Mayor Eric Johnson stands next to community activist Rene Martinez as he announces his task force on violent crime. (Photo by Shawn Shinneman)

Politics & Government

What? The Mayor of Dallas Just Took a New Job?!

What a strange move indeed.

If, upon learning the news that Mayor Eric Johnson was just named a partner at Locke Lord, you scratched your head and made a funny face and wondered how exactly that will work, you are not alone. I called an attorney this afternoon to talk on background about this development. This attorney has been involved with local politics. The attorney said, “Is my office bugged? I’ve been ranting about this for the past hour.” Yeah, this is a weird deal.

How will Johnson have enough time to serve any clients at Locke Lord? And, given that he works in public finance, how is he going to avoid apparent conflicts of interest — much less actual conflicts of interest? And why did he say the following in the press release about his new job? “To Dallas’ residents, I want to say that my duties as mayor will always come first. As a practicing lawyer in my early 40s, however, it is also important that I maintain my law license and continue to practice law as time allows.” To maintain his law license, all he has to do is knock out 15 hours of continuing education every year and pay a few hundred bucks to keep the license current.

For some answers, I left a message with Whit Roberts, the deputy managing partner of Locke Lord’s Dallas office and the guy quoted in the release. He and Julie Gilbert, the firm’s chief marketing officer, quickly called me back.

I asked them why the firm would want to hire the mayor of Dallas, knowing how many potential conflicts of interest there’d be and knowing how much blowback they’d get. Whit’s response: “We’re very enthusiastic about the hire. We think that it’s going to be a great thing for Locke Lord and for our clients. Mayor Johnson has 15 years experience as a public finance lawyer. We have a very well-regarded public finance group. We think this works to the benefit of the firm, Mayor Johnson, and our clients.”

I asked when the firm started talking to Johnson about a job. Whit said discussions started several weeks ago, in July, after he’d been elected. When I said that was pretty fast, he agreed.

I asked if Johnson was an income partner or an equity partner, at which point Gilbert jumped in and said, “That is internal, and we never discuss that.” Later, after we’d hung up, she emailed to say Johnson is an income partner, meaning he gets a set salary and does not share in profits of the firm. This would mean — in theory, I suppose — he is removed from the conflict of indirectly making money from the firm’s work for, say, the North Texas Tollway Authority. “Like most other national and large law firms,” Whit said, “we have sophisticated conflicts-checks processes. We have firewalls and screening procedures. We have a general counsel who knows how to implement all these things expertly.”

When I asked how many days per week Johnson would be working for Locke Lord, Gilbert said, “We have not set that up.” She pointed out that they have lawyers who are not expected to be in the office every day, just like we probably have employees at D Magazine who are not required to be in the office every day. I pointed out that we do not have anyone working at D Magazine who is also a mayor.

Bottom line, Gilbert said, is that this arrangement is nothing new. Previous mayors have also had jobs with law firms. “A lot of mayors have outside jobs,” she said. “They can’t live on the $80,000 a year.” While she didn’t use his name, she was referring to Ron Kirk, who was a lawyer for Gardere Wynne while he was mayor from 1995 to 2001.

I called Kirk, who now works at Gibson Dunn. He said he’d been on vacation for the past two weeks and hadn’t heard about Mayor Johnson’s new job. Kirk wouldn’t tell me what, exactly, his arrangement was with Gardere when he was mayor. But he did say, “I spent the majority of my time — I spent a great deal of time on trying to be the best mayor I could, and the firm gave me the latitude to do that, and then I did business development and other work for the firm.”

I asked him how many hours he worked a week when he was mayor. “I have no idea,” he said. “I generally blocked out a couple days a week I spent at the law firm. But you never stop being mayor. I don’t care what your job is. I don’t care whether you own your own dry cleaners or body shop. [The mayor’s job] consumes a great deal of time.” Then he said he had to take another call.

Finally, I asked Mike Rawlings how many hours per week, on average, he put in as mayor. He mentioned that he stayed on as a partner at CIC while he was mayor, but he said he generally worked 50 to 55 hours per week.

That’s a long week. I hope Mayor Johnson’s clients bear that in mind when they hound him to get his work done.

I also called Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s spokesman. He referred all questions about the mayor’s new job to the folks at Locke Lord.

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