Deadbeat

Vance Miller lives in a Highland Park mansion, carries weight in the GOP, and parties with high society. He owes you, the taxpayer, $26 million, and he ain't paying.

His wife and father also give Vance the lucre he uses to back politicians, he says. His largesse around election time has earned him considerable influence in the local GOP, where he favors Republicans and fiscal conservatives such as Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

Miller's protests aside, Collier and her employer believe he is holding far more wampum than he lets on. He controls family companies easily worth $100 million, she says. But that's just a guess. Her estimates come from standing on the outside of the Miller enterprises looking in, with Vance's lawyer fighting her search for hard information every inch of the way.

The way in which Miller has avoided paying this decade-old debt--without declaring personal bankruptcy--forms another of those uniquely infuriating, but classic tales of "going broke" Texas-style. Along with the legends born of booms and busts, tales of S&L bandits, blowin' and goin' gamblers, and pyramid-scheme operators, one must add the story of a Dallas real estate heir who thumbed his nose at his obligations for so long that he got a shot at getting rich all over again. It features a cheeky lawyer and a legal system that protects those wealthy enough to exploit its endless opportunities for delay and diversion. Such is the saga of Vance C. Miller, Yber-deadbeat, the richest "poor" man in Dallas.

In the early 1980s, Vance Miller was on his way to becoming what former associates say he always wanted to be: another Trammell Crow. Having split off from the family brokerage business and operating on his own as a developer-investor, he soared.

He owned apartments in Houston, a construction company and prime land in Hawaii, business parks at freeway corners in Dallas, housing developments along golf courses, hotels including a Sheraton in Arlington, and his very own country club--Prestonwood in North Dallas.

In the overheated market that was fueled by easy money from S&Ls, riches just seemed to rise up from the dirt. Oilman Clint Murchison, in an account of his days as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, recalled how Miller got him into a real estate deal where he didn't have to put up a dime. The transaction netted Murchison $8 million. He liked Miller.

In December 1982, in one of those grand gestures that fuel the myth of Texas' audacious "big rich," Miller and car dealer W.O. Bankston put down $550,000 for the remaining tickets to a Cowboys game so the local TV blackout would be lifted. The following year, the pair put in a bid to buy the team--offering $90 million--but lost out to H.R. "Bum" Bright.

When real estate prices began free-falling in Houston in 1984, then in Dallas within the next two years, Miller's wings melted. His joint ventures and partnerships defaulted on their loans, court records show, and the loans, in turn, became the failed assets of the federal government after the S&Ls cratered.

Typical was Miller's Mesquite I-30 Venture, a 55-acre business park he was developing at the corner of Interstate 30 and Galloway Avenue. He and a partner took out a promissory note for $12 million in October 1984. Just over two years later, it was in default. By 1989 the lender--First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Waco--had been taken over by the feds, who the next year sold the property at auction.

Although the Dallas market was already slowing in 1986, Miller launched a grand plan to enhance his prized possession, Prestonwood Country Club, by building a second golf course in Collin County--and selling the surrounding land for luxury homes--as well as proceeding with a major renovation of the old clubhouse in Richardson.

But the lingering downturn dried up new memberships, and as his debts came due, Miller quietly went to federal court in 1992, put the club into bankruptcy, and began negotiating with his creditors.

He may have owed millions, but that didn't stop him from renovating his Beverly Drive house that year. County records show he put up a new detached garage, just beyond the pool.

The largest of Miller's country club creditors was the Resolution Trust Corp., the now-dissolved federal receiver for the failed S&Ls. Miller, through family companies, somehow managed to renegotiate about $10 million in debt and retain the club and its two 18-hole golf courses.

But because he had signed personal guarantees backing the original notes, government attorneys asserted that Miller himself was on the hook for the rest of the debt: about $23 million. The government sued him in May 1994, and a one-day trial before U.S. District Judge Joe Fish and two subsequent appeals resolved that Miller indeed owed $23 million, plus interest. As of October, the total came to $26,635,742.71--a figure that grows at more than $1 million per year.

Miller declined to comment for this story, although his attorney, Dallas bankruptcy specialist Gerrit Pronske, says his client has "no ability to pay $26 million." Miller is like a lot of developers who were hammered in the '80s, Pronske says. "They didn't end up writing checks for the full amount. They got rid of these debts by doing one of two things: settling them for cents on the dollar or filing bankruptcy."

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