on the charge of tax evasion, and that's it.
"I'm admittedly suspicious of all this," the judge said, pointing out that all the other defendants in the investigation admitted paying and taking bribes. She said she can't assume Duncan was part of all that, but if he was, he's getting off easy.
"I'm very disappointed in you," Judge Lynn told Duncan.
A lawsuit filed by the board brought in to shut down Dallas County Schools after the stop-arm camera scandal bankrupted it accuses Duncan and others in a civil conspiracy "to engage in a criminal enterprise of pay-to-play campaign contributions, bribes, and kickbacks in return for lucrative contracts from DCS that ultimately left DCS and its taxpayers with over $185,000,000 in losses and debilitating debt obligations," the lawsuit states.
Duncan has denied any wrongdoing in that litigation.
Dallas County’s Schools was a taxpayer-supported governmental entity that supplied buses to local school districts – until the stop-arm camera program caused it to shut down.
Corrupt Dallas County Schools leadership sought to help Leonard expand the stop arm camera across Texas, court papers say. The program, though, could only expand to cities and towns that made passing a raised stop arm on a school bus illegal. That’s why Leonard needed local politicians to do his bidding.
Duncan formerly served on the Dallas City Council from 1991 to 1999, and Leonard used him to help get access to current members.
Campaign finance reports show that while he was taking money from Leonard, Duncan was donating money to several council members’ campaigns. Only one has been charged in the scandal, Dwaine Caraway, one of the city’s most flamboyant and powerful politicians.
Last week, Caraway was sentenced to more than four years in federal prison after admitting to taking $450,000 in bribes from Leonard. In exchange, Caraway helped grow Leonard’s business by publicly supporting the stop-arm camera program. At last week’s sentencing hearing, Caraway’s lawyer said it was Duncan who first introduced Leonard to Caraway.
Also charged in the case is Ricky Sorrells, the former superintendent of Dallas County Schools, who admitted to pocketing $3 million in bribes from Leonard. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Dallas County Schools was founded as a school district in 1846. Over the years, as more school districts formed, Dallas County Schools became obsolete, but it didn’t go away. Instead, it morphed into a school bus service for other local school districts.
It also continued to collect property taxes, which were spent largely out of public view as their board meetings got little to no attention for decades.
After its top leaders took millions of dollars from Force Multiplier Solutions, Dallas County Schools was left with a warehouse full of unused school bus cameras and more than $100 million in debt – for which taxpayers will be on the hook for years.
May 15 – Bob Leonard Jr., of New Orleans, faces up to 10 years in prison for paying millions of dollars in bribes to Dwaine Caraway, Ricky Sorrells and Larry Duncan to advance his company Force Multiplier Solutions’ school bus stop-arm camera business.
Aug. 7 – Ricky Sorrells, former superintendent of Dallas County Schools, faces up to 10 years in prison for admitting to taking more than $3 million in bribes from Leonard in exchange for helping expand his stop-arm camera business across North Texas and throughout the state. Part of that money, $800,000, was paid through a law firm to Sorrells, and another $200,000 went toward Sorrells credit card and student loan debts.
NOTE: There is no sentencing date set for Slater Swartwood Sr., who faces up to five years in prison for admitting to using his companies ELF Investments, Cambridge Realty Group LLC and Anrock Rrealty Services LLC to funnel $2 million of Bob Leonard’s bribe money to Caraway and others.