DALLAS (CBS11) – During opening statements in one of the biggest corruption trials in North Texas, two portraits of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price emerged:
From his lawyer, Shirley Bacchus-Lobel, Price is a hard-working, dedicated public servant.
From prosecutor Nicholas Bunch, Price is a man who sold his position “out of greed, corruption, and lies.”
Kevin Felder, the Vice-President of the Dallas NAACP, was among Price’s supporters in court. “I want to make sure he gets a fair trial. That’s the tantamount reason I’m here.”
Asked how he will know and judge that, Felder said, “I would judge that based upon the evidence, the jury, verdict and sentencing.”
Prosecutors told jurors that Price received nearly $1.1 million between 2001 and 2011 illegally and never reported any of the money on his federal tax returns or his financial disclosure forms to Dallas County.
Bunch said Price received the money from three women:
Most of it, $950,000, Bunch said came from political consultant Kathy Nealy in bribes in the forms of cash, land, and cars.
Prosecutors say the four vehicles were brand new and include three Chevy Avalanche pick-up trucks and a BMW convertible.
Nealy is a co-defendant, but the judge, Barbara Lynn, recently separated her from the trial.
That’s because of questions about whether Nealy has immunity from federal prosecution that was granted after she testified in the Dallas City Hall corruption trial.
Lynn hasn’t set a trial date in Nealy’s case yet.
Bunch said Price also received money from his Chief of Staff, Dapheny Fain, who’s also charged and on trial.
He said Price made $127,000 from Fain’s company MMS, Man Made Sales.
Fain is accused of making false statements to the FBI, and has pleaded not guilty.
During opening statements, the prosecutors said Price helped Fain buy a Jaguar, and that when they raided Fain’s house in June, 2011, they discovered Price’s Bentley parked in her garage.
Bunch also said the FBI found $225,000 in bundles of cash in a safe in a closet in Price’s home during the raid on his house.
But on Monday, Fain’s attorney, Tom Mills declined to make an opening statement, opting to do so before he presents witnesses and evidence in Fain’s defense later in the trial.
In addition, Bunch said Price made $83,000 from Karen Manning’s art gallery, Millenium 2000.
The prosecutor said Price was laundering money through her business.
He told the jury to follow the money and to hold Price and Fain accountable for what they did.
As expected, Price’s attorney, Bacchus-Lobel told a very different story about him, the longest-serving commissioner in the county with 32 years on the court.
She said the U.S. Attorney’s Office left “no mud unslung.”
Bacchus-Lobel says it was preposterous and ludicrous that Price is charged, and that any suggestion he betrayed the public trust is just the opposite.
She told the jury that Price and Nealy have been friends for 25 years, and that prosecutors had information about them since 2005, as they investigated public corruption at Dallas City Hall.
Bacchus-Lobel said they made into a federal crime in 2014 after “they dug and they dug and they dug.”
She said the information is old and beyond the statute of limitations, and that prosecutors waited so long to bring the case that it’s difficult for the defense to find every document and remember every detail.
During lunch recess, former Dallas city council member, activist, and Price supporter Diane Ragsdale agreed, “How long can one remember, like someone as busy and as passionate as Commissioner Price?”
Related to the bribery charges, Price’s attorney told the jury “Price doesn’t spend much money at all” and that Nealy owned the land and cars in question, not Price.
As for the four new vehicles, Bacchus-Lobel said Price allowed Nealy to park them on his property and in return, he was allowed to drive them.
Price’s attorney said the three pick-up trucks and BMW were all registered in Nealy’s name.
A fourth defendant in the case, Christian Campbell, a consultant for a computer firm that received a Dallas County contract, pleaded guilty in July, 2015.
Campbell admitted in court papers to directing bribes to Price and that Nealy assisted him.
He may testify on the government’s behalf.
In January, 2016, a federal jury in Austin found Helena Tantillo, Campbell’s client, guilty of making false statements to law enforcement about a $7,500 payment to Price at the same time her firm sought to win a county contract.
Bacchus-Lobel told jurors that Price didn’t own any part of Fain’s company MMS and that he had loaned her $500,000 because he wanted her to succeed.
His attorney said Fain still owes Price money.
As for the money found in Price’s safe, Bacchus-Lobel said some of it was Fain’s and that Price agreed to keep it in his safe to keep her from spending it.
Bacchus-Lobel also denied Price ever owned any of Karen Manning’s Millenium 2000 art gallery.
Price’s attorney said her client is a big collector of African art and often bought and sold it through Manning’s gallery.
As a result, Bacchus-Lobel said Manning would get a commission.
Manning pleaded guilty to under-reporting on her federal tax returns more than $258,000 in income that her gallery made.
Bacchus-Lobel said Price was helping Manning because she was a friend, and that Manning wasn’t part of any conspiracy.
Manning may testify on the government’s behalf.
Price’s attorney emphasized that the indictment against Price, Fain, and Nealy was 26,000 words, and told jurors that if the government “can’t show a man is guilty in two weeks, maybe he’s not.”
Bacchus-Lobel said the indictment amounted to the government’s “brainwashing” the jury and public.
Dallas attorney Victor Vital attended court so he could watch the opening statements and said he wasn’t impressed with how Bacchus-Lobel performed.
Vital said, “The lawyer was all over the place, didn’t really put it together for the jury.”
He knows about public corruption trials.
Vital defended Sheila Hill during the public corruption trial involving Dallas City Hall and her husband, former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill.
Both were convicted and received long sentences.
Vital says Price’s attorney didn’t give the jury a cohesive defense of Price. “I don’t think there’s anything you saw today that’s a big blow to the defense overall. It didn’t help, that’s the best way to say it.”
He says because the trial may extend through late June, there will still be time to make up for that.
Ragsdale though said she thought Bacchus-Lobel did a great job.
Vital though said he thought the prosecutor didn’t make a strong enough case linking Price and Nealy to bribes.
Both the prosecutor and Price’s attorney did agree on at least one thing: Price did a number of good things for Dallas County.
While Bacchus-Lobel said Price didn’t sell his position, “Never did. Never will.”
She said prosecutors built a case on half-truths.
But Nicholas Bunch, the prosecutor told jurors while Price was smart, intelligent, and always prepared, at some point he felt entitled to something more than his county salary.