This should be a routine collection matter. Two federal marshals, a locksmith, several appraisers, and a lawyer armed with a court order approach the two-story mansion at 3815 Beverly Drive, making ready to seize art, jewelry, antiques--anything of value to satisfy a judgment that has remained outstanding for far too long.
They move past the matched set of maroon Cadillacs and a Halloween harvest display cast against the French colonial backdrop, and toward the floor-to-ceiling windows adorned with plantation shutters. One of the marshals makes his way to the front steps, but hesitates as if awed by the majesty of the Highland Park address.
Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, a diminutive, blonde steel magnolia of a woman stands defiantly in their path, catching everyone off guard. The marshal mutters something about his authority, saying a federal judge has given them the legal right to come in and search the house.
"Oh no you're not," says the 62-year-old woman standing her ground. "You're not coming into my house." She then turns to lock the door shut, giving a parting glance to her would-be intruders that dismisses them with a "Who the hell do you think you're dealing with" resolve.
"We know this is Henry Miller's son's house," says one of the marshals to Brenda Collier, the attorney attempting to collect the judgment. To her amazement, the marshals put their hands in their pockets and amble about the property, instead of using the force of law and the locksmith to break into the house. In deference to the family, to their position on high, the marshals decide to wait the woman out.
But Brenda Collier is tired of waiting. The man of the house, Vance Miller Sr., a member of the city's power elite, owes the U.S. government $26 million on an old real estate debt from the funny-money days of the S&L crisis. The debt has been wrangled over in legal battles for nearly four years, gone up to the Supreme Court of the United States and back down again, and now his creditors have come to call.
Yet in mid-October of last year, there is far more scraping and bowing by the authorities than usual, far more than if the marshals had knocked on some bungalow in Mesquite. After all, this is the home of the scion of a wealthy Dallas family, the first family of Dallas real estate, a dynasty whose name is woven into the fabric of the last hundred years of Dallas history: Henry S. Miller.
About an hour and a half later, the lady of the house, Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, emerges again. This time she is in the company of a chauffeur who is carrying two large suitcases. He deposits them in the trunk of a white limousine. Walking gingerly, the 62-year-old socialite-cum-politico heads to the car, waits while the door is opened, climbs into the back seat, and is driven away.
As they say on the "A-list" social circuit, h-o-o-o-o-o-w embarrassing.
Here was the queen of Dallas' 1997 society season being rousted from the same home where she'd been hosting teas, fashion fetes, and chic planning parties for the Crystal Charity Ball, the big mid-December soiree that she chaired. Throughout the year, the many swell moments--the trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, to research the waiters-in-powdered-wigs theme; the fashion show with Italian clothing designer Gianfranco Ferre at Hotel St. Germain; the chic, sneak-preview luncheon at Mediterraneo--were memorialized in The Dallas Morning News' society columns, or in D magazine's unctuous coverage of the Park Cities' leisure class.
Before she fled, Tincy Miller had summoned her sons, Vaughn, 35, and Gregory, 31, both of whom work for the family company, to take over protection of the fortress.
"Any reasons to have those moving vans parked in front of the house?" Vaughn asks the invaders. On this stretch of the boulevard, fretting about what the neighbors might think means worrying about investor Thomas Hicks, who last week bought the Texas Rangers, oilman-SMU philanthropist Edwin Cox, and heiress Betty Hunt.
Until now, few people outside of the family and a circle of lawyers and judges knew anything about the Miller saga.
To the untrained eye, real estate executive Vance C. Miller Sr. and his wife are extraordinarily rich. They sponsor matches at the Dallas Polo Club and make the scene with Oscar de la Renta. They are honored guests at fashion and jewelry shows at top-drawer boutiques like Hermes and Cartier. He tees it up at the exclusive Preston Trail Golf Club, where memberships start at $75,000.
Vance Miller, who is 64, is listed in public records as president or CEO of two dozen companies, many under the umbrella of the Henry S. Miller Cos., the privately held real estate brokerage firm begun by his grandfather in 1914. That's roughly one company for every five pairs of designer pumps in Tincy's wardrobe. A videotape of the Miller home interior shows approximately 120 pairs of Ferragamos, Cole Haans, Manolo Blahniks, and other pricey footwear occupying their closet--enough Italian leather to trigger at least a small tremor in Imelda Marcos' bosom.
Under oath, however, Vance Miller insists his existence is not as golden as it may appear. He is tapped out, he says. Too poor to have a bank account. His dad lends him money to buy his clothes. He's not even sure how the money in his wallet got there, living as he does on "petty cash." Answering questions put to him in October by Collier, the lawyer attempting to collect the $26 million he owes U.S. taxpayers, Miller says he lives on the charity of his wife--a former schoolteacher who came to the marriage 40 years ago with no independent wealth--and his father, Henry S. Miller Jr., who in the middle decades of this century turned the little family real estate agency into a major corporate conglomerate.
His wife and father also give Vance the lucre he uses to back politicians, he says. His largesse around election time has earned him considerable influence in the local GOP, where he favors Republicans and fiscal conservatives such as Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.
Miller's protests aside, Collier and her employer believe he is holding far more wampum than he lets on. He controls family companies easily worth $100 million, she says. But that's just a guess. Her estimates come from standing on the outside of the Miller enterprises looking in, with Vance's lawyer fighting her search for hard information every inch of the way.
The way in which Miller has avoided paying this decade-old debt--without declaring personal bankruptcy--forms another of those uniquely infuriating, but classic tales of "going broke" Texas-style. Along with the legends born of booms and busts, tales of S&L bandits, blowin' and goin' gamblers, and pyramid-scheme operators, one must add the story of a Dallas real estate heir who thumbed his nose at his obligations for so long that he got a shot at getting rich all over again. It features a cheeky lawyer and a legal system that protects those wealthy enough to exploit its endless opportunities for delay and diversion. Such is the saga of Vance C. Miller, Yber-deadbeat, the richest "poor" man in Dallas.
In the early 1980s, Vance Miller was on his way to becoming what former associates say he always wanted to be: another Trammell Crow. Having split off from the family brokerage business and operating on his own as a developer-investor, he soared.
He owned apartments in Houston, a construction company and prime land in Hawaii, business parks at freeway corners in Dallas, housing developments along golf courses, hotels including a Sheraton in Arlington, and his very own country club--Prestonwood in North Dallas.
In the overheated market that was fueled by easy money from S&Ls, riches just seemed to rise up from the dirt. Oilman Clint Murchison, in an account of his days as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, recalled how Miller got him into a real estate deal where he didn't have to put up a dime. The transaction netted Murchison $8 million. He liked Miller.
In December 1982, in one of those grand gestures that fuel the myth of Texas' audacious "big rich," Miller and car dealer W.O. Bankston put down $550,000 for the remaining tickets to a Cowboys game so the local TV blackout would be lifted. The following year, the pair put in a bid to buy the team--offering $90 million--but lost out to H.R. "Bum" Bright.
When real estate prices began free-falling in Houston in 1984, then in Dallas within the next two years, Miller's wings melted. His joint ventures and partnerships defaulted on their loans, court records show, and the loans, in turn, became the failed assets of the federal government after the S&Ls cratered.
Typical was Miller's Mesquite I-30 Venture, a 55-acre business park he was developing at the corner of Interstate 30 and Galloway Avenue. He and a partner took out a promissory note for $12 million in October 1984. Just over two years later, it was in default. By 1989 the lender--First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Waco--had been taken over by the feds, who the next year sold the property at auction.
Although the Dallas market was already slowing in 1986, Miller launched a grand plan to enhance his prized possession, Prestonwood Country Club, by building a second golf course in Collin County--and selling the surrounding land for luxury homes--as well as proceeding with a major renovation of the old clubhouse in Richardson.
But the lingering downturn dried up new memberships, and as his debts came due, Miller quietly went to federal court in 1992, put the club into bankruptcy, and began negotiating with his creditors.
He may have owed millions, but that didn't stop him from renovating his Beverly Drive house that year. County records show he put up a new detached garage, just beyond the pool.
The largest of Miller's country club creditors was the Resolution Trust Corp., the now-dissolved federal receiver for the failed S&Ls. Miller, through family companies, somehow managed to renegotiate about $10 million in debt and retain the club and its two 18-hole golf courses.
But because he had signed personal guarantees backing the original notes, government attorneys asserted that Miller himself was on the hook for the rest of the debt: about $23 million. The government sued him in May 1994, and a one-day trial before U.S. District Judge Joe Fish and two subsequent appeals resolved that Miller indeed owed $23 million, plus interest. As of October, the total came to $26,635,742.71--a figure that grows at more than $1 million per year.
Miller declined to comment for this story, although his attorney, Dallas bankruptcy specialist Gerrit Pronske, says his client has "no ability to pay $26 million." Miller is like a lot of developers who were hammered in the '80s, Pronske says. "They didn't end up writing checks for the full amount. They got rid of these debts by doing one of two things: settling them for cents on the dollar or filing bankruptcy."
The argument smacks of entitlement: This is how rich guys do it. When these gentlemen hit the skids, they needn't pony up like the guy who's two months late on his rent-to-own TV. Somebody else will pick up their tab.
Miller has never filed personal bankruptcy to clear himself of the debt, Pronske says, but he declined to discuss why. Some speculate that Miller is too wealthy to seek bankruptcy protection; others say he is too proud.
He has made offers to settle, Pronske says, although he declined to reveal how much Miller has offered to pay.
Collier, the collection attorney, says the only offer Miller has extended to her employer over the past two years was to wipe the books clean for $50,000. That amount brought laughter at Stonehenge/FASA-Texas, which has attempted to collect the government's money since January 1996. Stonehenge, a kind of high-dollar collection agency, has formed a partnership with the feds over Miller's debt: Stonehenge picks up all collection expenses and agrees to split any recovery from Miller 50-50 with the federal treasury.
The government bail-out of the S&Ls in the 1980s--which ended up paying depositors whose money had been loaned to speculative high-flyers such as Miller--came out of general federal revenues and ended up being added to the national debt. In the grand scheme of things, the government had to borrow money to pay Vance Miller's bills.
Collier, Stonehenge's current lawyer, is a tough-skinned litigator with experience in going after fallen real estate barons and S&L execs. "Most people fight pretty hard to keep from paying large outstanding loans," she says. "It's that arrogance that helped make them a lot of money in the first place. But eventually they make peace with you.
"Miller is different. He's been doing this for more than a decade, and he's not tired of it yet."
Court records in Dallas show that the feds aren't the only ones lined up looking for money owed by Miller, whose now-booming companies moved three years ago into the top-floor offices of the slick, 11-story Providence Towers located at the Dallas North Tollway and Spring Valley Road.
A Houston lender tried unsuccessfully for 10 years to squeeze about $190,000 out of Miller--once again a debt owed on money personally guaranteed by him. That obligation was also taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court; it too remains outstanding.
In 1996, a local golf pro tried collecting a judgment against the Vance Miller-run Prestonwood Country Club. The jury award had its roots in an incident involving Miller's eldest son, Vance Jr., who seriously beat up the pro's wife. Vance Miller Sr. and his lawyer then began moving assets in what an opposing lawyer called "a shell game" designed to avoid payment.
Vance Sr. finally settled that case last spring, a few months after his troubled 38-year-old son--under the influence of cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana--drove his car into oncoming traffic on Marsh Lane and was killed.
As far back as 1989, when Cullen/Frost Bank of Dallas was trying to collect $763,922 from Miller on one of his defaulted notes, the bank claimed in court papers: "Vance Miller, while claiming insolvency, nevertheless maintains a high lifestyle far greater than would be expected from someone who is truly insolvent."
Sure enough, Vance's leisure activities made the daily paper several times that year. That winter, he was out at the exclusive PGA West Course in La Quinta, California, teeing it up with the pros. He and his wife turned up again at the Brook Hollow Golf Club, at the debutante party for the granddaughter of one of the founders of Frito-Lay.
When it comes to world-class debtors, says Gary Pridavka, a Dallas attorney who went to court and got a settlement out of him, "Vance Miller is very much the exception to the rule. It takes a lot of planning and a great deal of lawyers' time to do what he's done, to live a wealthy lifestyle and be poor on paper."
If there ever was a man equipped for that task, it's Miller, a number of business associates say. Arrogant, elitist, brassy, belittling, he is known for his hard-nosed business tactics. "He's no pantywaist," says one real estate executive and former broker in the Miller firm.
Says another, again insisting on anonymity because of the business he's done with Miller companies, "He's a unique guy. He's unpredictable. He walks around with this grin on his face, and people just don't know what's going on inside. He talks, and you wonder what he said."
In contrast to his adopted father, Henry Jr., who was known for his sense of fairness and gentle demeanor, Vance Miller is "not exactly held in very high esteem," according to one recent business partner.
No one would dare say that of any of the family patriarchs who preceded Vance Miller.
Aaron Miller came to Dallas in the decade after the Civil War, choosing to flee Poland rather than get conscripted by the Russian army. A Talmudic scholar, he conducted the first Jewish services in Dallas, years before there was an organized synagogue.
His son Sam inherited the family grocery store in South Dallas, became the president of the first Jewish congregation, and had six children, including Henry S. Miller Sr.
Henry had a mind for business and little interest in peddling vegetables. So in 1914, the year Henry Jr. was born, he entered into the real estate business. His success, old-timers say, came in pressing flesh and making friends.
"Henry would go to Republic Bank nearly every day, stand around the tellers' counter, and convince customers to invest in his deals," recalls Horace Vale, a salesman who worked for Henry Sr. A charitable man, Henry Sr. became known as "Mr. Realtor," offering his expertise free of charge to nonprofit institutions around the city.
Henry Jr., a soft-spoken, studious man, joined his dad's firm in the 1940s and developed a reputation as the consummate mediator between buyer and seller.
His mild manners, however, belied his no-nonsense approach to business. Developer Trammell Crow became Henry's best client. He brokered deals for nearly every national company that purchased land in Dallas though its big growth spurts in the '50s, '60s and '70s. He helped cover the landscape with Kentucky Fried Chicken stands, Jack-in-the-Box, Baskin-Robbins, and Dunkin Donuts. By the early 1970s, the company had expanded to Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.
Beyond the brokerage business, Henry Jr. developed Preston Royal Village shopping center in 1958 and bought the now-tony Highland Park Village in 1975 for only $5 million. The center, which is now held by a Miller family trust, has the highest rents of any retail space in Dallas-Fort Worth.
The company grew to 13 divisions by 1983, including an international division with offices in Belgium and West Germany, and a residential division with 700 brokers. After that record-setting year, it ranked as the largest privately held real estate brokerage firm in the nation.
In 1984, at the top of the market, Henry Jr. sold the company's commercial and residential divisions to San Francisco-based Grubb & Ellis, a publicly held company, for $47 million. Henry Jr. retired to spend a portion of the year in his Paris apartment, but continued to raise money for Dallas' opera, symphony, and other cultural institutions.
When quizzed in the business press about mentors, former Miller underlings such as Roger Staubach and Herb Weitzman, who now own their own real estate firms, are apt to remember Henry Jr. as a role model and true civic leader.
Nobody seems to volunteer the same opinion of Vance.
Born in Oklahoma in the middle of the Great Depression, he was actually Charles Calvin Vance for the first 12 years of his life. His mother, Juanita, from Kiowa, Oklahoma, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, was a widow when she met Henry Jr. in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during World War II.
When they married in 1945, Henry Jr. adopted Juanita's two children, Charles and his sister, Patsy. He was renamed Vance Charles Miller.
In the following years, the socially ambitious Juanita steered the family away from Henry Jr.'s Jewish roots--which weren't exactly welcomed at the Dallas Country Club. Growing up in South Dallas and later in Greenway Park, Vance got teased for being Jewish--even though he was not, one acquaintance recalls him saying.
Henry Jr. related in an interview that he and Juanita studied Christian Science before their marriage and that, three years later, they both converted to the faith, although they never fully embraced its aversion to medical science.
As Henry Jr.'s fortunes increased, Juanita's status quest did as well. "She was in the women's choir at the Rotary Club, and I knew her. We would talk," recalls one longtime Dallas acquaintance. "After her husband became wealthier, her nose went up, and...she didn't know any of us after that."
Nobody would deny Henry Jr. and his wife's importance in bringing the Dallas Opera into existence and sustaining the Dallas Symphony. Henry Jr. later conceded in an interview in 1987 that his civic work--including all the society parties and charity balls--had a business purpose as well. It helped increase his company's exposure in "important places," he explained.
In contrast to Henry's tenderness, Juanita possessed a certain boot-toughness. "Everyone at Miller was scared to death of her," says one former employee. "She would show up unannounced and do a sort of white-glove inspection, get really angry if your desk was messy."
It's that brass that Vance seems to have inherited.
Like his adopted father, Vance went to SMU. He graduated in 1955 and served in the Air Force as a fighter pilot before going to work in the family business. He was shortish (5 feet 6 inches on his driver's license), with a full head of hair and features more classical than his father's.
He married his college sweetheart, Geraldine "Tincy" Erwin, who did her best to follow in her mother-in-law's footsteps. "It was very difficult marrying into this family with the power that Juanita had," she told a reporter in 1994. "She is very intimidating."
By the late 1960s, when Vance moved to his current home on Beverly Drive, it was clear that he, rather than his half-brother, Henry S. Miller III, would be the one to assume the mantle as head of the family business.
Under Henry Jr.'s expansionist hand, the company had grown large but remained a family affair. In 1971, he named Vance president, but during the mid-1970s real estate slump, he was replaced.
Vance kept somewhat involved in his father's company as vice-chairman on the Miller executive committee, but he turned most of his attention toward his own development company, Vance C. Miller Interests.
In 1976, he bought Prestonwood Country Club and the unspoiled acreage adjoining it, picking it up for cheap from the estate of the deceased owner. "He came with a whole lot of expertise whose name was 'daddy,'" says one real estate executive who has worked with the Miller companies. "He loves to make the deal, but he ain't Henry, and he ain't Trammell Crow."
By 1984, Vance was independently worth $81 million--or so he claimed on financial statements he gave to secure his loans. He moved up from a board seat to co-chair BancTexas, a regional bank groaning under the weight of troubled oil-business loans.
In a profile that appeared in the Downtown News in 1983, Miller was pictured as a man sitting back in his office on the 30th floor of Bryan Tower. "Friday, I bought another 350 acres in west Plano," he said while sucking on a big La Corona cigar. He was bullish on what he described as the North City--his projects near Prestonwood Country Club: "It's probably the best place to be in the U.S., or in the world."
At the same time that Miller was pointing out of his window and telling the impressionable writer about all the land he planned on developing, he and his wife were emerging as powers in the Dallas GOP. In 1984, Tincy Miller was appointed to the state board of education, a Dallas and Collin county seat that she has retained in the last three elections. Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan rewarded Vance for his support by naming him to a one-year term on the board of the Federal National Mortgage Association, which buys mortgages from lenders and issues securities.
To the present day, Vance Miller is considered a key GOP benefactor. "I like Vance," says Tom Pauken, former state Republican chairman and a candidate for Texas Attorney General. "It's a big party, and there are a number of key supporters; Vance is definitely one of them."
In advance of this year's primaries, for instance, Dallas County District Attorney candidate Bill Hill--the presumed next DA--listed Miller among his big-name backers. In March 1994, the Millers used their Beverly Drive home to host a fundraiser for Carole Keeton Rylander, a Republican on the railroad commission. And during the 1996 national campaign, Miller hosted a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser with House Speaker Newt Gingrich at Prestonwood Country Club.
But all the time he was pressing political flesh, he owed the feds his whopping eight-figure debt.
Although Vance Miller is credited with a certain amount of real estate savvy, he had his neck out as far as the next guy, if not further, when 1986 in Dallas turned into 1929. He lost his hotels, his business parks, his apartment houses. His bank closed, and his creditors came knocking.
By 1987, after obtaining a court judgment to collect a defaulted loan, Cullen/Frost Bank cleaned out his personal bank accounts--garnishing a total of $41,000--and began looking for more. When they sought to sit him down for a deposition, to make him expose his assets under oath, he produced a doctor's note saying his health wouldn't permit it. By 1990, Jerome Ferguson, the bank's lawyer, had concluded that Miller's father had established a trust for his son, who also served as his own trustee. The arrangement would have let Miller put assets out of easy reach.
"It's called litigation," says Miller attorney Pronske, defending some of the tactics he and his client have used over the past eight years to cushion the downside of Miller's romp in the free market. "You put the creditor to his proof, you litigate, and you settle. That's the way the thing is done."
Pronske, reached over the holidays at his vacation home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, pointed out that Miller eventually settled the Cullen/Frost case, the Mesquite I-30 Venture loan, and a substantial debt with NCNB--all for negotiated and undisclosed amounts.
Just last year he settled with another debtor, golf pro Alan Neiderlitz and his wife, Peggy, says Pronske.
That tale, which unfolded between 1992 and 1997, provides some insight into what style of litigation Pronske and Miller employ.
The unpleasant story begins in Naples, Florida, where Vance's eldest son, Vance Miller Jr., then 36, was passed out drunk on the floor of the Neiderlitz home.
Cocky and filled with a sense of entitlement, Vance Jr. was more than a garden-variety problem rich kid. By his 30s, he had accumulated 15 arrests and nine convictions, including four for driving while intoxicated and three for drug possession. In late 1991, a woman accused Vance Jr. of beating her with a baseball bat. She dropped the charges, she said, after she agreed to go away for an $80,000 cash settlement.
Just after that, Vance Jr. left for Florida.
The son, who had been given a $60,000-a-year job and a company car for doing little more than attending Prestonwood directors' meetings, was accomplished at one thing in life: golf. At Prestonwood, he had befriended club pro Alan Neiderlitz, who by 1992 had moved to Florida. Vance Jr. took up an invitation to visit his old teacher and quickly became the houseguest from hell. In a drunken rage, he assaulted Neiderlitz's wife, Peggy, who pressed charges against him, which later led to his criminal conviction for battery.
The following year, Peggy Neiderlitz filed a civil suit in Dallas, seeking damages from Vance Jr. for the assault. A jury eventually awarded her $24,750.
That case begat yet another lawsuit, this one in federal court. The Neiderlitzes had discovered that Vance Jr., in his capacity as a director for Prestonwood, had illegally obtained their credit report, presumably to use against them in the state court fight.
In November 1995, a jury found Prestonwood Country Club liable for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act and awarded the couple $168,702.
Almost immediately, rather than pay that sum, Vance Sr., who was the club's chairman and president, and Pronske got busy.
In February 1996, they incorporated an entity called Providence Texas Capital Corp., with Vance as the only director and Pronske as the registered agent. According to court documents, Miller, acting as the president of Henry S. Miller Co., then transferred nearly a million dollars worth of Prestonwood Country Club debt to the newly formed Providence, which suddenly became the club's creditor.
On April 2, at 11 p.m., federal marshals put the country club up for sale on the courthouse steps, which the Neiderlitz couple then ostensibly bought to satisfy their judgment.
Two hours earlier, however, Providence foreclosed on Prestonwood's debt because the club had supposedly defaulted on its indebtedness to Providence. In essence, Miller foreclosed on himself. Pronske claimed at the time that the corporate entity that was Prestonwood--which the Neiderlitzes bought at auction--became an empty shell, and worth nothing.
The Neiderlitzes responded by suing Vance Sr. and Pronske for fraud.
In a legal brief filed later, a Miller creditor claimed, "Miller plays a shell game with his assets, moving them around in hidden transfers as creditors approach."
Last spring, a full year after the courthouse auction, the Neiderlitzes settled for an undisclosed sum and sealed the record with a confidentiality agreement.
"They can't go on like this forever," Peggy Neiderlitz says now, her voice choking with emotion when the Miller name is mentioned. "They can't keep treating people like this. Someday, someday I wish...I wish them no harm, truly."
As the daily paper made clear, 1995 was a big year for Vance Miller Sr. and his wife on the Dallas social circuit. She was snapped rubbing elbows with designer Oscar de la Renta at a charity fashion show. He turned up at a preview party for the chic Oak Lawn restaurant, Joey's, where the well-off guests played at making handprints in wet concrete. As a society columnist put it: "Mega-developer Vance Miller strolled through the mess unruffled in a pin-stripe suit. 'This is what I construct things in,' he said.'"
He had a less fabulous time at the Dallas federal courthouse, where lifetime judges--unlike their state counterparts--are above the business of raising campaign money from the same well-connected families that occasionally end up in their courtrooms.
By late 1995, federal government lawyers had spent $64,000 to take Vance to court to collect on his personal guarantee of tens of millions of dollars in commercial loans left in the portfolios of three failed S&Ls. These were the notes he had taken out in the 1980s to expand Prestonwood and to buy a 103-acre piece of property in Austin.
Of course, a Miller-controlled company continued to own Prestonwood, which by this time had about 1,200 members. Why it took the government so long to sue Miller to enforce his guarantees is a question for a story on the government's vigor, or lack of it, in handling the S&L mess.
Once the case got to trial in Dallas, however, the matter before U.S. District Judge Joe Fish came down to a question of Miller's responsibility for the Prestonwood debt following the club's corporate bankruptcy in 1992. Pronske--who keeps pretty busy with this one client--argued that the bankruptcy got Vance off the hook personally, too. Fish ruled against Miller, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the bulk of his ruling the following year. Last year, Pronske kicked the fight up one more level, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which let the lower court ruling stand.
All that was left was for Miller to step forward and pay the $23 million, plus the interest that had begun gathering at several thousands of dollars a day.
"There isn't much sympathy out there for rich people who don't pay their bills," says Brenda Collier, the lawyer who has been trying to get Miller to pay his tab.
And by all outward appearances, Vance C. Miller's present fortunes are as rich and shiny as the Christmas display he put out last month in front of his Beverly Drive mansion--tens of thousands of little white bulbs strung, just so, through the big trees.
Out of the ashes of the 1980s, with Texas again in a boom, the Miller real estate empire is flourishing once more, with Vance at the helm.
In August 1991, the family repurchased its residential real estate business from Grubb & Ellis for $4 million. The company moved immediately back into commercial real estate and, after four or five exceptional years, is again Dallas' biggest commercial brokerage, with 81 agents, according to the Dallas Business Journal. It is also the city's third-largest residential broker, with $1.4 billion in commissions in 1996.
With the help of publicist Terry Van Willson, the Millers now practically live in the social columns, where Vance Sr. is often referred to as a "magnate" or "mogul." Not content to let others do all the gushing, Willson also does some of his own writing about his client family, saying of them in a cover story in Philanthropy in Texas, "Ask charity organizations in the city what the Miller name stands for, and the answer will be charity itself."
When his creditors come calling, though, Vance Miller sounds more like a man who requires charity rather than someone who gives to it.
Given the various protections Texas law provides individuals for their personal debts, there are plenty of opportunities for a man as apparently wealthy as Miller to render himself poor on paper, or "judgment proof" as lawyers put it.
For starters, Texas is a relatively debtor-friendly state, says Dallas lawyer Gary Pridavka. "You can keep your house under our homestead protections--even if it's a mansion--two cars, $60,000 worth of personal possessions, and so on."
Beyond that, he says, "It's a rich man's game, but if you hire enough lawyers, you can figure out enough schemes to hide behind. You can hide behind this corporation or this trust. You keep enough balls in the air, and you wear them out. They file a lawsuit against you. You sue them back."
The playbook sounds familiar.
Brenda Collier, who was hired to work at collecting the Miller debt last fall, began her efforts with some moves that seemed to have been designed primarily to embarrass. "He doesn't embarrass easily," she says.
She obtained an order to garnish the fees Miller is paid as a director of Pilgrim's Pride Corporation. She also secured a court order to collect property above the $60,000 limit from the Miller mansion, which sits on a lot that alone is valued on the tax rolls at more than $500,000.
When Collier pulled up last October 15 with the moving vans and Tincy Miller obstinately locked the door, Pronske was soon on the driveway telling the federal marshals that Collier was allowed only to videotape the contents of the Miller home.
Vance's 35-year old son Vaughn was quick to add, "We're not going to stand and fuck around. Let's get this going." Vaughn, now an executive with the Miller commercial division, also has left a slightly tarnished record at the courthouse over the years, which includes receiving 45 tickets for moving violations and a 1985 conviction for resisting arrest.
The Miller home turned out to be filled with unremarkable traditional furniture, some banal starving-artist-sale-type artwork--little of obvious resale value beyond a silver service for 24 and some jewelry.
There were, in addition to all of Tincy's shoes, closet after closet of expensive-looking dresses, some of which no doubt played a part in Tincy's being named among the best dressed society women in Dallas in both 1994 and 1996 by the Crystal Charity Ball.
During the tour, Collier noticed "certain valuable pieces of jewelry worn by Geraldine [Tincy] Miller in recent family photographs which were displayed in the Miller residence." But they weren't among the jewelry found in the search.
Collier's legal papers make note of the fact that Tincy left the house with two suitcases, which the marshals did not search. "Geraldine Miller may have hidden certain property," the papers conclude.
Pronske says, "That's just not true." He claims she was on her way out of town to meet her husband in Arizona when the Collier group arrived.
A few weeks later, she filed suit against Collier and Stonehenge for "invasion of privacy" and "civil rights violations" against a "highly respected member of the community." In this sideshow battle, Collier denies any wrongdoing and says Tincy Miller's claims are "barred by her own illegal acts" and "the doctrine of unclean hands."
Two weeks after the house search, Vance Miller appeared under subpoena to give Collier a deposition. He brought almost none of the relevant financial documents such as the personal tax returns that she had requested, and seemed to let her know right off what he thought of her efforts.
"We had the video camera and microphones and everything set up for Mr. Miller to sit at one chair. He came in and sat in another chair and said he wasn't moving," she recalls, adding that the equipment had to be rearranged to meet Miller's wishes.
Over the next four hours, under penalty of perjury, Miller told Collier that he makes a mere $250,000 a year in salary as CEO of the Miller real estate conglomerate--and pays every penny to the company to satisfy a debt. Amazingly, he said he couldn't remember what the debt was for, what it started at, or what it amounts to now.
"You don't recall what the debt was that you pay your entire paycheck to Henry S. Miller...?" Collier asks in a videotape of the deposition.
"That's correct," replies Miller, who says more than 35 times during the session that he can't recall basic things about his personal finances. "I guess I get a salary from Pilgrim's Pride--beef, whatever it is."
He says he spends money that "I borrow from family and friends and their companies," but he said he couldn't name anyone beyond his father.
Q: How much cash do you have on you?
A: I don't know. Probably $50.
Q: Where did you get it?
A: Where did I get it? Well, I've just carried it around for some time.
Q: That was not my question, sir. Where did you get the cash?
A: I don't have a recollection, I use a little cash, you know. I just don't have a recollection.
Miller also claims that contributions made in his name to politicians such as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison are made with money "my wife or my dad gave...on my behalf."
Collier later asks Miller again about his contributions over the past 10 years: "In each and every instance, those contributions were made in your name but not from your funds, correct?"
"Yes," he answers.
If that is true, those contributions would violate federal campaign-finance law. According to rules posted on the Federal Election Commission's Web site: "Contributions made in the name of another are prohibited."
But Pronske insists that is not the case: "My interpretation is that his wife and father were the source of the funds, which became his."
Beyond that, Miller's attempts to portray himself as all but penniless tie him to some pretty embarrassing explanations.
He claims, for instance, that he sold his membership at the exclusive Preston Trail Golf Club to his children back in 1980, when they were teenagers. Apparently, the kiddos, one of whom is barred from belonging to the all-male club by virtue of the fact that she is female, bought the membership with money their grandfather gave them at birth.
Of course Miller, not the kids, uses the membership. He's there nearly every day, playing cards with his buddies or hitting the meticulously groomed links. It's difficult to imagine that the immigrant laborers who mow the well-tended grounds at Preston Trail are worth more on paper than Miller, and get in more trouble if they fall behind on payments for their used pickups.
Phil Hutchison, an owner of Stonehenge, the feds' collection partner, says: "Kind of reminds you of J.R...To us, it's obvious what he's doing. He's hiding behind his family, his businesses to escape living up to obligations to us and the taxpayer.
"Most of the people we deal with spend at least some time trying to negotiate a settlement. That hasn't been the case with him. It's been a fight from day one."
At several hearings scheduled for later this month, the dozens of legal issues that have opened up will be hashed out in the federal courthouse: Miller's memory lapses, Collier's home tour, maybe even how that money got in Miller's wallet.
And, most likely, another year of cotillions, polo matches, and golf games will pass before much is done.
Shifting assets, losing one's memory on the witness stand, playing dumb..."It's a way of doing it," says Collier. "But you don't usually see it from people of his standing. It's not what you expect from people who want status and respect.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.