DALLAS – For more than five years, the citizens of Dallas County have been waiting to hear the details of the federal government’s bribery case against commissioner John Wiley Price.
They’ll have to wait a little longer.
Opening arguments, which were supposed to begin Thursday, were postponed until Monday because of delays over jurors' health issues.
Jurors, though, did hear from Price himself Thursday, albeit briefly.
"Your honor, I plead not guilty," Price stood and said after Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn asked him to make a plea following a three-hour reading of the government's 107-page indictment.
His top assistant, Dapheny Fain, likewise pleaded not guilty formally before jurors Thursday.
Price, 66, is accused of taking more than $900,000 in cash, cars and land in exchange for steering lucrative county technology contracts to certain firms and helping them cheat the bidding process. Fain, 55, is also charged in the case.
Price, who has been a county commissioner since 1985, is a longtime civil rights activist and advocate for the African American community. He’s also arguably the most powerful elected official in North Texas.
Before the trial got underway Thursday morning, Judge Lynn announced that one of the 16 jurors had some sort of serious medical emergency. About 9:30 a.m., the judge said she had released the ill juror from service, and replaced her with one of four alternates. There are now three alternates.
The excused juror was an African American woman. There are now four African Americans on the jury, in addition to two Hispanics, eight whites, and one person of unknown ethnicity. Alternates are not told they are alternates so that all the jurors will pay equal attention to the evidence.
After the remaining 15 jurors were sworn in Thursday, prosecutor Katherine Miller began reading the government’s 107-page indictment in the case, which is required in federal criminal trials.
As the hours passed, it became clear that there may only be time Thursday for the prosecution’s opening statement. Defense attorneys objected, saying it wasn’t fair that the jurors might only get the government’s side of the case today, and not hear the defense’s opening statements until later.
Judge Lynn, clearly unhappy to delay the case any longer, decided out of fairness to put off all opening statements -- four hours total, two for the government and two for the defendants' lawyers to share -- until Monday.There is no court Friday because a juror has to take care of a sick relative that day.
But even Monday may not happen. That same juror may need to have that day off as well, for the same family health issue, the judge said. All 15 jurors have to be present for the trial to proceed. The court directed the lawyers to stay in touch.
The trial is scheduled to last through June, if need be.
The FBI has been investigating Price since at least 2011, when dozens of agents swarmed his home and county office, seizing $229,000 in cash from a safe, a collection of designer watches, and loads of documents and evidence.
If convicted, Price faces up to 30 years behind bars. Fain, who is accused of using her business to hide Price’s alleged cash flow and lying to the FBI, could face up to a decade in prison if convicted. Both have maintained their innocence.
Two others charged in the case have already pleaded guilty and are expected to testify. One is a former technology consultant who helped funnel bribe payments to Price, and another is as former African art shop owner who also admitted helping Price hide pilfered campaign cash.
Price’s former political consultant, Kathy Nealy, 64, once one of Dallas’ most formidable dealmakers in the African American community, is also charged with helping funnel bribe money to Price, but she will be tried separately. She has pleaded not guilty.