It may be time for some defendants in the federal corruption trial to play Make a Deal.
Right about now, I'm flippin'.
This has got to be one of the last time-windows for co-defendants to flip in the 2-month-old Dallas City Hall corruption trial in federal court. If I were any one of them, with the possible exception of former city council member Don Hill, I think I'd try to make a deal.
Because otherwise, things look bad. That's only my opinion. We don't know how the jury feels.
This is a complicated trial with a whole bunch of moving parts. Let's only talk about one element—Darren Reagan and the Black State Employees Association of Texas (BSEAT), a labor union which does not appear to have any members as far as anyone can tell.
On August 25, 2004, Reagan appeared before the Dallas City Council as the CEO of BSEAT and spoke ardently against the construction of tax-subsidized affordable apartment projects in southern Dallas.
By state law and local political custom, a developer of tax-subsidized affordable housing in Dallas can't get his deals approved without the support of the city council member in whose district the project is to be built.
The same day Reagan spoke, then-Councilman Don Hill sent word to Bill Fisher, a developer who wanted to build tax-subsidized affordable housing in his district, that he needed to meet Reagan.
On September 20, 2004, Fisher met Reagan. Reagan told him BSEAT was an organization ideally qualified to help get tax-subsidized affordable housing projects approved by city council and plan commission members. Reagan told Fisher he could deliver Hill's vote. Two hours later, Reagan met with Hill. We don't know what they talked about.
On October 8, Reagan faxed Fisher a proposal for one of Fisher's projects, to be called Dallas West Village: Reagan could get Fisher the approvals he needed for a mere $100,000 plus $1,500 an hour for any actual work plus five percent of Fisher's own developer's fee.
Four days later Don Hill told Fisher that his projects were looking kind of iffy. The next day Hill had the city council postpone one of Fisher's projects.
The day after that, Reagan began pitching his services to Fisher's main competitor in the affordable housing business, Brian Potashnik, a defendant in this trial who pleaded guilty as the trial began two months ago. What followed, according to the government, was a game of pressure in which Reagan and Hill played Fisher and Potashnik against each other, withholding votes, granting votes, all the while squeezing for money.
On October 27, 2004, Hill had the city council deny three measures Fisher needed passed for his projects. That same day Hill moved to approve a fourth measure for Fisher, but somehow the measure was held over two weeks.
Meanwhile, former Ciy Plan Commissioner D'Angelo Lee started dunning Fisher to contribute between $2,500 and $7,500 to Hill's birthday party.
On November 10, Reagan called Fisher and told him that another project he had up for approval at City Hall that week, called Pecan Grove, was about to go down. Toast.
Fisher jumped in his car, bombed down to City Hall where he met Darren Reagan at high noon on the parking lot. Sitting in the car outside City Hall, Fisher signed a new contract with BSEAT for Pecan Grove, same terms as the first contract for West Village.
At 1 p.m. the same day, Darren Reagan addressed the Dallas City Council as CEO of BSEAT to tell them what a fine tax-subsidized affordable housing project they had before them in Pecan Grove. Don Hill moved that the council approve it. They did so, unanimously.
Democracy at work. Kind of gives you the tingles, eh?
Six hours later, Reagan faxed Fisher another contract to establish BSEAT as a consultant/partner on another Fisher project. The next day Fisher gave him $10,000.
Five days later Hill met with Reagan at 8:45 a.m. That same day at 6:30 p.m., Hill and Reagan met with Kathy Nealy, Fisher's lobbyist, and told her Fisher needed to hire certain minority contractors.
The next day Reagan faxed Fisher a whole new contract to replace the West Village agreement. Things were getting more expensive for Fisher. Now, instead of $100,000, Reagan wanted $150,000.
The next day, Fisher paid Reagan $7,000. That same day, Lee moved the plan commission to delay Fisher's stuff.
Now, this is a key moment. The government argues that Lee, Hill and Reagan were dangling Fisher on the meat hook to shake more money out of him, taking his checks but delaying his deals while they pushed for the really big take. The defense argues that this very moment proves Lee and Hill were not extorting Fisher: If they were, they would have voted for him every time they took his money.
I was more impressed with the defense argument when the trial began. The more time the government has had to paint the pattern of cat and mouse, the more this looks like death by a thousand paw-pats.
On December 16, Fisher paid Reagan $5,500. Lee moved the plan commission to pass his stuff. They do. Unanimously. Because they're a team.
Meanwhile, Fisher had been battling with the sub-contractors that Reagan was pressing him to use. This was the really big money in all of this. The contracts in play were worth $8 million. The government argues that the profit from this business was to be shared among the co-conspirators. They have Reagan on tape saying, "All the subs are going to have to contribute to the kitty."
The subcontracting was a major sticking point for Fisher, because the named subs were so manifestly unqualified to do the work. Fisher kept trying to tell them and Reagan that putting their names in the paperwork would get everybody caught.
The wannabe subs themselves were willing to compromise. They offered Fisher what they called "Plan B" : They would agree not to do any work at all, in exchange for $540,000.
On January 25, 2005, Reagan billed Fisher $85,000. At this point, Fisher had lost on more council votes than he had won. Potashnik, who was favored not just by Hill but also by Mayor Laura Miller, to whom Potashnik had made generous legal political contributions, was forging ahead nicely on his deals.
Fisher told the court that at this point he had hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money buried in these deals, none of which could he recover without favorable city council votes. On January 31, Fisher paid Reagan $85,000.
But things seemed only to ratchet up for Fisher. On February 1, Reagan billed Fisher $4,000 for car and cell phone expense. On February 7, Reagan billed Fisher for $30,000 and also for $180,000. Apparently the $180,000 was an installment on the half-million bucks he "owes" the subs for agreeing not to do any work. The $30,000 is money left over from some earlier invoice.
On February 11, Fisher paid Reagan $4,000. That same day, Lee told Reagan to bill Fisher for another $75,000 for the subs who have agreed not to do any work.
On February 16, Reagan faxed Fisher a new demand for future deals. BSEAT was to be named co-developer, general contractor and project manager. Fisher was to accept "deed restrictions" making BSEAT a partner on all future deals. Fisher was to butt out of day-to-day management. BSEAT was to be given half the developer's fee, about $1.4 million for BSEAT.
It would really not be Bill Fisher's business anymore. It would be Darren Reagan's.
On the FBI surveillance tape played in court, you can hear Fisher telling Reagan, "If that is the cost of doing business in District 5, I can't do that."
"That's your problem, Bill," Reagan said. "That's your problem. I just do what I have to do." Then Reagan shouted at him: "Bill! Bill! We are talking about equity here. Equity!"
In court when the tape was played, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marcus Busch asked Fisher, "Equity?"
Fisher said, "They've run me out of South Dallas."
I count another $62,500 that Fisher paid Reagan after this point. The FBI has film of Reagan handing Don Hill 10 grand in cash behind a church.
At the end of last week's testimony, the government played a videotape of a hair-raising meeting in which D'Angelo Lee screamed at Fisher that he wanted the deal with the wannabe subs done. Lee tried to speak in a kind of code where he made certain statements "on the record" to the effect that he didn't care who Fisher hired. But then Lee lost his temper when Fisher wouldn't agree to hire his friends. "It pisses me off!" he shouted.
Lee also guessed, correctly, that he was being taped: "I think you're trying to entrap me," he shouted. "I think you're taping me, which is entrapment. I think you've done it several times, and I want that to be on your record. I think you're trying to cross me up, which irritates me to the fullest. The deals before me are deals that I made a decision on based on land use."
But Lee still couldn't make himself stop pushing Fisher to agree to use the subs. The tape was extremely damning evidence.
I don't believe any of the racial/ethnic jury make-up we were all talking about at the beginning of this trial will count for much. The government has done a good job of establishing that there are tons of honest, hard-working minority contractors out there—the people who get hurt most immediately by cheaters. That won't be lost on the minority jurors.
Right now, Hill himself might have half an inch of daylight left, because he has not been caught on tape directly asking for or taking a bribe. But I don't think anybody else has much of a glimmer.
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