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Let’s Clean Up Dallas City Hall

Ethics reforms are important to keep Dallas in business.
illustration by Douglas Jones

What is it about scandals at dallas City Hall? If I’m counting correctly, the latest City Hall corruption trial is the third in 13 years. The recent headlines about former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill read all too familiar.

First there was Councilman Paul Fielding, who pleaded guilty in the late ’90s to fraud and extortion; then Councilman Al Lipscomb was convicted on federal bribery charges; and now Hill is accused of taking kickbacks from low-income housing developers. Are we that city? Has Dallas earned the same reputation as old Chicago or New Orleans, where things got done with cash under the table to Boss Tweed-types?

Despite the city’s robust economic-development efforts, it’s hard to imagine attracting and keeping the best companies if they fear getting caught in a “shakedown” while trying to do business with City Hall.

There are three things that need to happen at City Hall to address the issue. First, Mayor Tom Leppert is right to propose ethics reform requiring zoning cases to have the support of three council members before consideration by the full council. This challenges the notion that a council member has control of everything in his or her district. 

Secondly, paid lobbyists need to register at City Hall. Many have proposed this change before, but it’s on the table again. There are critics of this idea. Former City Councilwoman Donna Blumer calls the proposal “window dressing” because council members already know who the paid lobbyists are.

“It’s laughable,” Blumer says. “The problem is not lobbyists taking money for what they do for a living. The problem is people giving money to council members. A person who is not a paid lobbyist can hand you an envelope of cash just as easy as someone who is.”

Certainly she’s correct. I’m amused by how “special-interest lobbyists” are often blamed for all the evils of the world, as though elected officials had their hands tied when making votes or accepting campaign contributions. And we’re selective in referring only to those causes we oppose as “special interests.”
But basic rules of transparent government, not to mention what is already a state and federal standard, show there is no downside to registering paid lobbyists. Registration also protects the legitimate lobbyists and companies or organizations they represent while doing business with the city. No good business can be accused of “hiding in the shadows.”

Third, we need to pay council members a reasonable salary for work that constitutes a full-time job. Council members are paid $38,000 a year. Many bright, qualified people can’t afford this kind of public service. No one should get rich as a public servant, and I’m certainly not suggesting that a fair salary alone will make public officials more honest. (As Blumer says, “You’re either honest when you’re down there, or you’re not.”) What I am suggesting is that we could stand to attract a wider variety of capable and honest candidates.

Dallas must do better. Is graft and corruption inevitable? Maybe. There will always be those who are dishonest or wish to take advantage of the system. But we owe it to ourselves to do something to solve the problem before the business of doing business with the city of Dallas is hobbled by yet another scandal.

Webb is director of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility for Mary Kay Inc. Previously, he was chief of staff for Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and an investigative reporter for CBS 11.

Notes on Scandals

A look back at highlights from two Dallas City Council corruption cases.

Al Lipscomb
In 1999, after 14 years on the Dallas City Council, Lipscomb was indicted and convicted on 65 counts of bribery, including taking more than $7,000 in bribes from a topless club and almost $90,000 from the owner of a cab company in exchange for favorable votes.
Lipscomb served 27 months of a 41-month sentence in home confinement before his case was overturned in an appeals court.
A new trial was ordered on the basis that the judge in Lipscomb’s case unfairly moved the trial to Amarillo over the defense’s objections. Charges were later dismissed.
Lipscomb ran for his old seat on the city council in 2005, but lost to James Fantroy in a run-off.

Paul Fielding
In 1996, a federal grand jury indicted the Dallas city councilman on eight counts of fraud and conspiracy related to his company, Mason Rich. 
In the midst of a controversial zoning change, Fielding was accused of using his role on the council to pressure EDS into giving a $1 million janitorial contract to Handy Andy, one of Mason Rich’s clients. 
Fielding pled guilty, was ordered to pay nearly $900,000 in restitution, and was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.   
He was released a few months early and put on house arrest.
—Kristiana Heap