Prosecution Looks to Right Stumbling City Hall Corruption Case By Calling Brian Potashnik
Don and Sheila Hill left the courthouse Tuesday afternoon in good spirits.
Photos by Sam Merten
An admittedly nervous Steve Williams spent all of Tuesday afternoon on the stand discussing his eight-year tenure as Don Hill's administrative assistant, pushing the anticipated debut of developer Brian Potashnik to this morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham paused his redirect examination of Williams as U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn wrapped up the day, so Williams will be back for at least another 30 minutes today before the jury hears from the prosecution's star witness.
Victor Vital, one of the attorneys for the former Sheila Farrington, maintains that the evidence has been presented out of context, and he says the decision to call Potashnik to the stand this early indicates the prosecution's case is falling apart.
"It's desperation, to tell you the truth. I really think the government understands that what they thought is a damaging case really isn't that damaging at all," he tells Unfair Park. "These are good government prosecutors and good FBI agents, but I think they have tunnel vision, and I don't think they fully comprehended exactly what they were going to see in this case."
Although Potashnik agreed to a plea agreement, Vital stresses that it doesn't mean he's guilty. He notes that the Potashniks, both indicted in the case, have children. The agreement could ensure that wife Cheryl, whose deal limits her sentence at 16 months, will be able to stay home with them while Brian gets a short prison sentence (no more than three and a half years) and is allowed to keep the millions he received from the alleged bribes.
"If both Potashniks went to trial and put everything on the line like the Hills, there would be no one to take care of the kids," he says. "It takes a lot of guts to go to trial."
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Ray Jackson, Don Hill's attorney, says Potashnik knew how politics worked because he had been building city projects for a while, and he understood what needed to be done to curry favor with politicians.
"We're hoping that he says everything he did with Laura Miller is squeaky clean and everything he did with Don Hill was squeaky clean, and it was just politics," he says.
Meacham spent hours asking Williams, who's now a manager in the city's Code Compliance Department, about e-mails, phone messages, various documents and conversations he had with Darren Reagan. But when he finally passed the witness, much of what Williams provided were his personal opinions about hypothetical situations.
"I don't even know actually what value he added to the trial because he doesn't know about any of the questions they were asking him," Jackson tells Unfair Park. "They were so far out of left field, he had to say he just didn't know."
An e-mail from Hill directing Williams to put an envelope from Potashnik into his council office's desk drawer, a fax sent from Hill's council office from Farrington & Associates to Southwest Housing (Potashnik's company) and an e-mail letting Hill know that Ron Slovacek wanted to pay for lunch for Hill and D'Angelo Lee at the Taco Diner in the West Village highlighted the documents presented by the government. However, Meacham offered no explanation as to how any of this activity was illegal or contributed to bribery or conspiracy.
"It's called the shotgun approach," Jackson says. "They want to muddy the waters and throw as much out there as they've done and see what sticks."
During cross-examination, Williams summed up what the prosecution proved with the introduction of phone messages he took for Hill: "It showed that calls came in and out, and I took the messages."
Meacham tried to salvage Williams as a witness, focusing on notes he took of a meeting between Kevin Dean, John Lewis and Darren Reagan. Williams described the conversation between Lewis and Reagan as "heated," but he said he was in and out of the room and couldn't remember who was on the phone, who was in the room and if there was someone else there. And if that wasn't enough to cast doubt in the minds of jurors, Hill directed Williams to document the meeting, so if there was anything unlawful about the meeting, it begs the question why Hill -- a lawyer -- would ask his assistant to document it.
Two audio recordings of phone conversations between Williams and Reagan were also played by Meacham, with Reagan urging Williams to instruct Hill to delay the upcoming zoning agenda item for FBI informant Bill Fisher's West Village development because the contracts weren't signed. The inference that only someone receiving bribes on behalf of Hill could influence an agenda item was debunked by the defense, as Jackson introduced Hill's "sphere of influence."
Williams confirmed that consultant Kathy Nealy, who he referred to as "a lobbyist," and former DART board chair Lynn Flint Shaw were close enough to Hill to influence his votes. Ted Steinke, Reagan's attorney, went through Hill's 2004 schedule and found 12 appointments with Nealy compared to three with Reagan. He also added Edna Pemberton and Dr. Beverly Mitchell-Brooks to what he referred to as Hill's "influential circle."
"What we realized is that a lot of what the government thinks is sinister is just business as usual at City Hall," Victor Vital says.
Former council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale showed up to support the Hills.
Assistant city attorneys Peter Haskel and Jesus Toscano testified Tuesday morning, as Haskel served as the city's liaison to the feds and Toscano issued a legal opinion regarding one of Hill's inquiries. The main focus with Haskel was Hill's 2004 personal finance statement, where a black marker was used underneath a retainer he received from On Target Logistics. Next to "fee received from," Haskel was able to hold the document up to the light and read it (not at the trial, before he handed it over to the feds): "One of the words was Farrington," he said. Meacham also pointed out a bracelet valued at more than $250 received from D'Angelo and wife Toska Lee listed under "gifts."
Toscano, who's been with the city for 27 years and announced he's leaving in six months, wrote an opinion regarding this request from Hill:
I am requesting a legal opinion on whether I can solicit funds from present, past or potential contractors with the city for an economic initiative involving public and private monies. The economic initiative will concentrate on Southern Dallas development projects.
He recommended in his September 2004 opinion that donations be made directly to the city, to coordinate the effort through the city manager's office and to ensure that developers who contribute money aren't given "special consideration."
Hill also sought an opinion from former city attorney Madeleine Johnson via e-mail regarding his possible recusal from a zoning case, to which she told him he would be allowed to vote on the item. Johnson was the star (with a cameo from current city attorney Tom Perkins) of an ethics film shown by Meacham that appeared to have little significance to the case, and the jury seemed to agree as a couple of them nodded off.
As puzzling as it was to find the logic behind putting Williams on the stand for most of the day, Haskel and Toscano only served to suggest how apparently weak the prosecution's case is at the early point in what's expected to be a lengthy trial. Hill went out of his way to ask for legal opinions, got back answers, and, from what it appears, tried to adhere to them.
The much-discussed black mark on the financial disclosure? Although the report is for the year 2004, it was filled out in late March of 2005, so it looks like Hill started to report the infamous BMW until he realized it was the wrong year. It looks less like a smoking gun and more like a red herring at this point.
So, then, we'll see what Brian Potashnik has to say beginning in a few minutes. Maybe it'll be a long trial after all. Or, perhaps, we've already reached the beginning of the end.
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