By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The argument smacks of entitlement: This is how rich guys do it. When these gentlemen hit the skids, they needn't pony up like the guy who's two months late on his rent-to-own TV. Somebody else will pick up their tab.
Miller has never filed personal bankruptcy to clear himself of the debt, Pronske says, but he declined to discuss why. Some speculate that Miller is too wealthy to seek bankruptcy protection; others say he is too proud.
He has made offers to settle, Pronske says, although he declined to reveal how much Miller has offered to pay.
Collier, the collection attorney, says the only offer Miller has extended to her employer over the past two years was to wipe the books clean for $50,000. That amount brought laughter at Stonehenge/FASA-Texas, which has attempted to collect the government's money since January 1996. Stonehenge, a kind of high-dollar collection agency, has formed a partnership with the feds over Miller's debt: Stonehenge picks up all collection expenses and agrees to split any recovery from Miller 50-50 with the federal treasury.
The government bail-out of the S&Ls in the 1980s--which ended up paying depositors whose money had been loaned to speculative high-flyers such as Miller--came out of general federal revenues and ended up being added to the national debt. In the grand scheme of things, the government had to borrow money to pay Vance Miller's bills.
Collier, Stonehenge's current lawyer, is a tough-skinned litigator with experience in going after fallen real estate barons and S&L execs. "Most people fight pretty hard to keep from paying large outstanding loans," she says. "It's that arrogance that helped make them a lot of money in the first place. But eventually they make peace with you.
"Miller is different. He's been doing this for more than a decade, and he's not tired of it yet."
Court records in Dallas show that the feds aren't the only ones lined up looking for money owed by Miller, whose now-booming companies moved three years ago into the top-floor offices of the slick, 11-story Providence Towers located at the Dallas North Tollway and Spring Valley Road.
A Houston lender tried unsuccessfully for 10 years to squeeze about $190,000 out of Miller--once again a debt owed on money personally guaranteed by him. That obligation was also taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court; it too remains outstanding.
In 1996, a local golf pro tried collecting a judgment against the Vance Miller-run Prestonwood Country Club. The jury award had its roots in an incident involving Miller's eldest son, Vance Jr., who seriously beat up the pro's wife. Vance Miller Sr. and his lawyer then began moving assets in what an opposing lawyer called "a shell game" designed to avoid payment.
Vance Sr. finally settled that case last spring, a few months after his troubled 38-year-old son--under the influence of cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana--drove his car into oncoming traffic on Marsh Lane and was killed.
As far back as 1989, when Cullen/Frost Bank of Dallas was trying to collect $763,922 from Miller on one of his defaulted notes, the bank claimed in court papers: "Vance Miller, while claiming insolvency, nevertheless maintains a high lifestyle far greater than would be expected from someone who is truly insolvent."
Sure enough, Vance's leisure activities made the daily paper several times that year. That winter, he was out at the exclusive PGA West Course in La Quinta, California, teeing it up with the pros. He and his wife turned up again at the Brook Hollow Golf Club, at the debutante party for the granddaughter of one of the founders of Frito-Lay.
When it comes to world-class debtors, says Gary Pridavka, a Dallas attorney who went to court and got a settlement out of him, "Vance Miller is very much the exception to the rule. It takes a lot of planning and a great deal of lawyers' time to do what he's done, to live a wealthy lifestyle and be poor on paper."
If there ever was a man equipped for that task, it's Miller, a number of business associates say. Arrogant, elitist, brassy, belittling, he is known for his hard-nosed business tactics. "He's no pantywaist," says one real estate executive and former broker in the Miller firm.
Says another, again insisting on anonymity because of the business he's done with Miller companies, "He's a unique guy. He's unpredictable. He walks around with this grin on his face, and people just don't know what's going on inside. He talks, and you wonder what he said."
In contrast to his adopted father, Henry Jr., who was known for his sense of fairness and gentle demeanor, Vance Miller is "not exactly held in very high esteem," according to one recent business partner.
No one would dare say that of any of the family patriarchs who preceded Vance Miller.
Aaron Miller came to Dallas in the decade after the Civil War, choosing to flee Poland rather than get conscripted by the Russian army. A Talmudic scholar, he conducted the first Jewish services in Dallas, years before there was an organized synagogue.
His son Sam inherited the family grocery store in South Dallas, became the president of the first Jewish congregation, and had six children, including Henry S. Miller Sr.