Defense lawyers for accused developer Ruel Hamilton filed federal court papers Thursday saying their client did, indeed, give money to former Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, but that it was a heartfelt gesture – not a bribe.
Hamilton opened his wallet, they said, only after Caraway claimed both he and his mother had cancer, and medical bills were mounting.
They also said former City Council member Carolyn Davis, a key government witness before her untimely death in a car accident in July, told friends she wanted to reverse her guilty plea of being bribed by Hamilton.
Instead, defense attorneys said in their pleadings, Davis had hoped to change her story and tell prosecutors Hamilton "had not done anything wrong," and was a "good man."
"Ms. Davis told me that the reason she had pleaded guilty was because she was pressured and intimidated by the FBI and the government attorneys," Diane Ragsdale, also a former Dallas City Council member, said in a sworn statement attached to Hamilton's pleadings.
It was unclear, however, whether Davis would have been able to change her plea, after going before a federal magistrate and pledging, under oath, that she agreed with it.
In fact, court records show that ten days after formally entering her plea, she had a chance to change her mind in a hearing that involved an unrelated disciplinary measure against her attorney.
Davis said she was "aware of the reciprocal discipline and the fact that he would be suspended…," the court record said.
"The court further inquired into the knowing and voluntary nature of Ms. Davis' guilty plea…Ms. Davis confirmed that she is still satisfied," the record said, adding, "she did not want to change or withdraw her plea."
In response to the defense filings, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas said in a statement, "the indictment speaks for itself," and the government "will continue to aggressively pursue the case against Mr. Hamilton."
A prominent developer who once had close ties inside Dallas City Hall, Hamilton is charged with bribery, alleging that he paid $40,000 in bribed to Davis in exchange for her help in pushing his affordable housing project through city government.
Davis had pleaded guilty to accepting those bribes, and had been expected to testify against Hamilton, until a car crash in July killed her and her 27-year-old daughter.
"In the two months before her death, Carolyn Davis told me on multiple occasions, and with increasing frequency over time, that she intended to reverse her plea, and to plead not guilty to charges of bribery involving Ruel Hamilton," Ragsdale said in her statement.
Instead of bribes, the money Hamilton gave to Davis was for charitable reasons, primarily funding long-distance field trips for children, the defense said in their documents.
Hamilton's charges also allege he paid a $7,000 bribe to another Dallas City Council member, referred to in the indictment as "Council Person A," but known to be the now-disgraced Caraway – another witness against the developer.
At the time of the alleged bribe, Caraway was wearing a "wire" as an undercover operative for the government. He had also admitted to taking $450,000 in bribes and kickbacks in the unrelated Dallas County Schools scandal that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Defense lawyers said in their filings that Caraway first delayed his meeting with Hamilton "until the government, who had already caught Caraway in serious illegal conduct having nothing to do with Mr. Hamilton, could have the meeting wired up to be videotaped and audio recorded, and give him a script to use."
"Caraway never tells Mr. Hamilton the reason to write the check is so that Caraway will perform official acts," they said, adding: "Rather, his pitch for the money was to help with medical bills for his elderly mother …and his own, graphically-described fight with cancer."