By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For years, Don Hill eked out a modest living as a lawyer, and while he could disarm a jury with a folksy grin and a friendly yarn, he struggled mightily outside the courtroom. Secretaries had to call him repeatedly to remind him of meetings or else he'd never show. Hill spent most of his time at City Hall, where he served as a powerful council member, but at his day job he cut a modest presence, often wearing a pair of shoes with a gash peeking through the left sole.
Hill's former boss, J.H. Barr, defeated him once in a hard-fought case. After that, Barr, who built a thriving law practice in the middle of Oak Cliff, kept asking Hill to work for him every time he saw him at the courthouse. It took years of asking, but Hill finally took a job at Barr's firm in 2003, and while he could be frustrating to deal with at times, with his penchant for leaving clients waiting in his empty office, he was a good lawyer when he wanted to be.
In one case in a South Texas border town, Barr's firm was defending a construction company accused of building a shoddy road that caused a man to crash his car. It was a serious accident; the man became a paraplegic and sued the construction company. Barr sent Hill and another wet-behind-the-ears attorney to defend the case.
"I get a call from the young lawyer telling me that they got the paraplegic rolled into the courtroom, the plaintiff's lawyer landed his jet in the local airport, and he and Hill got to the hearing a little late," Barr says. "The judge comes in, and what do you know, she's a paraplegic. So the plaintiff is paralyzed, the judge is paralyzed and Hill wins the motion. A black guy in a Mexican-dominated town, and he pulls it out of the hat."
Now Hill faces a far thornier and more personal legal challenge. On October 1, Richard Roper, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, charged Hill with 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion after a long FBI investigation into influence-peddling at City Hall. The starring figure in a 166-page federal indictment of 14 current and former public officials, Hill is the alleged ringleader in an elaborate series of schemes that traded his authority as a city council member in exchange for envelopes of cash for him and his cronies. Hill's attorney Ray Jackson says his client looks forward to proving his innocence, but if he's going to beat the U.S. Attorney's Office he's going to have to once more pull something out of a hat—like a library of exonerating evidence to combat a federal case full of recorded conversations, wiretaps and seized e-mails.
The people who have long supported the 55-year-old Hill, and who still stand by him, wonder how he came to this point. They ask how their ambitious council member, who always measured his words and stances with such precision, found himself mixed up in a federal bribery case linked to a cast of troubled characters. Hill wasn't supposed to end up the object of pity and derision like that clumsy, creaky former council member Al Lipscomb, who fought for civil rights while taking cash on the side.
As frustrating as he could be when he showed up late for a meeting with nothing more than a smile, many still tabbed Hill as the next mayor of Dallas. Hill had that special ability, kind of like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, to win with class and style, even if you don't quite know how he did it. Of course, there were other views of Hill. Some saw him as a disorganized attorney, a lousy husband or just a decent neighborhood leader. No one figured him for a crook.
"He always reminded me to always do right by the people you are entrusted to represent and keep the faith and keep fighting and pushing hard," says Michael Sorrell, the young president of Paul Quinn College. "That's what makes all of this so ironic and in a sense so surreal. The man who had always provided great advice to me always told me not to do these types of things."
Don Hill, who has long been friendly with reporters, declined to comment on his case, but his wife, Sheila, who also faces a federal indictment for allegedly taking part in the same bribery scheme, says that she and her husband are innocent.
"He's known to be an honest politician, a man of great integrity," the former Sheila Farrington says. "If you know Don Hill, you know he's a man of God."
Though a seasoned politician, Hill could be awkward at times, with his stern brow and deep, dark eyes above a wispy, gap-toothed grin, but he never seemed slick when he touched you on the shoulder, looked you in the eye and heard what you had to say. He seemed, after a few encounters at least, a smart, amiable man with good intentions and a better heart. Although Hill could be an effective lawyer and influential politician, some folks say he looked most at ease wearing an apron and cooking food for Hurricane Katrina evacuees staying at his Oak Cliff church.
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.
At the time Hill met Farrington, however, he was married. His longtime wife, Vivian, worked quietly on her husband's campaigns while otherwise shunning the spotlight. Her friends describe her as charming and polite, if a little quiet. Many of Hill's longtime friends, though, hardly knew her.
"I lived in that neighborhood for 21 years, and I never really saw her," says Betty Culbreath, the first black head of the City Plan Commission and the Dallas- Fort Worth International Airport Board. "I never saw her at any events with Don either."
To some of his friends, Hill often seemed lonely. His former law boss Barr would sometimes see him lingering in the office waiting area at 9 p.m.
"I'd say, 'What are you doing reading a magazine, Hill?'"
"And he'd say, 'I think I'm going to go to a picture show.'"
"Who are you going with?"
"I'm just going to go by myself."
Barr would invite him home for dinner, but Hill would head out to the movies instead.
It's not entirely clear what kind of relationship Hill had with Farrington while he was still married, but the two weren't shy about being seen together in public. After news of the FBI's City Hall investigation broke in July 2005, the Morning News reported how Farrington breezed past security checkpoints at City Hall on her way to visit Hill. When it later came out that Hill was driving a BMW registered to Farrington, tongues started to wag.
"The affair was pretty well-known on this side of the district," says Lynn Flint Shaw, Rufus Shaw's wife and a member of the DART board who often worked with Hill. "People would tell me [that] while Vivian was knocking on doors for him, Sheila was in Don's office with her feet on the table."
In an interview with the Observer, a measured and deliberate Sheila Hill declined to talk about whether she was romantically involved with Don Hill during his marriage, though the indictment clearly suggests they were.
"I would go with your instincts as to how unusual that is to highlight that as a quote unquote irrelevant fact," says her attorney Victor Vital.
When Edna Pemberton discovered that an X-rated book and video store planned to set up shop in her South Oak Cliff neighborhood, she knew exactly who to call. Don Hill wasn't just her council member; he was a deacon at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, where she worshiped.
In the beginning of 2007, on many cold and dreary weekend mornings, Hill and Pemberton walked through the neighborhood rallying opposition to the adult business. State Senator Royce West, who used to play college football against Hill, and council member Ed Oakley joined in to lead the charge. Within months, the business decided to open elsewhere.
For Pemberton, it was just another neighborhood battle Hill helped win.
"Whenever we stepped out to the plate for a fight for the community, I could call him and he'd be on board," she says. "Every time there was an issue, I could call his office."
A gracious, affable lady who likes to tell loving stories of her late husband, Pemberton doesn't pass any judgment on Hill's relationship with Farrington, who now attends Concord Baptist too. She notes that while Hill was going through his divorce, he stepped down from his church leadership roles.
To hear her tell it, Hill is just as valuable at her church as he is for the city. When Concord Baptist took in a group of Katrina evacuees, Hill regularly checked in to make sure they were getting what they needed from federal relief efforts.
So many people portray Hill as a dedicated council member who genuinely cared about his city. Victor Lander, a municipal judge, says that he used to see Hill on his early morning walks pick up garbage scattered in the median. "These are the kinds of things that are typical of Hill to me," the judge says.
Other times, Hill's neighbors would join him on those walks, armed with questions and gripes about City Hall. One of them was Culbreath, who used to argue with Hill about his opposition to the strong-mayor proposal. The two could really go at it, but Hill seemed to enjoy the debate, and when they exhausted their points, the pair hugged and laughed.
Of course, there were some in Oak Cliff who saw Hill as just another slippery pol. Ruth Steward, a former council candidate and member of the city's Housing Finance Board, sharply rebuked Hill at a community meeting when she thought he failed to treat a group of senior citizens with respect. She later irritated Hill again when she had a public falling out with Hill's council ally, James Fantroy, who she said was too close to Brian Potashnik, the affordable housing developer at the heart of the FBI investigations.
Years later, Steward says, Hill continued to hold a grudge against her even as he pretended to show her affection. In fact, just a few days before the indictments were announced, Steward ran into Hill at another neighborhood function.
"He shook everyone's hand, and then he shook mine really hard. He just squeezed my hand really hard, and I kept talking to him trying to figure out what I did," she says. "Then he gives me that squeaky little smile of his."
Although Hill was unquestionably ambitious, with his sights set on the mayor's seat well before most people thought of him as a serious candidate, he wasn't a showy politician. Many of his friends say he preferred the role of moderator, even if that meant pleasing no one.
Lynn Flint Shaw says that Hill was often the voice of reason between the urban and suburban voices on the DART board.
"There would be times when there were heightened tensions in the room, and he never got angry," she says. "He was always the calming voice.
Today, Shaw nearly laughs at the new image of Hill as the kingpin of southern Dallas, spinning a web of bribery and corruption. Although she lauds his intelligence, particularly his ability to quickly grasp a complicated issue, she chuckles at how scatterbrained Hill could be.
"He'd be late for meetings, and we'd call him and hear him say, 'I'm on my way, I'm on my way, five minutes,'" she recalls. "And then 15 minutes later we'd call him, and he'd say, 'I'm down the street, I'm down the street.'"
Barr, Hill's former boss, says that Hill, while flawed, was gifted in the courtroom.
"When Don would talk to you, you would think you were very important to him and what you were saying was very important to him," Barr says. "He had a tremendous gift for talking to juries. He came across as compassionate, understanding and a man who had scruples, morals and character."
A respected attorney in his own right, Barr says that Hill never made the law a priority, focusing most of his efforts on tending to the ho-hum routines of a city council member.
"He could have made $250,000 a year working for me, but he just could never turn City Hall off. He just couldn't."
Now that Hill faces detailed allegations of graft and extortion, his friends and colleagues are stunned. Even though it's been more than two years since the FBI conducted its very public raids of his law and council office, Hill's supporters thought—or maybe just hoped—nothing would come of it. As the months and then years dragged on without news from the feds, the cloud of suspicion that hovered over Hill started to drift. But then on October 1, when a federal indictment placed Hill behind a church taking a $10,000 bribe, the people Hill seemed to serve so well were heartbroken. Here was a church deacon using the house of God as a criminal outpost.
"With Councilman Hill it was never about 'I,' it was always about 'we,'" Pemberton says. "So when these indictments came down I was shocked. I cried many days."
"This is just surreal. It's surreal," Barr says suddenly as if he just realized what's become of his former colleague. "I'm talking to a reporter about Don Hill being indicted."
In January, Hill launched a long-shot bid for mayor even as the FBI investigation promised to plague his campaign. Hill wore the same suit at nearly every candidates' forum. Still, he was mesmerizing on the campaign trail, outshining his rivals at nearly every public appearance—once he got there, that is. While the other candidates stuck to dry, forgettable stump speeches, inundated with either clichés or obtuse policy points, Hill delivered a hopeful message grounded in reality.
Hill promised to extend the revitalization of downtown, which he helped usher in as a council member, to other pockets of the city. Only the prospect of continued economic growth, he told each audience, could ease crime and boost the city's tax base. While the other candidates were immersed in a competition over who could promise to hire the most cops, Hill's message stood out as both pragmatic and honest.
Still, while Hill seemed preternaturally at ease on the stump, the FBI's investigation of his conduct in office made it impossible for him to run a winning campaign. It delayed his entry into the race and scared off would-be donors and supporters.
"Mr. Hill, though I like him as a friend, still has a federal indictment hanging over his head, and I do not want to see the city of Dallas embarrassed any further," council member Bill Blaydes told the Dallas Observer during the mayor's race. "It still has not been settled; it may be settled in Don's mind, but not the rest of the world."
Hill and his enterprising staff tried to use his potential criminal problems as an emblem of grit, labeling his bid for the mayor's seat as a "campaign of courage." They even hung that slogan on a billboard outside his office featuring a serious-looking Hill in a suit. The candidate's point was clear: Even though he was the subject of a federal investigation, he still had enough faith to shoot for the highest office in town.
"I think that two years is longer than it took to formally charge Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling," Hill told the Observer during the mayor's race, claiming that his case couldn't possibly be more complex than that of the former Enron executives. "I have taken the approach that I've done nothing wrong or improper or illegal, so at some point in time the government should say there isn't anything and clear my name completely."
Nearly a dozen other candidates widely outspent Hill. They hired expensive consultants, paid for direct-mail advertising and aired slick TV spots. Hill, meanwhile, operated out of a shuttered car dealership in Oak Cliff. A team of volunteers ran his campaign. Still, on Election Day, Hill nearly eased into the runoff, finishing a strong third out of 11 candidates. When Hill conceded on the old car showroom floor, with wife Sheila by his side, many of his friends had tears in their eyes. Hill kept his composure and thanked his mother while his supporters slowly started to trickle out the door.
The two candidates who made the runoff, Tom Leppert and Ed Oakley, immediately scrambled for Hill's endorsement. It was as if they were out of town the day FBI agents searched Hill's offices and uncovered evidence he was driving a car he didn't own. When Hill finally gave his support to Leppert, the two of them held a news conference outside of City Hall. Leppert put his arm on Hill's shoulder and called his former rival his "friend."
The central federal indictment is tough to follow, with a parade of protagonists and shadowy supporting actors crossing paths at City Hill, in tiny offices and, of course, behind a church. It's hard to keep track of who's who, and just when you start to get a feel for where a particular cluster of allegations is headed, a new character is introduced and the story line takes a left turn.
But if there's a leading man in the feds' case, it's Hill, who stars in a series of bribery and extortion rackets. The first has the seasoned council member sidling up to Brian Potashnik, a Highland Park developer of affordable housing. According to the feds, Hill and a man named D'Angelo Lee, Hill's appointee to the City Plan Commission, lent their support to Potashnik's pending project in exchange for cash. Because Potashnik was applying for federal tax credits to fund his apartment complexes in Hill's council district, he had to have Hill's support if he was to ever break ground.
The feds allege that Potashnik and Hill first met in August 2004, which, incidentally, was just three months after the state bar sanctioned Hill. On October 22, 2004, Potashnik and his wife, Cheryl, agreed to a sham consulting contract with Farrington's makeshift company that had the Potashniks making 12 monthly payments of nearly $15,000 to Hill's future wife, according to the indictment. Five days later, Hill voted to approve three Potashnik projects at a city council meeting.
The feds allege that the Potashniks delivered monthly payments to Farrington. She, in turn, funneled money and gifts to Lee and Hill.
Lee allegedly hit on the developer to award additional construction contracts to buddies of Lee and Hill. In turn, the feds say those associates shuffled money back to Farrington, who funneled cash to Hill through another middleman. In one of the few easy-to-follow parts of the indictment, Hill encouraged Lee to keep after Potashnik.
"Very good. Very good. Very good. Good job, man," Hill told Lee in late April 2005, around the same time the council member was crusading against the strong-mayor proposal with far more eloquent words.
A few days later Potashnik told Lee, "Let Don know I appreciate him."
In his wedding to Farrington in the summer of 2006, Lee was Hill's best man.
The feds place Hill in a more convoluted bribery scheme connected to an effort to redevelop the Lancaster-Kiest Shopping Center in southeast Oak Cliff. There Hill used his position as a council member to rewrite the city's housing policy to help a fledgling development company run by Lee and others receive federal and city funds. In this alleged racket, Hill is the unquestioned ringleader. Here the same attorney who had trouble deposing witnesses for his clients meticulously ropes in unknowing executives, politicians and even an unnamed presidential cabinet member in his enterprise, seeking their assistance in "economic development opportunities," which presumably would benefit Lee's start-up.
All the while, the feds say, Hill gave Lee his marching orders. "Bring me in whenever you need me to, whatever I need to do, but you're going to have to keep your focus, man."
Then there was the mother of all extortion schemes, a brazen racket allegedly made possible only through Hill's efforts and which may have led to the investigation in the first place. There the feds say that Hill went to great lengths to extort bribes from an unnamed developer now known to be Bill Fisher, who at the time was Potashnik's chief rival in the competitive arena of affordable housing. This is how they say it went down:
In August 2004, in a zoning application hearing for one of Fisher's projects, Darren Reagan, a self-styled civil rights activist, called for a moratorium on all multifamily affordable housing projects, using the letterhead of his organization, the Black State Employees Association. Reagan's group, the feds noted, did not include any black state employees, but it had the imprimatur of a legitimate institution to anyone who didn't know any better. After Reagan threatened the viability of Fisher's project, none other than Hill steps in and tells Fisher to meet with Reagan. Lee meanwhile sends an emissary to Fisher to "seek financial assistance."
Fisher, who at this point may be wearing a wire, courtesy of the feds, meets with Reagan and his No. 2, Allen McGill. There Reagan and McGill tell Fisher that he needs to hire them as consultants in exchange for Hill's support of his project. Then Lee enters the negotiations and suggests Fisher donate money to Hill's birthday party.
In November 2004, Reagan, who just three months earlier announced his opposition to multifamily apartments, reversed his position and declared his support for Fisher's project. A few days later, Reagan accepted a $10,000 check from the unnamed developer, believed to be Fisher. Then he told the developer he needed to hire "certain minority contractors" if he wanted his project approved, while hitting him up for a monthly car allowance.
In February 2005, Reagan had his infamous meeting with Hill behind a church, where he handed him "at least $10,000 in cash." The scheme becomes even more inscrutable after that, but to sum it up, more people extort the developer, and they, in turn, figure out ways to give Hill his cut. Meanwhile, the council member, smack in the middle of his successful effort to defeat the strong-mayor proposal, continues to move the developer's project along, as his cronies keep him in the loop every step of the way.
Hill declined to be interviewed for our story, but his attorney Ray Jackson asserts his client's innocence without ever hedging his bets.
"I can say unequivocally that Mr. Hill did not take any money in exchange for votes or for using his powers as a councilman," he says. "If things are not in context, it could seem like Hill did something that was inappropriate, but he stands adamantly for his innocence."
Although Jackson declined for legal reasons to discuss the particulars of the feds' case, he did answer a question about the most infamous passage in the indictment.
"The scene that you're talking about at the church is drastically different than the reality of it," he says. "I can't specifically talk about how it was different, but I can tell you that it wasn't as it was portrayed. Mr. Hill never took any money other than for his campaign."
Sheila Hill says that she too is innocent and will not accept a plea. She says that she had a perfectly legal business relationship with Brian Potashnik and Southwest Housing and that it was far from the arrangement portrayed by the indictment.
"It was a legitimate and appropriate contract," she says, while declining to go into any details. "Southwest Housing has a team of the finest attorneys anyone can have and through thorough investigation and research and just exploring all aspects of the contract found that it was an appropriate and legitimate contract."
She also speaks well of Southwest Housing, highlighting the company's good reputation for building affordable apartments that look just as nice as any middle-class dwelling.
"You'll find they maintain the properties well," she says. "It's improved the quality of life in those communities...[Potashnik] has a dynamic product, and he has something to be proud of and is proud of."
To some, Hill's association with Reagan, as outlined in the feds' case, is even more troubling than the allegations themselves. If Hill was seen as a thoughtful, cautious figure, Reagan is a firebrand, a volatile, divisive personality, whom most people never would have thought could have snagged the confidence of an experienced politician like Hill. Rufus Shaw, who has had a few scrapes with Reagan over the years, says that he never knew Hill had anything to do with his longtime adversary.
"I've spent a lot of time with Don. My wife has spent a lot of time with Don. I never knew they even had a passing acquaintance with each other," Shaw says about Hill's relationship with Reagan. "I certainly would think this is something he would have shared with me."
Reagan began to fashion a career as an activist after he left a carpentry job at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in 1991. The South Oak Cliff graduate had filed four separate racial discrimination complaints against his employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of himself and other black employees, all of which were determined to be without foundation. Still, Reagan and his new organization, the Black State Employees Association, targeted school President Kern Wildenthal while using whistles and bullhorns at campus-wide demonstrations.
Reagan soon signed a settlement agreement promising not to engage in any more protests at the medical school. But, according to a subsequent lawsuit, Reagan resumed his demonstrations anyway, this time picketing Wildenthal's home. Reagan and the Black State Employees Association held several more protests at the president's residence. They rang the doorbell, blew whistles and paraded with large signs. The group also threatened to picket the nursing home where Wildenthal's mother lived. Finally, Reagan also had a threatening message for the president.
"UT Southwestern initiated this War, and in a War we take no prisoners," Reagan wrote in a note for the university president. "No more talking and rhetoric. This is simply a matter of survival to the family who could endure to the end."
Reagan and his family lost that war as a judge ordered the supposed civil rights activist to have nothing more to do with Wildenthal or UT Southwestern. But from the rubbles of this rogue protest Reagan and the Black State Employees Association inexplicably became players in southern sector politics and development. Over the years, Reagan would be party to nearly 10 more lawsuits. Just this past fall, in addition to his federal indictment, Reagan was ordered to pay a $200,000 judgment to a bank after a shopping plaza that he helped develop went bankrupt. Now Reagan claims that he can't afford a lawyer to defend himself against the federal indictment.
Shaw, a longtime journalist in Dallas, lost a lawsuit to Reagan after writing a column alleging that he shook down developers in 1999. Seemingly vindicated by the spirit of the indictment, Shaw says that Hill should have known better than to have anything to do with someone like Reagan.
"You would think a guy running for mayor, a guy who was touted as the next mayor of Dallas, a guy who trended out in early polls as neck and neck with Laura Miller, you would think someone like Hill would not involve himself with Reagan," Shaw says.
Shaw, 57, can't seem to come to terms with how his friend could be so foolish. This was a guy he knew for years, talked politics with over dinner at his home and could criticize in print without worrying whether Hill would take it personally. Now Hill's on the cusp of ruin, Shaw believes, because of his bad choice of cronies.
"What hurts Don in the black community more than any FBI investigation or any tapes was his association with Darren Reagan," he adds. "We were prepared to go to the mat for Don, but his association with Reagan has given a lot of us some pause."
Still, Shaw says that many of his neighbors date the change in Hill's behavior to the arrival of Sheila Hill. By that accounting of Hill's fall from grace, it was the new, younger woman who introduced Hill to a new set of friends and a new way of life. Hill married her within a year of divorcing his first wife.
"I don't want to give the impression this woman has done something wrong, but there is a lot of negativity out there about the influence she had on Don Hill," Shaw says. "I don't know if it's true, but it's certainly out there."
Culbreath seems to hint that Sheila Hill, or someone else, is responsible for her friend's change in behavior.
"I think somebody introduced Don to a new way of living," she says. "And I'm not going to say who."
When Hill divorced his first wife, he elicited relentless gossip and stinging rebukes in the churchgoing circles of black Dallas. Even Hill's former law partner, Don Hicks, obliquely criticized Hill's marital conduct at a mayoral forum at Friendship West Baptist Church. Others, meanwhile, seemed eager to shift the blame to the new wife, a smart, attractive woman who developed a reputation for targeting men of status.
"She's attracted to power and money," says Ed Okpa, the former mayoral candidate who attended the Hills' wedding. "I'm not saying she's a gold digger, but if you have those two things, she'll give you attention."
Speaking with Sheila Hill, you wouldn't guess both she and her husband face a federal trial that could send them both to prison. Although she declined to talk about the specifics of the case against her, she bristles at the thought that she had any type of wrongful influence on her husband.
"Don Hill, my husband, my wonderful husband, is an extremely intelligent and accomplished attorney. He is an outstanding leader in the city of Dallas. Most of all, he's a strong Christian man, so the mere notion that someone of that caliber being influenced by me or anyone is a disgrace. It's just meanness."
Besides, she says, what does that say about her?
"Anyone that knows me knows that I am a woman of integrity and I am a God-fearing woman, so the notion of me influencing him to do something that would be illegal is just out of character for me and for him."
Sandra Crenshaw, a former southern sector council member, says it's unfair to blame any of Hill's problems on his new wife. It was Hill and not anyone else who had the political experience and insider knowledge to conduct a bribery outfit in the first place.
"For those people trying to lay it on Sheila, they are in denial," she says. "They don't want to think that someone they thought so highly of could ever be capable of doing something like that, so you have to find a scapegoat to ease your pain, your own hurt and your own sadness."
Even for those not looking to assign blame, Hill's fall from grace is a southern Dallas mystery. Did he do it, and if so, why? How did their likable, honest council member fall into the same trap that's ensnared other Dallas politicians? Here was a guy who lived in a $150,000 house in Oak Cliff, who seemed to update his wardrobe every other election.
"I can't say what the price of his clothing was, but he always struck me as someone more concerned about the quality of life in his neighborhood than whether he was wearing a Versace suit," says Victor Lander, the local judge. "Don Hill's always been cautious, because he recognizes Dallas has a history of eating its young."
Michael Sorrell is also at a loss to explain what happened. Sorrell says that in all his dealings with Hill, the former council member never asked for a thing. Hill never seemed to have much of an ego and often met with Sorrell for breakfast, during which the two would talk about Paul Quinn, politics or just life in general. An attorney himself, Sorrell is not naïve. He knows the charges against Hill are serious and won't dismiss them out of hand as the product of a wild conspiracy. He just wonders if Hill made an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment.
"The Don Hill I know was a man who could have been mayor," Sorrell says, "who cared about the right stuff, who was a passionate advocate for his community, who didn't take anything that didn't belong to him, and that's the Don Hill I'm going to choose to remember."
It doesn't sound like the Hills want any sympathy. They both insist they relish the chance to prove their innocence in front of a jury.
"You ask how we're doing; we're doing fine," she says. "We are faith walkers. We walk by faith, not by sight."