Jury selection starts Tuesday in the trial of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. He faces charges of accepting nearly $1 million in bribes in exchange for providing insider information and voting in favor of certain projects. What’s at stake for one of the most visible African-American political voices in North Texas?
Soon after John Wiley Price was arrested in the summer of 2014, a swarm of reporters and cameras surrounded the longtime county commissioner. He didn’t say much.
'This is a raw deal'
John Wiley Price’s Executive Assistant, Dapheny Fain, was also charged. So were two political consultants, Kathy Nealy and Christian Campbell.
Sarah Saldaña, then the U.S. Attorney, laid out to reporters the case in the 13-count indictment.
“Commissioner Price sponsored and advocated Mrs. Nealy’s clients' interests," Saldaña said. “And he voted on those matters in a manner that benefited her clients. In return, Mrs. Nealy provided Commissioner Price with a stream of benefits, in the form of cars, land and cold, hard cash, totaling approximately $950,000.”
Price is charged with 11 counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery and depravation of honest services by mail fraud. He is accused of leaking confidential information on contract bids to the clients of Nealy and Campbell to help these businesses land the contracts.
Soon after Price’s arrest, longtime supporters like Deborah Culberson came to his side.
“This is a raw deal. This is a very successful man. He pulled himself up, didn’t have anything. Came here trying to help people. And all the people he’s trying to help? A lot of them are stabbing him in the back,” Culberson said.
The late Juanita Wallace, who was president of the Dallas NAACP chapter when Price was arrested, talked with KERA in 2014.
“African Americans, he has stood up for us when other people have not,” Wallace said. “It appears to me it’s a high-level profiling issue. It’s another way to say to everybody: If we can bring John Wiley Price down with some of the accusations, we can bring every other person down.”
In the summer of 2015, political consultant Christian Campbell pleaded guilty. He could testify for the government.
At the time, former U.S. Attorney Matthew Orwig called Campbell’s plea significant.
“The most difficult thing for the government to do, is to try to infer intent of the members of the conspiracy,” Orwig explained. “So if they have someone on the inside who’ll testify for them, then that’s a good development for them.”
'I'm still focused'
Price continued showing up at Commissioners Court meetings, saying he was as committed as ever to help manage complex county operations — from the jail system to Parkland Hospital.
“And as the ranking member of the Dallas County Commissioner’s Court,” Price said, “I’ve made decisions that placed Dallas county in the top tier counties across this nation.”
Despite the looming federal corruption trial, Price ran for re-election last year. As he campaigned, he maintained he was innocent – and said he wasn’t concerned about the charges.
“I’ve been focused ever since and I’m still focused,” Price said. “I’m still servicing my constituents. I have lawyers and I’m ok with that. And like Paul Harvey said, let’s get to the other side of the story.”
Price easily defeated three Democratic challengers during last spring’s primary – and sailed to victory last fall.
Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson is among Price's supporters.
“For 30 years he’s been our man downtown working hard to make sure the district’s taken care of, in terms of just being on the ground, working hard.”
Price has always been up front and in your face – to his political challengers and to his colleagues on the Commissioners Court. During his campaign last year, he acknowledged the haters in a YouTube video.
“He’s too confrontational. Really? All’s my life I’s had to fight,” Price said, purposely slipping into dialect. “And there’s a difference between gimmicks and governance.”
If Price is found guilty on all counts against him, he could face decades in prison.