Former Dallas leader Larry Duncan gets probation in Dallas County Schools corruption case

Another key figure in the corruption scandal that bankrupted the largest school bus service in North Texas was sentenced to probation for tax evasion.

Judge Barbara Lynn sentenced 73-year-old Larry Duncan, a former Dallas City Council member who became the board president for Dallas County Schools, to three years of probation and six months of home confinement. She also ordered him to perform community service and pay $45,000 in back taxes, including interest.

Duncan pleaded guilty last year to tax evasion after taking a quarter of a million dollars in bribes from a company that put expensive stop-arm cameras on school buses. Federal prosecutors said he spent most of that money on personal items and failed to report it to the IRS.

“We expect elected officials to be absolutely fastidious with money they receive as a result of their official position,” said U.S. Attorney Nealy Cox. “When public officials behave unscrupulously, North Texas can count on federal prosecutors to intervene. We hope officials will heed our commitment to exposing corruption in any form it takes, and act accordingly.”

Duncan’s case is tied to the same scandal that brought down former Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway. Caraway received four years in prison for taking bribes from the same bus camera company that gave money to Duncan.

Prosecutors say the same man who gave Duncan all that campaign cash also paid $450,000 in bribes to Caraway for influential votes on Dallas City Council.

In Caraway's case, a guilty plea for tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wire fraud got him 56 months in prison. He said over the phone that he isn't supposed to comment, but he called Duncan's sentence "amazing."

Later by text message, Caraway’s attorney said “My phone has not stopped ringing from members of the community that are in disbelief with what they see as an unequal system of justice. People are wondering if this is how the system should work.”

But during Tuesday’s sentencing, Duncan’s lawyer tried to distance him from the other players convicted in the case, saying his illegal involvement didn’t include abuse of a public service position.

The defense called three witnesses to testify about Duncan’s character. Each witness, including his daughter and two close friends, pointed to his work on the Dallas City Council. None spoke in-depth about his involvement with DCS afterward.

Duncan also took the stand to accept responsibility. He said he is working towards atonement.

“I take full responsibility for what I have done. No excuses, no equivocations. I am humbled by the witnesses that we heard today. I love them dearly,” he said. “I have devoted a long portion of my life to public service. I stand embarrassed. I humiliated my family, my friends, my constituents. For that, I am sincerely sorry.”

DCS collapsed under fraud and mismanagement, something former employees have not forgotten.

“To think that we put our trust in those people. We respected those people, our leaders and they just let us down,” said Mike Williams, a retired DCS transportation director.

Williams said he was heartbroken to learn about the bribery scandal. He said more than 2,000 people lost their jobs when DCS dissolved and most had no idea about the corruption. He also said that he was surprised at the sentence.

“The judge did say she was suspicious about the charges that were brought. Perhaps, that's not all the charges that should have been brought,” Williams said. “We don't know. But, like the judge, I am suspicious.”

Former federal prosecutor Richard Roper says the charges also look suspicious.

“It certainly would merit further investigation,” he said. “I would assume the FBI and U.S. attorney's office did pursue those leads and didn't feel comfortable pursuing a public corruption charge against him.”

Roper says judges’ hands are tied in a case like this. They must rule only on the evidence before them. Prosecutors did argue that his tax evasion sentence should be enhanced as a matter of public corruption.

“I certainly think there is evidence to show he abused his public office,” Roper said. “Now, whether it would meet the threshold in the sentencing guidelines to justify this enhancement, it would be something Judge Lynn would have to determine. I think she determined it wasn't.”

If tax evasion charge over a bribery charge was the result of cooperating with prosecutors, Roper says that would have to be spelled out in the plea agreement.

Judge Lynn said Duncan’s very serious health condition and public service influenced her decision to give him probation.