Do the bribery charges against Dallas city councilman Al Lipscomb add up?
ON MAY 1 DALLAS CITY COUNCILMAN AL LIPSCOMB is expected to be reelected handily to a seventh term, an estimable achievement for a man who used to wait tables at a downtown executive dining room and has spent most of his political career, as he puts it, “being obnoxious and being told to shut up.” Lipscomb, however, will barely have time to savor the victory before he faces a more daunting challenge. In June the 73-year-old is scheduled to face charges that he accepted some $96,000 in bribes from a local businessman, and his success in the courtroom is not as certain as his success at the ballot box.
“I have nothing to hide,” says Lipscomb, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, “and I fully expect to be exonerated.” But his indictment, and that of his associate Floyd Richards, the 55-year-old owner of Yellow Cab and Checker Cab, has been the talk of Dallas politics since a federal grand jury handed it down on March 4. Just how Lip—as he was known in the sixties when he was a regular agitator at city council meetings—supports himself has always been a source of speculation; what he makes selling produce at the Dallas Farmers Market and the $50 he earns for each city council meeting he attends wouldn’t seem to be enough to live on. But, people wonder, could he have actually taken bribes? Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, for one, apparently doesn’t think so. “He may be guilty of errors in judgment,” he says, “but Al Lipscomb is a decent and fine human being who ought to be remembered for his efforts to democratize the political process, not whatever may come out of this horrible, ugly investigation.”
Unfortunately for Lipscomb, the indictment alleges more than mere errors in judgment—and it has put him in the sights of U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who has made good on his promise to root out public corruption. Over the past three years Coggins and his staff have successfully prosecuted former Dallas city councilman Paul Fielding and former Dallas school superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez for public misdeeds. Though Coggins’ office won’t comment on the case, the indictment claims that Lipscomb and Richards entered into a criminal conspiracy in 1995. Richards eventually paid the councilman a total of $36,000 in monthly cash payments and funneled nearly $60,000 to two businesses controlled by Lipscomb’s son-in-law, Roderick L. Dudley. The government believes that much of that money found its way to Lipscomb’s 1995 campaign coffers.
In return for the cash, the indictment says, Lipscomb looked out for Richards’ interests at city hall. Among other things, the prosecution believes Lipscomb voted to allow an increase in Yellow and Checker fleet sizes while limiting the number of vehicles operated by other owners and supported stiffer insurance requirements, a measure allegedly intended to run smaller companies out of business. The government emphasizes that further evidence of Lipscomb’s guilt lies in his failure to report any of the payments from Richards on the Financial Involvement Statements he was required to file.
But the prosecution must prove more than that Richards gave Lipscomb money and that Lipscomb voted favorably on matters involving Richards. It must prove criminal intent. That key point, insists Tom Melsheimer, one of Lipscomb’s attorneys and a former federal prosecutor himself, will be hard to prove. “The prosecution’s problem is that Al sometimes took positions opposed to Richards’ interests,” he says. “Other times, he, like the rest of the council, was simply voting based on the recommendations of the city staff.”
Lipscomb freely admits to having a relationship with Richards and doesn’t deny that the businessman has given him gifts over the years. From 1993 to 1995, when the councilman took a break from public life, Richards retained Lipscomb as a “front man” in the black community shortly after he bought Yellow Cab. When Lipscomb returned to office in 1995, he continued in this capacity, but he says he was never corrupted by the partnership. “It hasn’t influenced any votes,” says Lipscomb. “If my vote was the eighth on an eight-to-seven vote, that would be one thing, but these were all near-unanimous. And the regulations affected all the cab companies, not just Yellow Cab. We were trying to clean up the industry.” Melsheimer sums up the bribery charges this way: “Usually when you think of someone being bribed, you think of their being induced to do something out of the ordinary. Who’s going to argue that requiring cab companies to have more insurance is bad for anyone?” As for Lipscomb’s failure to report the money, Melsheimer responds, “No doubt he wasn’t the best accountant, but just because someone is sloppy doesn’t mean they’ve been bribed.”
A bigger problem for the government may be public sentiment about trying one of the city’s most venerated politicians. For much of the late sixties and seventies, Lipscomb was a one-man civil rights movement in the city, serving as a field organizer for the War on Poverty and the Block Partnership program and, in his spare time, hogging the open mike at a variety of public meetings. He was a plaintiff in the 1971 federal lawsuit that began the transformation of Dallas’ government from an at-large system to one with single-member districts, which ensured more minority representation. With the exception of his two-year sabbatical, he has represented South Oak Cliff District 8 since 1985. While never known for his sophistication—he once opened a shoebox full of cockroaches at a meeting to protest the conditions of public housing—Lipscomb is practically deified in the black community and respected outside it, if only for his ability to survive.
When the trial does begin, it’s a safe bet that more than Lipscomb’s guilt or innocence will be under scrutiny. First, the trial may instigate another round of handwringing over the city’s council-manager form of government (Dallas is the largest city in the nation with that system), in which councilmembers and the mayor are paid only paltry per-meeting stipends. Second, it will be interesting to see if a Dallas County jury will be willing to convict an elderly man who suffers from diabetes and limps from two hip replacement surgeries. When Lipscomb told me, “Naturally, at the twilight of one’s career, to have something like this crop up is not what you want,” it wasn’t hard to see that he would make a sympathetic witness. And Richards, who pleaded not guilty the same day Lipscomb did, may be even more sympathetic: A victim of advanced liver disease, Richards has been awaiting a transplant and may not be able to endure a trial until he receives one.
Regardless, Coggins is convinced his office can win a conviction, though taking on such a revered figure such as Lipscomb poses greater risks than taking on Fielding or Gonzalez. Is it possible that, as some observers believe, the U.S. Attorney has “overreached”? Coggins has said simply, “We don’t pick our targets.” But a source close to Lipscomb has a different view: “I don’t know why they’re doing this. Even if they win, they lose.”