How the Feds Convicted Don Hill

Although Potashnik never took his complaints that far, Fisher did, becoming an FBI informant and agreeing to wear a wire and carry a large briefcase concealing a video camera. At one meeting at Starbucks, Lee grew suspicious of Fisher's "big bag" and even patted Fisher down. But that didn't stop Lee from incriminating himself after they sat down to talk.

 Fisher, a stout man who resembles Rush Limbaugh, took the witness stand on August 11. Jerry Killingsworth, the city's housing director, had previously testified he didn't trust Fisher. "He had credibility issues with me."

Although the defense counted heavily on the jury having similar issues, Fisher appeared professional and serious when testifying, sounding knowledgeable and cautious.

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.

Earlier testimony from Kathy Nealy gave jurors a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes roles political consultants play in representing their clients' interests before the council. Nealy, who is black, lobbied South Dallas council members and earned $175 per hour plus a $20,000 bonus each time a client's project passed the plan commission or city council; prominent consultant Carol Reed, who is white, earned $100,000 to secure the votes of North Dallas council members. Fisher testified he had retained both, saying Nealy had urged him to sign the security contracts with Fantroy to get his deals approved. This contradicted her testimony.

Fisher admitted that Hill never directly extorted money from him, but felt Hill was the unseen hand behind a conspiracy to do so. "All roads led through Don Hill," he said. "None of this could have happened without Don Hill controlling the votes on all of these matters, the zoning votes, the tax credit matters, all of these."

Fisher testified that Hill encouraged him to employ minority contractors on his projects, even suggesting he meet with Reagan, which Fisher did. On one development still seeking council approval, he entered into a large contract with Reagan to serve as his project manager. But that's not what brought him to the FBI. It was only after Fisher was pressured by Lee to donate $7,500 to Hill's surprise birthday party the day Fisher's project came up for a council vote that he felt compelled to go to the authorities. (A phone message introduced as evidence had Lee asking Fisher for $2,500.)

"I thought it was improper," Fisher testified. "I had matters pending, and $7,500 is way over the campaign limits."

Wiretaps played during Fisher's testimony also implicated co-defendants Rickey Robertson and Lee in a telling scheme. Fisher had been resisting Lee's attempts to pressure him into hiring Robertson's company, RA-MILL, as a subcontractor. When Fisher protested that Robertson, a car dealer, had no real construction experience, Lee proposed "Plan B": Fisher would pay him anyway.

Asked prosecutor Busch, "So their Plan B is, 'If you pay us $540,000, we won't do any work on this project?'"

"Yes, but we'll pass your zoning cases," Fisher testified.

Fisher's testimony and Lee's wiretap did so much damage to Lee that his lawyer was left with little choice but to claim entrapment, a last line of defense for most criminal attorneys. Hill's culpability, however, wasn't nearly as concrete: He rarely spoke to Fisher, and the government had so far failed to prove that Hill directly exchanged money for votes.

Vital also figured he'd scored points when he read a transcript of a December 6, 2004, taped conversation between Fisher and Lee. "The mayor is, in my opinion, doing something that she should not be doing," Fisher said. "She's taking massive campaign donations from Brian, and in exchange for that, in a tit-for-tat, she is opposing my projects." Fisher also said that Potashnik had given Miller $100,000 in the past year, and "you don't see it all in the campaign." Vital jumped on this as support for the defense contention that, unlike the defendants, Miller was able to avoid prosecution because she is white.

Hill, who had remained confident bordering on cocky throughout the government's case, had not heard anything yet that would keep him off the stand. The other defendants would not testify in their own defense, but Hill stood ready to be his own best witness.

Or his worst.

----

Fielding two days of softball questions from his lawyer's direct examination, Hill came across to the jury as the likable guy that he is: a dedicated public servant who, upon taking up his council position in June 1999, sought to follow the advice of former City Council Member Maxine Thornton-Reese, who urged him to accomplish two goals: "unite the African-American council members" and revitalize downtown.

Hill made a point of speaking directly to the jurors, something lawyers always advise their clients to do, and seemed sincere when asked by Ray Jackson how he felt about the prosecution's use of the term "mistress" when referring to his wife Sheila.

"That's been the most painful part of the entire trial," he said—that she had to pay the price for his adultery.

Hill maintained that no one knew that she was his mistress: not Brian Potashnik, not D'Angelo Lee. He had managed to keep their affair quiet, even though Lee and Sheila had gone into business together (they used her last name because Lee had credit problems, testified Hill) and Potashnik had their firm on a monthly $14,500 retainer (with Sheila receiving $2,500 and Lee the rest, according to Hill).

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