For Price, it was selling C-6945 model Magnavox televisions—he still remembers the numbers—for a $25 bonus, plus $30 commission. He learned that when you give a little, you get a little. There’s always room to negotiate, always room to play. He’s been building on that concept ever since.
Price rarely buys anything today—from a Lotus sports car to a linen shirt—without shrewd negotiation. A bit of financial foreplay. That’s how, he says, he can afford to own the best. “What people don’t realize is that my clothes have always been about deals,” says Price of his notoriously flashy wardrobe. “I mean, I can’t walk in and pay $1,400 for a Gio Ferre. You know, I just don’t do that.”
What Price does, he says, is go to a store, like Oxford Street in Addison or Edwardian near the Adolphus Hotel, that will give him deep discounts because, he says, they want people to see him in their clothes. Edwardian, Price says, practically begged him to come in. “They always call me, saying ‘I want you to wear my clothes.’” But Price had a price. “He’s going to give me a deal, but he’s not going to give me a good enough deal,” Price says. “He said 20 percent—I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I said 40 percent’—he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ But we go in and barter like that.” Managers at both clothing stores adamantly deny that they have ever offered any special discounts to Price.
Price says he has similar deals with Al’s Florist, a flower shop near Parkland. His campaign records show that he has spent $6,540 in campaign money there in the last four years. Price also seeks bargains at car dealerships. He hunts repos—for himself and friends—from banks all over town. He sells jewelry out of his briefcase. He buys junky antiques at flea markets and bric-a-brac shops and refinishes them. He’ll haggle shamelessly on just about anything.
“If they want too much money for it, he will stand there three hours and Jew ’em down,” says Betty Culbreath, his administrative assistant. “Once he gets them Jewed down, he’s not going to pay cash for it, he’s gonna give them $50 on it for them to hold it, then he’s going to pay it out. And then he gets it out, and then he takes it over to this other little man … who does a beautiful job of refinishing it, and when it comes out, it looks like it’s new. What you would think would be valued as a $4,000 bedroom suite actually cost him $400 at the most. That’s how he does it.”
Culbreath says her boss once spent five hours with her at a dealership, negotiating the price of a new car for her. “He stays that long because when he gets through talking and walking and looking and comparing and wearing your ass down, you are so glad to be rid of him, you will give him the discount … I bought a car, and I didn’t have to open my purse. And I’ve got a car payment, and it’s cheaper than I ever had in my life.”
Price’s ’89 Lotus was, he says, a dealer-driven floor model with 4,000 miles on it. He purchased it, title records show, for $60,000 at a time when the new ’90 models were going for $81,000 and saved an additional $3,600 in sales tax (he paid only $5) by showing the purchase as an even trade for his ’85 Ferrari, another $60,000 car that he got for considerably less in 1987, he says, because it was about to be repossessed.
Still, can Price really afford even a $60,000 car? Betty Culbreath bristles at the question—after all, if an Anglo politician were driving a Lotus, would anyone think twice? “Everybody seems to think that he has this whole wad of money that he goes out and pays cash with,” she says. “He doesn’t go out and pay cash; he does just what the rest of us do—he makes bank loans, just like everybody else. He’s a normal human being. He robs Peter to pay Paul, just like I do ... Anybody who makes $72,000 a year [Price’s salary is now $75,000 a year]—I don’t make half of that, but I got a $140,000 house, and I got a new car.”
Price also has a house valued at $140,000 (which he says he bought in 1978 for $16,000, condemned) and a new car. But he has a lot of other things besides that. According to deed records, he owes $1,577 a month on a $137,752 loan he obtained several years ago from a bank formerly owned by Danny Faulkner (“Uncle Danny,” as Price fondly calls him). The money, borrowed from what was then the First National Bank of Garland, was used to buy a six-acre farm in Heath, Texas. He also has a loan for a six-carat diamond engagement ring he bought six years ago for his former fiancée, Austin anchorwoman Tonia Cooke. A third loan in Price’s portfolio, also obtained from Faulkner’s bank, is a home improvement loan for $52,160 that Price says was used to build a guest house behind his East Fifth Street house in Oak Cliff. And though Price will tell you that he can pay off all those loans and more by stretching his commissioner’s salary, evidence points to the contrary.
A review of campaign records indicates that Price paid off most of his personal home improvement loan with campaign contributions—a violation of state law, which prohibits elected officials from converting campaign funds to personal use. The records show that in 1989 and 1990 he used campaign funds to make two payments to the Garland bank, one for $18,700 and the other for $16,006. A cross check of deed records shows that Price’s home loan was due at the same time the payments were made to the bank.
Price’s consulting specialty is minority protest—not how to start it, but how to snuff it out.
When asked about the two payments, Price said, “I must have had a [campaign] loan there.” But there is no record of any such loan in his campaign report. If a campaign loan did exist, it should have been disclosed in Price’s campaign reports as required by state law. No such loan was ever reported.
Price’s income is not limited to his government salary and his campaign contributions. In fact, as others describe it, he uses his commissioner’s post almost as a springboard for his other ventures—ventures that often come his way through the contacts he makes as county commissioner. According to a former girlfriend, it’s all part of Price’s career plan. “John always said that he was going to stay county commissioner until he could run for Congress because he was going to use it to get into business the way white politicians do. That way, when he left office, he’d be all set up,” she explains.
One of Price’s sidelines, developed since he became a commissioner, is consulting. He says his partner, Kathy Nealy, runs the business out of her North Dallas home. Surprisingly, Price’s consulting specialty is minority protest—not how to start it, but how to snuff it out.
Their largest client to date, Price says, has been Darling Delaware, a Dallas-based company that owns some 35 rendering factories around the country that melt fat from animal carcasses for use in household products like soap. Price says he met the former president of Darling Delaware at a political function several years ago and has worked as a trouble-shooter for the company when problems—such as neighborhood complaints and protests—arise in some low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods where the rendering factories are located. In the past few years, he and Nealy have advised the company on ways of handling community problems in Fresno and Los Angeles, California, as well as Atlanta, Georgia.
In one case, Price and Nealy helped Darling Delaware when an African-American neighborhood group in Fresno sued its plant, demanding it be shut down because of the intolerable stench. Price also helped arrange for the law firm of Willie Brown, the African-American speaker of the California House of Representatives, to represent Darling Delaware when the company was threatened with a $250,000 fine for an air quality violation.
If Price has any moral dilemmas about hiring himself and Nealy out to do battle against the same low-income minority groups he fights for here in Dallas, he doesn’t show it. To the contrary, he says he’s doing those neighborhoods a favor. “You must know when I come in, it’s me and my deal,” he says of his arrangement with Darling Delaware. “It’s ‘I want to see you help. Have you been a good corporate citizen? If not, you have to do some other things. You either get me or get a lawyer.’”
Another more lucrative business that Price has is his gas station. Price and another business partner, Larry Smith, lease an Exxon Car Care Center, called Larry’s Exxon, located just off Interstate 35 in Oak Cliff. They pump about 100,000 gallons of gas a month, Price says, and bring in an additional $10,000 a month in repair work.
Price got the gas station only because of his rather unlikely friendship with Dave Fox, the Anglo Republican business leader who loaned him the money for the business. Price asked Fox for $50,000 to cover operating costs after, he says, NCNB turned him down for that amount. “I can own a Ferrari when I can’t own a service station loan.” Price says bitterly. “You loan me $80,000 to buy a damn car, but you won’t loan me $50,000 to go into a damn service station ... They said, ‘Well, we don’t think it’s a good loan.’”
Fox not only loaned Price the money, but also required no collateral, just a signature. And though he won’t discuss specifics, Fox says the loan is being repaid, with interest, though the payments aren’t always on time. “It was a business deal,” Fox says, “and we are getting a good rate of interest, and I expect to get our money back.”
Price personally hustles a lot of business for the station, paying house calls on area firms asking for their gas and car repair business. He does not go out blindly; he knows where he’s going and who he’s going to make his pitch to. “I case out the business long before I go there,” he says. “I try to find out who’s in charge, and I try to find out something about them … I mean, I’m not going to just walk on up there and talk to David Duke, you know. I mean, I know who I’m talking to.”
Price has no qualms about targeting firms in his district, and there is troubling evidence that he engages in business that is clearly a conflict of interest for him as a county commissioner.
For example, Price’s station currently services and provides all the gasoline for Salvation Army vans used to drive senior citizens to two nutrition programs in Oak Cliff. For that, the Salvation Army collects $30,000 a year from the county. Price votes each year to renew the agreements, while never disclosing that some of the money flows back into his gas station. Confronted with this apparent conflict of interest, Price says he was not aware that the Salvation Army had agreements with the county and says that he would have abstained from voting on the agreements if he had known about them. But, Price adds, he would never shy away from accepting the business, despite his position as county commissioner. If that money has to go somewhere, he believes, it might as well go to African-Americans, who historically have never gotten a fair share of the pie.
“Atlanta built their airport with 50 percent minority procurement,” he says excitedly (actually 25 percent, say city officials). “Within budget. And on time. Fifty percent minority procurement … I want that for DFW. I want that for Dallas County.”
If Price’s numbers are correct—and he uses them a lot—he has increased the total amount of county dollars that go to minority vendors to $9 million from $50,000 since he came to the court six years ago. That has been good for minority business people. And often, it’s been good for Price as well.
One sizable contract—for $700,000—went to a small Dallas engineering firm called Dikita Engineering, owned by an African-American named Lucious Williams. Dikita was hired to do civil engineering work on the new Frank Crowley Courts Building, located next to the Lew Sterrett jail. Williams says that Commissioner Price’s efforts on the court to increase minority contracting made it possible for his firm to get the contract—a fact Price apparently did not forget.
While the Crowley building construction was going on, a county official named Bill Grimes, who is project representative for the Project Management Office, told all his contractors that if anything unusual took place on the job, he wanted to know about it. One day, Lucious Williams came to see him.
“I was told to make a $15,000 contribution to Commissioner Price’s campaign,” Williams told Grimes.
“Did you do it?” Grimes asked him.
“No,” Williams responded.
Grimes told a superior about the exchange, though he made it clear that as far as he was concerned, the alleged demands were hearsay and could not be proven unless Williams stepped forward. Which he did not, although at this point several county officials are aware of what happened, as is the district attorney’s office, which would pursue the matter if Williams came to them with the story.
Williams, asked to comment on the incident, replied: “There are reasons for not discussing it and going off in crazy directions. I think we’re at a boiling point [in this city]. We have to weigh it—the positive and the negative here … I don’t think saying it—it’s the time at all to even say that.”
When asked again for a comment, he said: “I’m not going to tell you John Wiley demanded $15,000 for his campaign. And I’m not going to tell you I told Bill Grimes that, because I don’t remember.”
Ask around, though, and you’ll find people who do remember some of Commissioner Price’s behind-the-scenes demands.
According to a number of business people, black and white, Price’s boycotts and pickets and threats are often tools in a high-stakes game he plays with the Dallas business community. It’s the old trick he learned at Sanger-Harris—scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours—but in a new, much more important arena. Even some of Price’s most deeply principled stands, they say, are tainted by the hustle.
The hustle usually starts with a public complaint, these people say. Price will declare that there has been some wrong inflicted on his community by a certain company—perhaps through an “insensitive” advertisement or a product promotion or a hiring matter. In order to resolve the matter, Price requests a private audience with company officials. That’s where the problems start.
“He never just says he’s going to boycott you, and that’s that,” says one company official who has been in a number of such meetings. “He’ll say, ‘Well, it’s really going to take your doing something for the black community to avert this situation. And these people are looking at me. And if you’re not doing anything for the black community, I can’t help.’” At that point, the company will ask Price what he thinks it should do. And depending on what Price has found out beforehand about that company’s job openings or contract opportunities, he offers a solution. One that often cuts him in on the action.
Southwestern Bell has had numerous run-ins with Price. One of the largest meetings held at his behest took place several years ago at the Top o’ the Cliff restaurant in Oak Cliff. Price was upset because the cover of the new residential phone book depicted an African-American boy in a gimme cap talking into a tin can, while two Anglo children were shown using a modern telephone and a computer. It was clearly a racist slight, Price argued. He wanted to know what the company was going to do about it. Bell had 26 people at the meeting, says someone who was there.
Bell officials have always been quick to respond to Price. They research his complaints, write him letters, and let out new minority contracts. At one point, at Price’s urging, they agreed to hire a minority firm out of Arlington called Sphere Cable. When it came time to renew the contract, the owner of the firm, which is no longer in business, appealed to Bell for help.
According to Bell, the owner stated in a letter that she had been paying Price in return for getting her the contract with Bell. She begged Bell officials not to tell Price if her contract was renewed.
“She said, ‘I just want to pay him for this contract, that’s it,’” says a Bell official.
Price says he’s never heard of a company named Sphere Cable. “If I could ever get my hands on a letter like that, I would sure sue the shit out of them,” he says.
Since that time, according to the Bell official, Price has tried to get Bell to let out at least two other contracts. To him.
He asked that Bell buy gas at his station for its huge fleet of trucks and cars and even suggested that Bell apply for Exxon credit cards for employees who drive company cars. And, on another occasion, he asked that Bell give him the contract for its vending business—all the snack, candy, and soda machines located in the company’s downtown offices and area substations. He and his “brother-in-law,” he explained, had a vending-machine business.
Price has no brother-in-law, of course. He has a former brother-in-law, but Vivian Price says her brother is not involved in any way with vending machines. Says Price’s former girlfriend: “John’s always wanted to go into the vending-machine business. He said there was a lot of money in it.”
“I wish I did have some [vending business] with somebody,” Price says. But he says he doesn’t, and he denies ever approaching Bell about its vending business. He admits that he asked Bell for its fleet business, but only because he and Bell’s chief executive officer, Jim Adams, “are friends.”
Another company that Price has “shaken down,” as its officials put it, is Apex Securities Inc. of Houston, a minority-owned investment banking firm that has co-managed four bond issues for Dallas County over the past three years. Apex was the subject of a shouting match in a commissioners’ court meeting in January, when Price argued that minority companies had been unfairly excluded from a pending $30 million bond issue. The real issue, say Apex officials, is not that Price selflessly wants a slice of the pie for minority firms—it’s that he wants a slice for himself.
While Apex officials say they have never given Price money under the table, they did, after he complained that they “were not doing right by him,” hold a political fundraiser for him in July 1989 that raised more than $8,000 for his campaign.
The fundraiser was held at the downtown Lancers club, and club employees remember it well because after Apex sent Lancers a $500 check to pay for the function, Price called the club and asked for the money. Price said that the check inadvertently had been made out to the club when it was supposed to be a campaign contribution to him. Though the check had already been deposited in the club’s bank, and it was clear there had been no mistake, Price pressed them for the money until they finally sent it to him. Apex had to send the club another $500 check. There is no record of the $500 in Price’s campaign report.
Apparently the Lancers fundraiser did not satisfy Price, because a year later he asked Apex officials for 25 percent of their $75,000 fee from a county bond issue.
“He has said to me that he thought if we made $75,000, that he ought to get his percent of it,” says an Apex official. “He could have meant that as a campaign contribution or he could have meant illegally. I don’t know how he meant it. Either way he meant it, I’m interested in being a player in … business for a long time, and I’m not going to go to a grand jury. Or get involved in some sleazeball stuff to make a living. I mean, I can do business in other places.”
The official said that Apex was excluded from the county bond business for a year after refusing Price’s demand for money. And though Apex was included in the upcoming $30 million bond issue, the official says that Price has retaliated against them by questioning their credentials publicly and privately threatening to take them out of the deal, hinting that he was now favoring another minority firm.
“You’d hate to think that the only way a minority can do business in Dallas County is if the minority commissioner puts his hand on a particular one,” says the Apex official. “What he does is give minority participation a bad name. He’s trying to replace one set of good ol’ boys with a new set of good ol’ boys who happen to be African-American.”
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