John Wiley Price Bribery Trial Shines Light on Hidden World of Lobbying Within County Government

If you’re an outsider looking to win a local government contract and you don’t know any of the players or decision makers, you call a lobbyist.It’s a perfectly legitimate way to promote your services and get information to busy public officials.But in the case of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, lobbying crossed over into bribery, prosecutors say, when the commissioner accepted money from a Dallas lobbyist to help her clients.Testimony from Price’s bribery and tax evasion trial has provided a rare look into the world of people who are paid to cozy up to politicians for access and influence. It also has revealed weaknesses in regulations governing lobbying at the county level, which made conditions ripe for the type of abuse alleged in the Price trial. Some of those conditions remain.Lawmakers don’t have time to become experts on every topic, said Jack Gullahorn, a lawyer who until recently headed a trade group for Texas lobbyists and spent 35 years in the industry. Because of the size of government, the system wouldn’t work without the flow of information from lobbyists, Gullahorn said.Generally, state and local laws say there can’t be a quid pro quo between lobbyists and politicians, meaning taking an action in exchange for an action, he said. It is a felony to offer or solicit or accept any benefit, he said.“We have got to act ethically and responsibly to make things work right,” Gullahorn said.Dallas County officials passed new lobbying guidelines several years ago, prior to the Price indictment. Businesses seeking county contracts are not allowed to contact county commissioners during the bid process, and they are encouraged not to give to their campaigns.But Gullahorn says the guidelines aren’t strong enough to prevent influence peddling. Counties get their authority directly from the state Legislature, which has not given counties the ability to require that lobbyists register and document their activities, for example.Unlike cities, counties can only pass regulations that are allowed by state laws. The more stringent lobbying regulations apply only to the legislative and executive branches of state government. Many cities such as Dallas and Austin have passed their own mandatory lobbyist registration laws.Former executives of companies that hired Kathy Nealy to lobby for them testified during the trial about how they sought to influence Price and other county officials.It doesn’t happen this way in every county or with most contracts, elected official or county employees. But according to court testimony and the prosecution’s allegations, this is how lobbying can unravel and become something questionable.UnderdogNealy, a longtime Dallas lobbyist and close associate of Price, was a gatekeeper for access to the powerful and influential commissioner. Prosecutors say Nealy paid almost $1 million in bribes to Price over a decade in the form of cash, cars and land in exchange for official action that benefitted her corporate clients. She will be tried after Price.Nealy also got her clients meetings with Price during the “no-contact” or no lobbying period while they were actively seeking contracts. Executives promoted their companies to Price during the visits, according to testimony.And she charged her clients a “success fee” for specific outcomes regarding county contracts, which is illegal at the state level.Eric Frazier, a former Schlumberger sales executive who previously worked for local government in Ohio, told the jury Schlumberger hired Nealy in 2002 when it successfully sought a $43 million IT outsourcing contract.Schlumberger, a large oil field services company based in France, was an unlikely candidate for the multi-year outsourcing contract to run and maintain all of Dallas County’s computer systems.Although it was worth billions, the company considered itself an underdog in the race because it had only recently gotten into the local government IT outsourcing business. And it was going up against established computer technology giants such as EDS and ACS.Related: Breaking down the John Wiley Price indictmentFrazier, an entrepreneur who lives in Denver, said he had experience working for the city of Columbus, Ohio, and could “speak the language” to sell computer technology to governments. His firm had been purchased by Schlumberger, which saw the potential for great profits in the emerging IT field that blossomed in the 1990s.The company that specialized in finding oil buried in the earth, however, was “late to the game,” Frazier said. And he didn’t think he’d have a chance with the Dallas County job.The pre-bid meeting hosted by the county was a “who’s who” in information technology, he said, that included large companies such as SAIC, which did computer outsourcing for the CIA. On the other hand, Schlumberger had its American headquarters in Houston and is a large established company, he said. The decision was made to go for it.“Go big or go home,” as he put it.Getting your story heardFrazier said he was based in Denver at the time and was then pursuing as many as 10 different government contracts across the U.S.. He needed someone local who knew the players, he said.Nealy got the job. She would be the one to get their story heard, he said.Nealy was not required to register as a lobbyist with Dallas County to show who was paying her how much and for what services. County policy asks for voluntary lobbyist registration, only.Nealy had a “well-known pedigree,” Frazier said, citing her work for notable clients like Bill and Hillary Clinton. She also knew people like Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor, and those in agencies such as DART, he said. She was a proven success, he said.  Continue reading...

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