DALLAS (CN) – Federal jurors heard sharply different portrayals of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price on Monday during opening statements in his highly anticipated government corruption trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Bunch portrayed Price, 66, as a self-interested crook who took more than $1 million in bribes for his influence and votes on the powerful Commissioners Court. He accused Price of hiding the bribes and failing to report them on state-mandated financial disclosure statements or in his federal tax returns.
Prosecutors say Price took more than $950,000 in cash, cars and real estate from political consultant Kathy Nealy in exchange for support for her clients, and more than $200,000 in cash from a clothing store operated by Price’s assistant Dapheny Fain and an art gallery operated by his friend Karen Manning.
Price was charged in July 2014 with conspiracy to commit bribery concerning a local government receiving federal benefits, conspiracy to defraud the IRS, six counts of deprivation of honest services by mail fraud, and three counts of subscribing to a false and fraudulent income tax return.
Manning and political consultant Christian Campbell pleaded guilty in 2015 and will testify against Price. Nealy will be tried separately. Fain is being tried alongside Price. Her attorneys elected to give an opening statement later in the trial.
Prosecutor Bunch repeatedly told the jury to “follow the money,” accusing Price of feeling “entitled to something more” than his $100,000 annual salary.
“When you strip away the details, the evidence is simple,” Bunch said. “Follow the money – all of it points to greed, corruption and lies.”
Defense attorney Shirley Baccus-Lobel, of Dallas, rejected the bribery accusations as “ludicrous” and “preposterous,” describing Price as fiscally conservative in spending public money.
She said Price has made many political enemies during his 30 years in office and is being targeted for that. Price is well known for leading protests against Parkland Hospital and the Dallas Police Department regarding dissatisfaction with minority hiring. He made headlines last year for a shoving match at a gospel radio station during a debate with other Democratic nominees for his job that devolved into personal attacks.
“He is not extravagant … he is flamboyant. That is his schtick,” Baccus-Lobel told the jury. “Behind that persona is the most diligent, devoted public servant you will ever see in your life.”
She downplayed the alleged exchanges of money with the three women, acknowledging that the unmarried Price “has a fondness” for women, with whom he acts much like a husband.
“We are not going to hide that,” she said.
Baccus-Lobel denied that Price “belongs to anyone,” describing his relationship with Nealy as the same as any other between a lobbyist and elected official.
“Whether you like it or not, lobbying and political consulting are legitimate businesses in the United States,” Baccus-Lobel said.
She described Price as a loyal friend who accepted calls for help from many people, not just Nealy.
Baccus-Lobel criticized the years-long gap between the alleged crimes and the prosecution, saying it makes presenting a defense harder due to passage of time. She said many of the alleged crimes in the indictment are “old stuff” that are excluded by statutes of limitations.
Prosecutors called their first witness after opening statements.
County Administrator Darryl Martin testified that Price is one of the “hardest working” people on the five-member administrative body. He described the county’s process for soliciting and selecting outside bids for contracts, saying that no county official is to give information to a bidder about a competitor’s bid. Prosecutors say Price fed such restricted bid information to Nealy for her clients’ benefit.
The lone Republican member of the Commissioners Court tried to have Price suspended immediately after his indictment, but the measure died for lack of a second. Price was reelected comfortably in 2012 after the FBI investigation became public, and was reelected again in 2016 as he awaited trial.
Former BearingPoint executive Helen Tantillo, of Austin, was sentenced to six months in federal prison in April 2016 for lying to federal officials in the Price investigation.
A federal jury in Austin concluded that Tantillo falsely told FBI agents that a temporary $10,000 increase in consulting fees paid to Campbell “was to make a charitable donation to the favorite charity” of an unidentified Dallas County commissioner. Prosecutors said Tantillo knew the money was, in part, to pay Nealy.
Opening statements in Price’s trial were originally set to begin last Thursday, but were delayed several hours due to a juror becoming ill and needing hospitalization. A second juror requested Friday off to care for an ill relative.
The trial is expected to last for more than four months.