How the Feds Convicted Don Hill

Potashnik did, however, hire LCG Development Group, a general contractor, after being pushed to do so by then-City Plan Commissioner Lee. Potashnik's company paid LCG, headed by Andrea Spencer (a co-defendant who had pleaded guilty before trial) and Ron Slovacek (a co-defendant who has yet to be tried) for concrete work done on a project outside of Hill's district, with some of the fees traced by the government into a Farrington & Associates bank account in what prosecutors called a "10 percent kickback scheme."

Potashnik felt he was being squeezed too hard by LCG, whose bid on each of two projects in Hill's district was $250,000 too high. A May 4, 2005, wiretap revealed Lee balking at lowering the bid and explaining to Slovacek that the $250,000 was a "tax" added to each project—$200,000 to Lee for brokering the deal, $50,000 to Spencer, who is black, for being the minority participant. Slovacek countered that removing the "tax" would allow them to match or underbid other contractors. But Lee told him they couldn't afford to do it for "Kibbles 'n Bits."

Potashnik testified that he found Lee's pressure to hire LCG "offensive," which led him to hire a different contractor, but he continued to work with Lee, fearing that if he didn't it would come back to haunt him. "I was basically in a state of denial. I looked the other way, put my head in the sand and didn't ask the right questions."

Co-defendants (from left to right) D’Angelo Lee, Sheila Hill, Darren Reagan and Don Hill take a lunch break on September 4 during Don’s second day of testimony.
Sam Merten
Co-defendants (from left to right) D’Angelo Lee, Sheila Hill, Darren Reagan and Don Hill take a lunch break on September 4 during Don’s second day of testimony.
Don and Sheila Hill leave the courthouse on September 8 after Don’s first exposure to aggressive cross-examination from the prosecution.
Sam Merten
Don and Sheila Hill leave the courthouse on September 8 after Don’s first exposure to aggressive cross-examination from the prosecution.

Details


Jim Schutze: What Don Hill's conviction means for Dallas.

Web extra: Read the transcript of our interview with Don and Sheila Hill after their convictions, on Unfair Park.

Web extra: More photos from outside the courthouse during the trial.

Potashnik's testimony cut both ways, weaving the fabric of conspiracy but also showing how loosely connected its threads were to Hill. During his four days on the stand, the prosecution played a May 2, 2005, wiretap that had Lee complaining to Hill about his LCG problems. Hill appeared to be giving his planning commissioner an ethics lecture, explaining that Lee couldn't profit off deals he voted on as a public official.

On cross-examination, defense lawyers attacked Potashnik for his "sweetheart" plea deal and his relationship with former Mayor Miller. Potashnik, his wife and father had together contributed $66,000 to her political campaigns and the strong mayor referendum she supported. And a day before her vote on a Southwest Housing project, Miller received a $10,000 contribution from the Potashniks. The implication? Why were five black people on trial, while Miller, a wealthy white woman, was not?

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Since deciding not to run for a second full mayoral term in 2007, Miller had managed to stay out of the limelight, deferring to her successor, Tom Leppert, who quickly became the face of the city. But when the elegant, smartly dressed former journalist entered the courtroom on August 6, it seemed as though she had never left office.

A poised witness, Miller was witty when she wanted to be, combative when she needed to be. She testified she and Hill admired each other, and there were many issues regarding affordable housing upon which they agreed.  There were three issues, however, upon which they didn't agree: handing out tax abatements to developers, a subsidy to attract the Cowboys to build its new stadium in Dallas and ethics reform. As mayor, Miller championed tough new ethics rules while Hill saw them as a stigma that branded the majority-minority council untrustworthy.

Miller recalled first meeting Bill Fisher at an August 23, 2003, council meeting. He was pitching the council on one of his proposed developments when Miller leaned toward Hill and asked why council member Fantroy had recused himself from the proceedings. Hill explained that if Fisher's project was approved, Fantroy would stand to benefit, because his company would be handling security at the new development.

"I thought it was inappropriate for that relationship to occur," Miller told the jury. So she confronted Fisher right there (by some accounts, creating a huge "ruckus"), and he confirmed the arrangement.

"Are you kidding?" she asked and immediately called the council into a closed-door executive session to discuss the propriety of the arrangement with then-City Attorney Madeleine Johnson.

Miller testified that Hill didn't understand her concerns, and "he was very emphatic about it." Hill began pacing around the council chambers. "He was very loud. He was aggravated."

Although Miller told the council she thought "everything was wrong with it," Johnson advised council members that Fantroy's recusal resolved any ethical dilemma. This gave the defense the cover it needed to argue that Hill's integrity was intact. Johnson's legal opinion, however, didn't placate the feisty Miller who next contacted Sarah Dodd, then a KTVT-Channel 11 news reporter. Her broadcast caught the attention of the FBI, which opened the investigation that gave rise to the current trial.

Prosecutor Saldana asked Miller what she thought of Fisher. "I thought he was doing something unethical in order to get support for his projects."

She held a higher opinion of Potashnik, though. In her cross-examination by Jackson, she admitted she often touted Potashnik's projects and had sent letters of support for Southwest Housing to Austin and San Antonio less than a month after receiving a campaign contribution from him. She also testified she had done nothing wrong; it was "perfectly legal" to accept campaign contributions.

On direct examination, Miller testified that Potashnik had told her he felt uncomfortable making a $40,000 donation to former council member Leo Chaney's book fair. "I said that if he had concerns, that he should go to the FBI."

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