By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The following year, Peggy Neiderlitz filed a civil suit in Dallas, seeking damages from Vance Jr. for the assault. A jury eventually awarded her $24,750.
That case begat yet another lawsuit, this one in federal court. The Neiderlitzes had discovered that Vance Jr., in his capacity as a director for Prestonwood, had illegally obtained their credit report, presumably to use against them in the state court fight.
In November 1995, a jury found Prestonwood Country Club liable for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act and awarded the couple $168,702.
Almost immediately, rather than pay that sum, Vance Sr., who was the club's chairman and president, and Pronske got busy.
In February 1996, they incorporated an entity called Providence Texas Capital Corp., with Vance as the only director and Pronske as the registered agent. According to court documents, Miller, acting as the president of Henry S. Miller Co., then transferred nearly a million dollars worth of Prestonwood Country Club debt to the newly formed Providence, which suddenly became the club's creditor.
On April 2, at 11 p.m., federal marshals put the country club up for sale on the courthouse steps, which the Neiderlitz couple then ostensibly bought to satisfy their judgment.
Two hours earlier, however, Providence foreclosed on Prestonwood's debt because the club had supposedly defaulted on its indebtedness to Providence. In essence, Miller foreclosed on himself. Pronske claimed at the time that the corporate entity that was Prestonwood--which the Neiderlitzes bought at auction--became an empty shell, and worth nothing.
The Neiderlitzes responded by suing Vance Sr. and Pronske for fraud.
In a legal brief filed later, a Miller creditor claimed, "Miller plays a shell game with his assets, moving them around in hidden transfers as creditors approach."
Last spring, a full year after the courthouse auction, the Neiderlitzes settled for an undisclosed sum and sealed the record with a confidentiality agreement.
"They can't go on like this forever," Peggy Neiderlitz says now, her voice choking with emotion when the Miller name is mentioned. "They can't keep treating people like this. Someday, someday I wish...I wish them no harm, truly."
As the daily paper made clear, 1995 was a big year for Vance Miller Sr. and his wife on the Dallas social circuit. She was snapped rubbing elbows with designer Oscar de la Renta at a charity fashion show. He turned up at a preview party for the chic Oak Lawn restaurant, Joey's, where the well-off guests played at making handprints in wet concrete. As a society columnist put it: "Mega-developer Vance Miller strolled through the mess unruffled in a pin-stripe suit. 'This is what I construct things in,' he said.'"
He had a less fabulous time at the Dallas federal courthouse, where lifetime judges--unlike their state counterparts--are above the business of raising campaign money from the same well-connected families that occasionally end up in their courtrooms.
By late 1995, federal government lawyers had spent $64,000 to take Vance to court to collect on his personal guarantee of tens of millions of dollars in commercial loans left in the portfolios of three failed S&Ls. These were the notes he had taken out in the 1980s to expand Prestonwood and to buy a 103-acre piece of property in Austin.
Of course, a Miller-controlled company continued to own Prestonwood, which by this time had about 1,200 members. Why it took the government so long to sue Miller to enforce his guarantees is a question for a story on the government's vigor, or lack of it, in handling the S&L mess.
Once the case got to trial in Dallas, however, the matter before U.S. District Judge Joe Fish came down to a question of Miller's responsibility for the Prestonwood debt following the club's corporate bankruptcy in 1992. Pronske--who keeps pretty busy with this one client--argued that the bankruptcy got Vance off the hook personally, too. Fish ruled against Miller, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the bulk of his ruling the following year. Last year, Pronske kicked the fight up one more level, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which let the lower court ruling stand.
All that was left was for Miller to step forward and pay the $23 million, plus the interest that had begun gathering at several thousands of dollars a day.
"There isn't much sympathy out there for rich people who don't pay their bills," says Brenda Collier, the lawyer who has been trying to get Miller to pay his tab.
And by all outward appearances, Vance C. Miller's present fortunes are as rich and shiny as the Christmas display he put out last month in front of his Beverly Drive mansion--tens of thousands of little white bulbs strung, just so, through the big trees.
Out of the ashes of the 1980s, with Texas again in a boom, the Miller real estate empire is flourishing once more, with Vance at the helm.
In August 1991, the family repurchased its residential real estate business from Grubb & Ellis for $4 million. The company moved immediately back into commercial real estate and, after four or five exceptional years, is again Dallas' biggest commercial brokerage, with 81 agents, according to the Dallas Business Journal. It is also the city's third-largest residential broker, with $1.4 billion in commissions in 1996.