Bill Fisher is the Good Guy, So Why Are We Making Him Pay?
The worst thing that happens in this town, and it happens on a cyclical basis, is the official Scarlet Letter shunning of some person who did the right thing. It's happening again.
Two real estate outfits in Dallas, Odyssey Residential and Frazier Revitalization, are fighting for the same $20 million-plus pot of federal money. Take a look at what The Dallas Morning News said in a January 17 editorial about one of the people involved in the project — the one they do not want to win.
"A principal figure behind Odyssey is Bill Fisher, who wore a wire to help convict former City Council member Don Hill in a high-profile corruption case. The federal government has a $1 million tax lien against him, which in itself should have served as a red flag during the state review."
Look, for what Fisher did for this city, he deserves the municipal equivalent of the Purple Heart.
In the federal investigation leading up to the 2009 trial of former councilman Hill, now in prison, Fisher put himself in physical harm's way to help the FBI root out an extortion ring deeply rooted inside Dallas City Hall.
The Morning News is mad at Fisher now because the project he is associated with appeared early on to be beating out the other one, which is the brainchild of J. McDonald Williams, a former director of the Morning News.
There is one big difference between Fisher's deal and the one the News likes. Fisher's project obeys the law and promotes desegregation by putting low-income, housing in a medium-income area, near the medical center.
The one the News likes flies in the face of the federal mandate to promote desegregation. It does the opposite. It promotes further concentration of ethnic minority poverty in South Dallas by putting low-income subsidized housing in the middle of more of the same.
Williams' efforts are well intended. He has devoted his retirement to doing something for southern Dallas. I spoke last week with the Reverend Donald R. Parrish of True Lee Missionary Baptist Church, a second-generation southern Dallas leader who views the Williams development as a chance to bring a dwindling African-American neighborhood back to life.
I get all that, but there's a hitch. You're not supposed to use money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to promote greater concentrations of minority poverty. That's called segregation. If you really want to re-create a minority ghetto, even a really nice one, you're not supposed to do it with HUD money.
Before we get off on all that, can we finish about Fisher? I sat through the Hill trial. Let me give you one example of what Fisher went through to help the FBI break the Dallas City Hall extortion ring.
One day during the trial the government plays this undercover tape recording of a meeting between him and three members of the extortion ring including D'Angelo Lee, a member of the Dallas City Plan Commission. The four men are in an apartment somewhere inside the vast rambling Southside on Lamar complex across from Dallas police headquarters.
On the tape you hear all three of the extortionists, especially Lee, getting really tough on Fisher. They're accusing him of wearing a wire. The scary thing? He's wearing multiple wires running an audio tape recorder, a video recorder and a radio transmitter.
Fisher and I spoke last week. I asked him if at that moment in that meeting, when they started to get on him about wearing a recording device, he was physically afraid. He said he wasn't thinking about getting killed at that moment, but he did think he might be in for a beating. Had the three men uncovered his recording equipment, however, his situation could have become truly dire.
It would have been easy for the extortionists to catch him. Fisher at that moment had so much voltage flowing through his suit, he was lucky paper clips didn't start flying across the room and sticking to him.
All of a sudden the City Hall extortionists say on the tape they think Fisher has a recording device in his handbag. Yup. He does. Well, not in his bag. It's actually clipped to the outside of the bag in plain view, disguised as something else.
Fisher shoves the bag across the table and tells them to search it. The bluff works. They don't.
At this point the FBI is parked across the street listening to every word. What they hear sounds bad. Lee especially sounds like he's ready to kick Fisher's ass, but the feds have a problem. They've lost track of where he is in the building.
The agents call Fisher on his cell phone and tell him they have no idea where he is. Fisher answers their call in a very indulgent tone, addressing the caller as "James," his son's name. Says he'll see him at home later.
It works. The extortionists don't suspect anything. These guys are not the sharpest tools in the shed. But, you know: Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.
Then Fisher suddenly feels a need to stretch his legs. He goes over to a window of the apartment — a window that looks down on the FBI van across the street — and takes in the view.
You know: big arm stretch, yawn, 'nuther stretch, up on ballet point, pirouette, small leap, just takin' in that view. That works, too. The agents see him. He completes his day's mission and gets out of the building alive.
Damn! This guy is a real estate developer. He's supposed to deal with titles, complicated finance, zoning law and stuff like that. He's not supposed to be Tommy Lee F'ing Jones.
When I talked to him last week, Fisher was smart and modest about why he did it. He told me that the Dallas City Hall extortionists leaned on him early on to provide some "scholarship money." Fisher smelled something blinky right away.
"It was like they're trying to get me to do something wrong so that they can manipulate me later on," Fisher told me.
He went straight to John Shackelford, a business lawyer. Shackelford sent him to Haynes and Boone for criminal counsel. They told him when something like this brushes up against you, the way you cleanse yourself of it is to take it to the cops. So he did.
The FBI jumped at it. Fisher told me: "They said, 'Look, this is an opportunity of a lifetime for us. We know this has been going on, but no one has ever come forward.'"
Fisher agreed to help, having no idea how protracted or demanding his involvement would become, but he doesn't blame the feds for that. He said he would get to a point with it when it all seemed to be behind him, and then another would-be extortionist would show up with another crooked offer.
"I was done three times," he said. "Then someone would say, 'I know your deal didn't work out, but I got somebody here who can fix it.' Then that goes away, and it would start up again. It was start-stop. It wouldn't go away. It turned out to be way more than I imagined."
Fisher said the whole thing was a major burden on Odyssey, the company he worked for, not just on him, but he and the principals in the firm agreed it had to be done.
"We just thought it was the right thing to do. We have no shot and no one in Dallas has any shot to fairly compete or fairly develop if honest people have to pay extortion payments in Dallas.
"We said, 'We want to develop in Dallas, and we're a Dallas-based company. We're going to have to help.' You can't just report it to the authorities and leave it to them."
I asked him about the federal tax lien that the News mentioned in its editorial. Actually Rudy Bush has done a good job reporting this issue in the paper's news columns. This is about a 1980s passive investment in a movie deal that was also supposed to be a tax shelter.
The people offering the investment knew the IRS would challenge the shelter, Fisher told me, but they were certain they would win. They lost. Fisher's piece was a $250,000 tax bill that is now $750,000 with interest and penalties. He and the IRS have talked.
I don't know. So what? It certainly has nothing at all to do with these real estate deals. Fisher is not a principal in the real estate deals, so the deals would not be exposed to his personal tax liability. And then again, I'm not a tax lawyer, am I? Maybe I should keep my mouth shut.
But here's what I think. The Morning News likes the deal associated with their former director. They don't like Fisher's deal. They want to slime Fisher to help their guy win.
So they reach way over here and pick up the tax lien. Then they bend way over there and pick up his role in the FBI probe, which they know made him unpopular with the political machinery in South Dallas associated with the extortion ring. And they mush all of that into one good mud-ball.
They use all of it to trash Fisher, who absolutely does not deserve it. In doing so they do something even worse. They take a position that is supportive of segregation and extortion.
This cycle in Dallas just goes around and around. Don Hill went to prison believing that everything he did was done with the implicit assent and even the encouragement of the rich white people downtown.
The real tragedy? He was right.
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