On Thursday morning, the first official day of John Wiley Price’s corruption trial, the people in the moderately full courtroom expected some fireworks—at the very least a couple of firecrackers or a sparkler, something fitting for one of the most divisive politicians in Dallas County history. Price, a 66-year-old who has served as the Dallas County Commissioner for District 3 since 1985 (the longest serving politician in Dallas in a single role), is inflammatory and flamboyant, recognizable in his corn rows, ill-fitting suits, and custom-painted bow ties. And if that’s not enough, he’s often spotted driving down the street in an SUV with his face painted on the side. No one would accuse him of being dull.
But celebrity is only part of why much of Dallas has been anticipating this trial for months. Though five Dallas officials have been found guilty of corruption since 1997, Price’s case is one of the most significant of its kind in the city’s history, based on the whopping $950,000 involved.
Dallas fits into two camps when it comes to Price. Some admire him for founding the Minority and Women Business Enterprise and for backing causes that have affected the black community in Dallas since the seventies. But a temper and a thirst for controversy has earned him a coalition of enemies. In 1991, Price was found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to 75 days in jail after he broke the windshield wiper off of a woman’s car during a protest about KXAS-TV’s hiring practices. In 2008, he got in a shouting match with county commissioners, claiming the term “black hole” held racial overtones. Last year, in the thick of a re-election campaign debate, Price’s opponent, former interim mayor Dwaine Caraway, screamed, “You were f—ing my wife!” at Price, who he had accused of breaking up his first marriage. The two proceeded to scuffle at a gospel radio station.
Price won that election, if that’s any testament to his power in Dallas. So even though Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Miller’s insomnia-inducing reading of the indictment—all 107 pages of it—prompted U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn to claim it was “not exactly the most stimulating” thing she’s ever heard, the trial, which is expected to last four months, has the potential to sully the foundation of Dallas politics. Anyone who still saw Price as a hero will likely endure a test of faith.
The indictment covers a lot of legal territory. In eleven federal counts—including conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, and fraudulent tax returns—the government alleges that Price and his associates “knowingly combine[d], conspire[d], confederate[d], and agree[d] together and with each other to give and receive payments” in the form of money, cars, and land from January 1, 2001 to June 27, 2011. The weightiest of those accusations is that Price was exchanging political and business favors for money—namely, $447,217 in “cash, check, and bank transfers;” a new Chevy Avalanche every four years dating back to 2002; a $105,493 BMW; and land payments and revenue from rental properties worth $198,284.
When Price’s federal trial resumes on either Monday or Tuesday, the prosecution and defense will give their opening statements. The prosecution is expected to argue that Price knowingly conspired and participated in bribery, though to do so they must connect payment with votes (such as suppressing development of the inland port to appease H. Ross Perot Jr.’s business interests, even though such a development could have spurred serious economic growth in South Dallas). The defense is expected to say that the federal government targeted him based on his race and question any correlation between gifts and political favors. Then, since there are no recorded conversations to introduce into evidence, the hard work will begin. The jury will hear just what Price has been up to from more than 150 witnesses, including former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, author and radio host Michael Eric Dyson, and Perot Jr.
Ever since news of the investigation began six years ago, Price has claimed not to worry about it. In the courtroom he leaned back in his chair, seemingly at ease. He had seen trouble before; he was comfortable. Before the day ended, Price, who is rarely short on words, stood up and spoke only six words before the trial resumes early next week: “Your honor, I plead not guilty.”