By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In June 2005, just about anyone who spent time watching Hill—other than a few FBI agents—had to think he was poised for bigger things. He had just helped defeat a proposal to strengthen the powers of the position of mayor, dealing a public blow to then-Mayor Laura Miller. In debates with Miller, a former journalist with a knack for meaty one-liners, Hill effortlessly made his case. When voters rejected the proposal, the folks in southern Dallas, who deeply distrusted Miller, treated Hill as a conquering hero.
Hill was more than just Miller's foil. His colleagues respected him enough to elect him mayor pro tem, making him the second in command at the council, where his power often eclipsed that of Miller. In fall 2003, Hill defeated Miller's efforts to balance the city budget by lowering compensation for city employees. Over the years, Hill continued to prevail in most public battles with the mayor.
Even council members who found themselves on the opposite side of a battle with Hill were drawn to his sense of collegiality and fair play.
"He was very effective at pulling a coalition together for a vote," says former council member Sandy Greyson. "He listens and always struck me as someone who had a sincere interest in hearing what your point of view was. Then he tried his hardest to convince you of his position."
After the strong-mayor debate, political observers deemed Hill a serious candidate for the top job in City Hall. He had a natural base in southern neighborhoods, where he lived for more than 20 years, but, unlike his black colleagues on the council, Hill had a chance of holding his own in the voter-rich white precincts in North and East Dallas. If more than a few white voters north of the Trinity River saw black council members as nothing more than racial agitators, Hill had a knack for appearing as the moderate without irritating his die-hard constituents.
In fact, after just a few years on the council, Hill's influence and stature not only rivaled Miller but that of John Wiley Price, the formidable black county commissioner.
"Three years ago, prior to the FBI investigation, it was Don and John staring each other in the eye over who was in charge here," says Rufus Shaw, a friend of Hill's and columnist for DallasBlog.com. But unlike Price, Shaw says, "Hill was able to satisfy the African-American community without alienating the white community."
It was hardly a coincidence that Hill's political fortunes began to brim in 2003 to 2005 while Miller weathered a series of political setbacks. But during this same time, Hill's life away from the public eye began to unravel. In May 2004, the State Bar of Texas put him on probation for three years for "professional misconduct" after he inexplicably missed a series of deadlines for a pair of his clients. The bar's summation of its case against Hill is devastating. As Hill was racking up council victories through the strength of his intellect and personality, the bar portrayed him as an inept and neglectful attorney who failed to do any sort of investigation in his clients' wrongful termination cases.
The bar concluded that Hill failed to depose witnesses and file responses to defendants' motions. It also noted that he allowed one case "to be dismissed for want of prosecution." Perhaps worst of all, when these clients dismissed Hill, he failed to refund their money. Fittingly, after the State Bar notified Hill that two clients had filed a complaint alleging ethical misconduct, he requested two extensions to give his side of the story. The bar gave him the extra time, but Hill still missed the deadline to file his response.
For his ethical lapses, the state bar ordered Hill to practice law only under the guidance of a "mentor." Hill was also ordered to pay $6,500 in fines along with $11,000 in restitution to his two aggrieved clients. The state bar would not disclose if Hill has paid these penalties.
The bar's sanction of Hill only added to his financial troubles. While Hill the council member often argued for political initiatives that used public funds to spur redevelopment, Hill the private citizen owed more than $200,000 in back payments to the IRS. More tellingly, Hill couldn't even pay off small debts.
Nearly 10 years ago, Hill was sued by several publishers for failing to pay for a set of law books. He lost a judgment and agreed to pay back around $14,000 but has yet to settle his debt. The publishers' attorney, Sharon Grass, filed a new judgment against him in the spring, but she says Dallas County constables couldn't find any assets to seize.
"I think he's always sincere in what he agrees to and that he has good intentions, but then he just doesn't follow through and pay off our judgment," Grass says. Hill hasn't made a payment in two years, she adds.
As Hill's financial and professional pressures mounted, he started being seen in public with Sheila Farrington, an erstwhile political consultant. John Wiley Price referred to Farrington as a "political groupie" to The Dallas Morning News, and the feds tab her as Hill's former mistress, but many of Hill's friends say the two seemed genuinely in love. They married in June 2006.