How the Feds Convicted Don Hill

Hill claimed he never encouraged Fisher to hire Darren Reagan as a project manager on one of his affordable-housing developments, and he only learned afterward that Lee was profiting from a concrete contract with Potashnik for a development outside of his district. But at no time did he accept bribes or extort money from Potashnik or Fisher. And Hill maintained that while he wanted minority participation in the projects, it was never in exchange for his vote.

On September 8, the third mundane day of Hill's direct, Jackson asked about some of the more damning allegations against Hill. What about the infamous $10,000 cash payment captured on surveillance, showing Reagan handing him an envelope in a church parking lot of Friendship-West Baptist Church? Hill said he never expected to see Reagan there, and Reagan told Hill that the money was partly a campaign contribution from him and Allen McGill, his partner in BSEAT and a co-defendant who had pleaded guilty before trial. The rest was for D'Angelo Lee, whom Reagan expected to be working with in the future. Reagan also showed Hill an invoice from BSEAT to Fisher, along with a copy of Fisher's check to the company.

Subsequently, Lee and Sheila showed up at the church, but rather than give $5,000 to Lee, Hill handed it to Sheila, who would later deposit it in her Farrington & Associates bank account. So what appeared to be a $10,000 bribe from Fisher to Reagan to Hill was explained away by Hill as a fee for Farrington & Associates and a campaign contribution for Hill to fight the strong mayor referendum. Hill then reported the $5,000 as separate $1,000 contributions coming from Farrington, Reagan, McGill, Lee and Lee's wife. What might have appeared to jurors as cover-your-ass accounting could have looked worse. "Why not pocket it and move on down the road?" asked Jackson.

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.


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.

"That's what everyone wanted to expect of us, but we weren't going to do that," Hill said.

Jackson turned Hill's attention to another potential land mine—a wiretap, which prosecutors had introduced in anticipation of Hill taking the stand, of a conversation between Hill and Lynn Flint Shaw, a prominent political operative who was murdered last year by her husband. When she spoke with Hill, he was trying to broker a deal between the black community, which was interested in defeating Miller's strong mayor referendum, and wealthy white arts patrons, who were seeking city support to subsidize a maintenance contract for the arts district, which Miller opposed. Both Hill and Shaw were raising funds to defeat the strong mayor referendum. (Hill contributed his $5,000 from Reagan to the anti-strong mayor campaign.) But Hill wanted the arts community to contribute as well.

"They need to get $50,000 to $100,000 and get it to you by the end of the week," Hill told Shaw, "because if I don't see no money, I'm not voting on no maintenance contract."

Although the conversation had nothing to do with the pending prosecution, it did smack of the same kind of pay-for-play bribery for which Hill was on trial.

On direct, Hill offered a brief explanation of the conversation, whose sting was hard to mitigate. Wisely, Jackson moved through it quickly and changed directions.

Under the aggressive cross-examination of prosecutor Busch, Hill's calm façade quickly cracked. The prosecutor wasted no time in bringing out the self-serving inconsistencies in Hill's direct and came close to completely destroying his credibility.

Hill had testified that he recalled being told by the FBI that he was the "subject of an investigation but not a suspect or a target."

Was it a "clear lie," Busch asked, when Hill told the media that he wasn't the subject of an FBI investigation? To which Hill awkwardly responded, "No."

On direct, Hill had testified that he had no idea that Reagan was going to show up at the church parking lot—a minor point until Busch produced a transcript of a prior conversation between Hill and Reagan confirming a meeting would take place the next day. And why didn't Reagan just give Lee's share of the "payoff money" to Lee when he showed up at the church? Hill had no answer. And why did Hill break the remaining $5,000 into lesser $1,000 campaign contributions? Because he thought that was the legal limit. Not so, as Busch pointed out, as he read Hill the state law, which put the maximum cash contribution at $100.

Five o'clock couldn't have come too soon for Hill, who didn't have a much easier time the following day. Hill's credibility took another hit when Busch brought up his use of a fax machine, which would have been insignificant had Hill not lied about its location and ownership. First he told the jury that he didn't have a fax machine at his house (Busch presented a photo of one taken at his home during the FBI raid in June 2005), and then he said the machine belonged to his ex-wife, Vivian (Busch showed Hill a document that proved he knew the fax machine was city property). By the close of cross, Hill could no longer look at Busch, was awkwardly taking long pauses before answering, had repeatedly incurred the judge's scorn for being non-responsive and appeared, at times, to bury his head in defeat. Few courthouse observers doubted that Hill's decision to take the witness stand was a huge mistake.

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