by Johnnie Belle Reagan
As an investigative reporter I spend hours and hours doing research on stories. You hear and read a lot of information and some of that information isn’t important at the time. As I sat watching the Local News last night listening to an investigative report about Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick and a light went off! It happens sometimes like that.
Scrolling back through my notes on the Lawnmower Man Case (City of Palestine vs. Jerry Laza) I found an insignificant scribble about Jeffery Lyons contacting Mr. Laza in 2014 about trading property. The lawsuit wasn’t filed until June of 2016 so it makes you wonder what was going on in 2014. As I researched the case I have always felt like there was a missing piece, something going on behind the scenes, an unnamed driving force. Also, scribbled in the margin was Texas Area Fund Foundation non-profit. Some of the property that had been offered in trade for Laza Oak Street property, housing his lawnmower business, was then titled to Texas Area Fund Foundation. Former Mayor Bob Herrington had mentioned he had personally been contacted in 2014 by City Attorney Ron Stutes suggesting that if he ever wanted to do something with Laza’s property it could be done by putting a police substation in and taking it by eminent domain. It has also been rumored that Ron Stutes approached City Manager Wendy Ellis about Laza’s property during this time frame. I have proved in the past that Ron Stutes regularly represents the opposite side in other City of Palestine affairs, even blatantly representing Texas Area Fund Foundation issues before the Palestine City Council.
It is the Non-Profit and LLC aspect that you need to pay close attention. Railroad Commissioner Christy Craddick is under some scrutiny with questionable ethical practices as she has voted on issues that directly affect her investments in oil and gas. What caught my attentions was a little two second blip of a screen shot the news station ran that showed Commissioner Craddick’s energy rights being held by a Trust. Much like Craddick’s mineral, gas and oil rights, the Texas Area Fund Foundation also hold mineral, gas and oil rights under its incorporated non-profit umbrella. It isn’t hard to guess that the 50% tax break that the TAFF has listed as their status is beneficial in more ways than one.
Back to how this is directly related to Mr. Laza. A few days ago the local Palestine newspaper ran an article about how Texas Area Fund Foundation sub-fund, Palestine Tomorrow, was requesting another $9,800 in a grant from the Palestine Economic Development Corporation for the “Art Walk”. Part of the Art Walk includes the “Gateway to the City” mentioned in the article. This area is located along Spring Street and Oak Street that houses the Railroad Memorial Park. This controversial $250,000 little grassy knoll is located 3 blocks of Mr. Laza’s lawn mower shop and within direct view. I’m just assuming that we can’t have our “Gateway” to the City supported by our local “do good” group tainted by the Lawn mower shop. It sure would be nice for them to have the “eye sour” rectified by the City Attorney using the tax payer’s funds to pay for it in the tune of $300,000 in lawyer fees. That is just me typing out loud.
I would think it strange or unusual to believe that a local Non-Profit might have that kind of pull if I had not seen a recent story about a similar situation going on in Dallas. See, Mr. Davenport owns a carwash in an urban blight area off of 175 and Martin Luther King Blvd. in the City of Dallas. Mr. Davenport contacted a local non-profit that was allotted grant money to help local business within this area with expenses for fighting crime and blight. Mr. Davenport was informed that 6 months into the fiscal year for the available funds no money was left. His next step was by Public Information Request to the trustee of these funds as to where and who received some of the $147,000 that was available. When he pressed after receiving no answer, the City of Dallas responded with a Civil Lawsuit using TLGC 54.012 Health and Safety to try to shut his business down. Digging deeper, he also found, as I have found here in Palestine, this non-profit has an expired non-profit status with the State of Texas. I hope he won’t be surprised when he finds out that it is just a division of a bigger non-profit and covered by the “umbrella” like we were told when it was discovered that Palestine Tomorrow filing was expired. This must be a really BIG “umbrella”.
This leaves me with so many unanswered questions. Like, how are we all missing out on the benefits of being part of non-profit? Why aren’t we all getting that 50% tax break on holdings? Why can’t I find a lawyer to work for me that is paid by someone else? I could really do a lot good with that. Are these non-profits the new shell companies hiding in plain sight? I once heard of them referred to as legal organized crime. Think about that for minute. For Commissioners, Attorneys and City Officials are ethics just a suggestion, a thing of the past? Do you think these are isolated incidents? I would bet they are not and would love to hear from you. I will say at least two municipalities are sending a huge message to the business owners not to mess with the “status quo”.