DALLAS – When the much-anticipated corruption trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price begins at the end of February, there will be one less defendant at the table -- for now.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn ruled that Kathy Nealy, once a powerful political consultant in southern Dallas, will get a separate trial from Price.
She and Price are accused in a bribery scheme that, prosecutors say, involved Nealy funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Price from technology firms seeking business with Dallas County.
The judge’s decision means that it will only be Price and his longtime assistant, Dapheny Fain, on trial starting Feb. 21. A fourth defendant, Christian Campbell, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify for the government.
Judge Lynn ordered Nealy tried separately after her lawyers raised questions about whether charges against her ought to be dropped because of the existence of an immunity agreement she struck with prosecutors years ago.
The agreement was not in writing, but was discussed when Nealy was on the witness stand testifying in the 2009 corruption trial of former Dallas City Councilman Don Hill. Nealy was a key witness for the government in that case, which at the time was the largest corruption investigation in the city’s history. The Price case is expected to be bigger.
From 2006 to 2009, Nealy spent hours with FBI agents and prosecutors for the Hill case, and also gave them information about Price and his dealings. Hill was convicted and sentenced to 18 years. Nealy was not charged in that case.
She was, however, charged alongside Price in a separate indictment in 2014. Some of the evidence the government used against her, Price and other defendants that showed up in that indictment came from her statements to agents.
“No one can reasonably argue that the unfettered information given by Ms. Nealy through more than 20 interviews (with FBI and prosecutors) would have been voluntarily given if the possibility of criminal prosecution loomed overhead,” wrote Nealy attorney Russell Wilson. “Due process requires that the indictment be dismissed.”
Prosecutors say that they agreed not to prosecute Nealy in the earlier Hill case, but made no such deals that would keep them from charging her in the Price investigation.
Judge Lynn grilled prosecutors extensively on what immunity they had extended to Nealy in 2009 before Nealy took the stand to testify against Hill.
“So you’re telling the Court that she (Nealy) is not going to be prosecuted so that the Court does not have to concern itself with giving any Fifth Amendment warnings to the witness?” Judge Lynn asked prosecutor Chad Meacham in 2009. “That’s correct,” he answered.
Nealy then testified about her dealings with Hill and others, and talked about her deal with prosecutors not to charge her with a crime. She was asked very little about Price, who was not part of the Hill case. The government officially opened its investigation into Price in 2010, prosecutors say.
At issue now is how broad the government’s agreement with Nealy was in 2009, and whether it covered any information she shared with prosecutors and agents about Price.
“The Court finds that it is, at least, uncertain as to whether the government agreed to give Nealy broad, general immunity before August 7, 2009, the date of her testimony in the Hill case,” Judge Lynn wrote this week when she ordered Nealy a separate trial.
Before Nealy can be tried, Lynn must settle the question of Nealy’s immunity, which could take months and, possibly, result in some or all of the charges against her being dropped, although that is unlikely, trial watchers say.
To keep Price and Fain from having to wait for their day in court, Lynn chose to hold their trial first, then consider Nealy’s case afterwards.
Both trials are expected to take weeks, if not months.