Don and Sheila Hill: The Unfair Park Interview
An inclination for religious references did not save Don Hill from lawful judgment.
Photos and cutlines by Danny Fulgencio
A little more than 24 hours after a jury found Don and Sheila Hill guilty on a total of 12 counts in the City Hall corruption case, the two sat down with me for a lengthy interview at the offices of Baker Botts on the 11th floor of Trammell Crow Center. Space constraints prevented much of our conversation from appearing in this week's cover story about the trial, so I've pulled together the highlights in the form of a Q & A after the jump, along with a slide show, which includes some never-before-seen photos from the trial.
The Hills were generous with their time (we spoke for approximately two and a half hours), and even though Sheila's attorney, Victor Vital, and Don's consultant, Ken Carter, were on hand, there was little interference. And no question was off-limits. In the aftermath of the verdicts, both seemed focused on their 16-year-old daughter from Sheila's previous marriage to Eric Farrington, who's also a convicted felon. Don says his stepdaughter, who's a junior in high school, wants them to be at her graduation next year. "She's strong, and rightly so, she is a little anxious about what this all means for her mother and pops and her own life in what she wants to do."
Don says his two grown daughters from his previous marriage to Vivian have "pretty much" stuck with him throughout the trial. "It's difficult when your dad's name is in the news and across the paper. Sometimes they wonder about what they should say."
Since the indictments two years ago, Don says he's been smeared professionally, impairing his ability to earn an income, so he and Sheila have scaled their lifestyles down to the bare essentials. They've depended on strong support from their church, family and friends to supplement the limited amount of law Don has been able to practice while Sheila has been serving as his assistant. "The government went to people I've developed relationships with and interviewed them, showed them evidence and played wiretaps," he says.
Even though they both have no complaints about their representation, the two are optimistic about their chances of winning an appeal. "We're not knocked out. We're just going to keep pressing through to the very end," Don says. "We thought today would be truly the first day of the rest of our lives because we'd be moving on, but we're not. We're still in the fight."
Jurors found Don guilty of seven of the nine counts against him, including conspiracy to commit bribery and extortion.
Talk to me a little bit about what was going through your minds when the verdicts on count 10 (the first one) were read.
Don: I don't remember very much on count 10 after [Judge Barbara Lynn] called Sheila's name and said, "Guilty." It was so unexpected and so numbing that I really didn't adjust after that. I am more alert and alive today than I was yesterday because it just took your breath away in some respects when you're stunned by something and you don't immediately grasp all the dimensions of what that means -- you just know that it's a shock to your system.
Sheila: The last thing you expect to hear is what we heard, primarily because, yes, we are doing this in faith, but even more so, there was not one piece of hard evidence produced. There was so much reasonable doubt, it's unreal ... The last thing I expected was what we heard. I was stunned.
Obviously you believe you're innocent, but is there that little part of you right beforehand where you're thinking about the possibility of guilty verdicts coming down -- is any of that going through your head?
Don: I never got there. And one of the things that I had just tried to work on was just trying to deal with any kind of doubt. And the more and more we went through the trial, the less and less doubt I had, so that by the time we got to the jury announcement, I didn't even have to resist doubt ... There wasn't anything that I was thinking standing there other than we were about to hear a not guilty verdict, and we were about to explain to the citizens of Dallas that this dark cloud over City Hall has now been lifted.
Don, a lot of people in the community look at you before and after Sheila, and there's certainly a correlation between your relationship and the events of the trial. Can you speak a little about the perception that somehow Sheila is the bad influence in your life?
Don: I think that comment probably comes from people that knew me at a distance and really didn't know me really that well. She has been the very best thing for me in my life. God was the architect of putting us together. It was probably my most significant regret that I didn't marry her a whole lot sooner than I did. So for those people who would say that, they really didn't know me ... The kinds of things that I was doing in '04 and '05, I will tell you, those were things I was doing in '03 and '02.
Sheila: People speculate all the time. They don't know the truth. They're not close enough to know the truth. It's anything but that. It's not a bad seed. It's not a bad situation. It's definitely not a bad arrangement. We're truly a union that God has joined together, and we know it, and we're proud of it. So, no, but I suppose that answer would be biased coming from me (laughs).
Is there ever a point when you guys think about in some respects that Farrington & Associates, all these things, wouldn't have existed had you guys not been together?
Sheila: Five years ago, would you have imagined you'd be here today? You don't know what tomorrow brings. You embrace life as it comes, and our paths crossed. We were doing good things. We were trying to work in our community and to give of ourselves to create a better situation for lives and the community. If that's ugly, that makes not doing it beautiful. Is it better to look at the disparities in communities and sit back and do nothing, or you don't have any power, but you might have a strategy, idea or theory as to how you might create a better situation? So why not put forth the energy and effort to do that?
Don, has there ever been a point that you regretted taking the stand and testifying?
Don: Well, no, there really wasn't, and the reason I say that is because my lawyers visited with me -- not just Ray Jackson, but Victor, who I basically viewed as our lawyer anyway, and even Ted Steinke talked to me -- very directly about the decision that I was making. And there really wasn't any hesitation because I just felt that no matter what the position of the evidence was, I just felt that I had to get to those 12, 13 jurors and explain to them -- if I did it the best way, or maybe stumbling a little or whatever -- I had to let them see as best as I could who I was. And from a reputation standpoint, I felt like I had to say under oath in front of everybody that was there -- the jury and the city -- I had to be able to say no, I never tried to compel, force or pressure Brian Potashnik into doing anything for Sheila, and I didn't try to extort any money from Bill Fisher.
A concern from one of the jurors (Nedra Frazier) was that you had testified that you didn't have a fax machine at your house, and there was in fact a fax machine photographed at your house by the FBI. Do you think the fact that you were willing to lie about something like that might have raised doubts in their minds that you were willing to lie about other things?
Don: I guess I do understand that. At the same time, pick one other example. Brian Potashnik gets on the stand and says that he has absolutely no idea that D'Angelo Lee is working on the Farrington & Associates contract. When we listened to wiretaps where he's asking D'Angelo not only about the bills that are being sent and whether the detail is sufficient, but he also talked to him about Central Dallas Ministries and trying to get ownership of Summer Breeze, which was also part of it. So if you're going to say that if he'll lie about the fax machine, he'll lie about something else, but then at the same time when you get clearly questionable testimony from Brian Potashnik, and that's not really counted against him from what we seem to be saying right now, then it seems to me there's more going on than just if Don will lie about one thing, he must lie about something else.
Sheila: (talking to Don) I think you need to clarify that you didn't deliberately lie about the fax machine. Tell him why...
Don: No, no, no, no. The thing that I testified on the fax machine was that I looked at the fax machine and said, "I think that's my wife's, but I'm not certain." If you look at my testimony, that's what I said.
Sheila: But prior to that, you said you didn't have a fax machine.
Don: I didn't have a fax machine, yes.
Sheila: So what I'm trying to get you to tell him is why did you say that, or would you like me to?
Don: Yeah, you should tell him because I'm not sure what you're saying now.
Sheila: (laughing) You didn't remember. That's how unfortunately detached you were. You didn't remember that there was a fax there or not.
Don: Well, yes. Yes. Yes. But...
Sheila: You couldn't tell what was there.
Don: But that was, at least in my judgment, that was an issue that should have been evaluated based on the evidence. In some way, it seems to be suggested now that it was looked upon as a litmus test for whether Don Hill was a truth teller or not.
Don remains pensive while his wife, Sheila, fields questions.
You're a lawyer. You know that people look at credibility. You are the main guy in this case. People are looking at you to tell the truth, and along with the fax machine, there were other instances where your testimony didn't match up. You said you didn't expect Darren Reagan at Friendship-West, and then, of course, there's the wiretap where you and him are discussing meeting at 11 o'clock at the church.
Don: Well, I agree with you, and I guess that's why in some of the discussions until now I've heard some of the lawyers talk about there are two versions you can believe. (He goes on to explain that he misunderstood the question asked by the prosecution; he knew nothing about Reagan appearing with money at the church, not that he wasn't expecting him there at all.) I don't want to sound like I'm making a bunch of excuses, but I do feel like I've got to at least provide some type of explanation, which is what we tried to do in the testimony.
Do you wish you had handled the $10,000 differently?
Don: Absolutely. I absolutely with that I had handled that differently ... What I would have said was, "Darren, I tell you what. Let's do this. I don't want to take any cash. I'll tell you what to do. Why don't you just write a check, and you give to D'Angelo whatever money you need to give him. Why don't you just do that?" So that's a real easy way that I could have handled that differently. And I guess I'd test that human nature a little bit here because I guess I'd say that if I felt like I was doing something that was a reflection of some type of criminal intent or corrupt intent, I would have been much more secretive about it -- this is just my supposition -- and I think it's a reflection of basic human nature.
Sheila: Definitely. You sure wouldn't have been putting into the strong mayor.
Don: It's not so much where you spent it as much as it is how you handled it.
Sheila: But it is how you spent it as well.
Don: Well, it is. I don't disagree with that.
Sheila: In terms of intent.
Vital: Is he sloppy? Did he not follow the campaign laws to a tee? I think you can answer both of those affirmatively, but to take it one step further, is this indicative of some federal crime? I think any reasonable person would say nah because he wouldn't have put it on a campaign form. The easy way to take the fruits of a bribe or extortion payoff is just to stick it in your pocket and go to Dave & Buster's. Go to Six Flags. And who would have ever known?
It didn't seem like during the trial that you did a good enough job of driving a wedge between yourself and D'Angelo Lee and Darren Reagan. Do you see them as people who were throwing your name and power around without your knowledge?
Don: Well, that was the truth. That was what was happening. And you could certainly say as to D'Angelo, who was my planning commissioner and who I had some control, some power, some responsibility for, that I could certainly have done more to drive a wedge between Don Hill the council person and D'Angelo Lee the planning commissioner. Now think about that for a minute. I'm trying to drive a wedge, a strong separation between the council member and arguably the most important appointee he has as a council person, the planning commissioner. The planning commissioner and the council person -- I think your own research and talking to people would tell you it's not by accident that those people tend to migrate up to the council.
But not everybody has the kind of relationship with their plan commissioner that you had. You had a very close relationship with D'Angelo. A lot of council members barely talk to their plan commissioners.
Don: (He explains that their relationship was different because the two were church members, and he knew Lee's wife Toska well because he was friends with her late brother, lawyer Lyle Medlock.) There were some things I could have done to try to separate myself more from some of the issues we were trying to do -- development issues, minority contracting issues. I could have stayed out of some of that. It probably would have been better if I would have stayed out of some of it, but that wasn't where I was at that time.
Sheila, when Don testified, he said he didn't draft the Farrington & Associates contract and you didn't draft it. Since we weren't able to hear from you, who drafted it?
Sheila: The lead consultant [D'Angelo Lee].
Shelia, one of the issues lost on some people was filling out the 1099s. The explanation, at least from Don because we didn't hear from you, was that you couldn't get Lee's Social Security number. That seems like something that would be a fairly easy thing to get.
Sheila: I can see how it would seem to be so. Reflecting back on that time, a lot of people are slow about getting their documents together and sloppy about it, and late and have to file extensions and things of that nature, and unfortunately I was one of them. And in the midst of doing so, you're carrying out your daily schedule, running and everything, and he's running, and you're trying to get his Social Security number, and maybe you try to call, you miss the call, you go on about your day. You think, oh, I'll get it later. The day passes. It slips your mind. You're going on. You turn your docs over to your tax preparer, and you give him a phone number and say, "OK, you try to get it." And you just bounce it over to someone else, and it never happens.
Victor Vital, Sheila's attorney, remained contemplative and laconic during the interview.
Sheila was found guilty on five of six felony charges.
As far as the bank account, obviously the contention was that Lee couldn't get his own, and that's why you handled that. But why was he not a signatory on the account so that he could withdraw money?
Sheila: It's real simple ... Even if he'd been a signatory, they would have run his [Social Security] number, so he wouldn't have been able to sign checks ... I was a personal banker. I know what I'm talking about.
Lee was made to be the lead consultant. How would you describe what he did for Farrington & Associates?
Sheila: He performed the tasks that he agreed upon with Brian [Potashnik] in that contract. He worked on the (pause) retail piece, (pause) the police storefront. He was the liaison interacting with the public officials. He did that and on a regular basis was in constant communication with Brian throughout the process.
So you saw his role as a consultant as legitimate as yours?
Sheila: Oh, yes. Yes. I had a very minute part in that contract, not to diminish it at all. I'm just saying that was what was arranged. For me, it was just an opportunity, you might say, to build a portfolio for Farrington & Associates.
It seems like, looking at your workload and his workload, there should have been a discrepancy that would justify you making $2,500 and him making $12,000.
Sheila: Well, I'm sure a lot of people enter into agreements and that conflict exists ... He worked on what he was supposed to work on, and I worked on what I was supposed to work on.
One (quantity of workload) wasn't any greater than the other?
Sheila: No. Unfortunately, sometimes the little man has to do most of the running ... And I was the little man because I was not the lead consultant on that contract.
Can you define the role of a consultant?
Sheila: A consultant is there to advise and offer a service in whatever particular area they're consulting in -- to move a project, to bring a project together, different things. A consultant advises in different areas -- it depends on which area you're focusing on -- and upon advising, then implement some action toward bringing it to materializing, whatever it is you're advising.
Other consultants -- Carol Reed, Kathy Nealy -- have these contracts that have incentives tied to their ability to get items passed at the city council. I think to the outside world there's an implication that the consultant has control over that.
Sheila: That's the system. Lobbying has existed for however long. For those that are skillful enough to participate or to do it as a living, then they reap the benefit of it ... That's not something that Carol Reed invented. It existed before her. It existed before me.
Don, you're sticking with your innocence, but is there anything about what you've done related to the trial that you feel like you need to apologize to the residents of District 5 or the city of Dallas for? Do you feel like you owe them an apology for anything you've done?
Don: I do owe the residents of District 5 an apology about how I handled my personal life, and I should have gotten a divorce and married her without it being in the context of this, so I certainly owe the citizens and residents an apology for not handling that with integrity the way I should have. I really should have done so much better. I certainly hate to have put them in the negative light that came as a result of me handling that $10,000 the way I did. I could have handled that better. And even though none of it made it into my pocket, it all went out.
Given the jury's verdicts, are you sorry that you trusted Darren Reagan?
Don: What you're asking me is: Since he set fire to your house, don't you think you should have taken the matches away from him? Or don't you think you should have called the fire department so you could put that fire out? And I would say, of course, I should have taken the matches from him. I should have called the fire department out because my house is burned down now.
Aside from the verdicts, had you known what Reagan was doing at the time he was doing it, would you have wanted to stop it?
Don: Well, yes, I would have, and the reason I would have is because it's not my style to do hard bargaining ... If I would have known that Darren was fighting it out with Bill Fisher tooth and nail like that, then I would have said, "Maybe this is not the right business relationship for you guys. Maybe ya'll should go do something else." But I didn't know that. In looking back at where I was then, I'm not certain that the best out for me wasn't cleaning up Darren Reagan as much as it was cutting Bill Fisher off.
What about Lee? Certainly if you had been privy to what he was doing, putting this so-called "tax" on ...
Don: He's my planning commissioner, much different case. Much different case. He's my planning commissioner; I've got some control over him ... I would have stopped all of that if I had known anything about it.
(Don is discussing his adoration for former council members Maxine Thornton Reese, Leo Chaney and James Fantroy.) You speak highly of Fantroy, but this is a guy who got busted for stealing from Paul Quinn College and was involved with Fisher in making sure he hired his security company before approving his projects.
Ken Carter, Don's friend and consultant, watches closely but doesn't interject once during the interview.
Don: Fantroy was wrong with what he did with Paul Quinn, but I saw Fantroy spend his money and his time and donate his buildings and phones and all kinds of stuff to helping us with strong mayor. I saw him fight down there for contractors, for citizens, for development in his district every day, so if I said he was a bad person -- I know you're not suggesting that necessarily -- in light of my eight years of serving with him based on that one wrong, and I don't want to call it a mistake. It's more serious than that, that illegality. I gotta judge him more than on that; I'm sorry. And I saw James Fantroy run campaigns and not take any money from anybody because he didn't want anyone having undue access to him ... The Fantroy security contract, the idea started with Bill Fisher ... The idea was first put forth when James Fantroy expressed to Kathy [Nealy] and Bill that, "You're talking about stacking these apartments, and that's just too dense. I just don't like that." And at that point, Bill Fisher brings up to Kathy Nealy that, "Well, maybe we should offer him a security contract." And that was the first time something for something was proposed ... It's a fair criticism to say Fantroy messed up on that. I think that's fair. But on the security contract, the jury ended up in part -- in significant part -- convicting my wife and I because Bill Fisher made the first overture at something for something, and that jury believed him.
Visibly distressed but composed, Don's exhaustion shone through for a brief moment when the interview shifted to his wife.
What was your reaction and explanation to the wiretap between you and Lynn Flint Shaw talking about the arts district contributing to the anti-strong mayor campaign?
Don: That conversation drove my lawyers crazy. They were upset about it, and I'm looking at them bewildered to be perfectly honest with you because Laura Miller is asking and receiving $50,000 from T. Boone Pickens in the strong mayor campaign at same time that he's down at City Hall trying to sell us West Texas water ... I felt like I was playing the political game just as the mayor was, but I wasn't talking to the individual contributor. I was talking to a person that was right there with us, trying to raise money and run the campaign ... If the citizens of Dallas think that that was a hard sell, they do not want to hear conversations that go on between mayors and developers and leaders on the council and other citizens groups. They don't want to hear that because that is as pure a piece of politics as you're ever going to run into.
Part of your defense was that everything you did was politics as usual. Let's say, hypothetically, that we wiretapped Mayor Leppert and some of the council members, do you think everyone would come out squeaky clean?
Don: I think if you were to listen to their calls, you're going to hear hard politics, because this is the 10th largest city in America. It is dominated by wealth and developers and significant constituent groups. And you've got to fight about resources in our town. So you're going to hear some tough politics -- I can promise you that -- but nothing illegal, nothing unethical and nothing improper.
Yesterday you talked about not having any anger or bitterness toward Potashnik. It seems hard to believe given that he contributed to the situation you're in now. How do you find a place where you're not angry or bitter at someone, who in your eyes lied to save his own ass and put you in a heap of trouble?
Don: He did get up there and lie; there's no doubt about that. And he wasn't the only one who got up there and lied ... Even lying, if he did what he felt like he had to do for his family, I'm not putting the burden on him. I'm putting the burden on the system to see that he's got a motivation for not telling the truth, and therefore the system and the jurors that hear the case oughta not believe most or all of what's he's saying. That's the earthly, worldly human reasoning that I go through.
How similar were your and Laura Miller's relationships with Potashnik?
Don: What I would say there is to not look at the implication of what they didn't do, but look at what they did do. And what the government did do was have 14 defendants, and I think two of them, Potashnik and Ron Slovacek, are Anglo, and the rest of them are African American ... Even though their No. 1 informant said he believed Laura was getting all kinds of money, that was never explored ... Every person they asked about was an African American. So I'm not going to even deal with the implications of what they didn't do. I'm talking about the affirmative actions that they did take. And they were very clearly focused on African American decision makers and elected officials and appointed officials and people that had some degree of influence in the African-American community.
Vital: (referring to the audio of Fisher's comment to Lee that Miller received unreported money from Potashnik) That statement just resounded and bounced off the walls and just evaporated into thin air, and nobody ever batted an eye or looked at whether they should investigate why the money doesn't show up in the campaign ... They decided to follow up on the black folks and let her off the hook.
The water in the house that you lived in with your first wife Vivian was shut off. That wouldn't lend itself to the idea that you were getting by on your $37,500 council salary.
Don: Not to diminish how much of a struggle it was to make ends meet on the council, but the water getting cut off wasn't a reflection of not having enough money to pay for the water bill. The water getting cut off was a reflection of me not getting it done in a timely fashion. One of the things that you learn about Dallas water very quickly is that if they say your bill is due on the 18th, on the morning of the 19th they are at your house turning the water off.
Don, the wiretap where you're telling Sheila what to say under oath about the BMW, it just sounds seedy. It sounds like you're doing something wrong and you're trying to protect yourself in case you get caught doing it, so I want some elaboration as to why you felt it necessary to instruct her what to say under oath about the BMW.
Don: It's just light-hearted banter between two people who know each other intimately ... I understand people seeing it as seedy if they're reading it. If they're listening to it ... I don't have a lot of explanation for that. I was consistent with the fact that I didn't say it was mine.
Is there a part of you that wishes you had testified?
Sheila: No, I don't think that was a mistake. The government did not target facts. They looked under the bed and in the closets and in the linen drawers, and they focused on those issues. They didn't focus on the facts of the case, and what's the need in going through all that? ... Whose personal life is perfect? We put on our clothes every day and go out and we project that we're living our perfect lives, and then we go home to our scattered existences, so many of us.
As far as the perception regarding those who pleaded beforehand, do you feel like the public is able to look at those and see vindication in the verdicts?
Sheila: The government is skillful at pushing those sensitive buttons, finding that sensitive area and zooming in on it and using it as leverage to get out of you what they like. They were desperate people that wanted to save their own hide, and so they pled.
Was there any exculpatory evidence that you feel like the jury overlooked?
Sheila: I think they missed the whole trial. I respect their decision, but it's as if they weren't present at the trial. It's as if they weren't present. Whoever was present saw something totally different from what they saw. And that's just not me; that's other people that were present. And, for me, I still wonder what on earth ... How could you reach the conclusion that they reached? I'm still wondering how could they do that ... These are lives that are at stake. Lives. It's not like some little game and if you lose, oh, you lost the game. People's lives are at stake. It's just the next step of being lynched. If you had a noose around your neck, people are going to be, "Woo!" (clapping) Is this a big game? No. Lives are at stake.
But given that you have 12 random people coming to the same verdicts, what gives you hope that an appeal will change that?
Sheila: (long pause) I don't know that I'm knowledgeable about the entire process to even elaborate on that right now. We haven't even had a chance to get into discussions about that. I don't know that I would even be comfortable answering that right now.