Low-income housing developer Brian Potashnik appeared frustrated and confused Monday in the federal City Hall corruption trial as a trio of defense lawyers rattled the prosecution's star witness while attacking his previous testimony. Near the end of a long day on the stand, he asked and answered his own question: "Do I want to be here right now? No."
When Victor Vital resumed Thursday afternoon's cross-examination, Potashnik appeared to be in control, hijacking the exchanges between the two by adding lengthy explanations to questions requiring simple "yes" or "no" answers. Vital, Sheila Hill's attorney, told Unfair Park that allowing Potashnik leeway was part of his strategy, and he returned from a morning break to aggressively take control away from Potashnik, who didn't handle it well.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn repeatedly chastised Potashnik for providing non-responsive answers once Vital started objecting, reminding him several times to stop talking while she was talking and to only answer the question asked him.
The defense continued to focus on Potashnik's plea agreement, with Vital referring to it as a "sweetheart deal," suggesting he signed it because of the maximum 41-month sentence, which can be reduced by a motion by the prosecution, and the opportunity to avoid paying restitution.
"There's no amount of money that would make me plead guilty to something I did not do, Mr. Vital," Potashnik replied. He would later say that getting back his money "doesn't matter to me."
The most damning evidence of the day was Vital's use of Potashnik's factual résumé (submitted when he pled guilty), which contradicts previous testimony that he provided bribes in return for the approval of specific developments of his company, Southwest Housing. This is the section quoted by Vital:
From on or about August 2004 through on or about June 2005, Hill and/or Lee pressured Potashnik to corruptly provide them, through the hiring of a specific community consultant and specific subcontractor, with things of value to reward these agents of local government in connection with the business of the City Council and CPC. These actions were done by Potashnik to advance the general interests of SWH (rather than for the approval of any specific development of SWH) and to ensure the continuing goodwill of Hill and/or Lee.
"I don't think that's what it says," Potashnik said as the jury paid close attention. "I think you're reading it out of context."
Doug Greene, D'Angelo Lee's attorney, used a chart to detail Potashnik's 15-count indictment, which carried a possible combined sentence of 130 years and restitution for any profits from the bribes. "I think that's more time than I've got left on earth," Potashnik said with a laugh.
When Greene asked why he maintained his innocence to reporters after the indictment, Potashnik said, "I did not have the evidence that I have now."
Two of Southwest's developments at the heart of the case -- Laureland and Scyene -- brought beauty to blighted communities, enhanced them and would have passed on their own merits, Vital argued, and Potashnik agreed. Potashnik claimed he felt "threatened" on both projects to use people connected to Don Hill, even though he balked at signing contacts with Darren Reagan and Andrea Spencer for both developments, and they were approved anyway "thanks to Mr. Hill" as Potashnik would tell Ted Steinke, Reagan's attorney.
Steinke produced notes with "SWH" at the bottom detailing a meeting regarding its Cedar Crest development, where $50,000 would be paid to a community development corporation with an "equity position" or partial ownership in the project, and $50,000 would be donated via the Rev. H.J. Johnson to the Cathedral of Faith Missionary Baptist Church. Potashnik had earlier testified that the amount given to the church was $25,000, but he agreed it could have been $50,000. He justified it because the church needed to be refurbished and said the payment to the CDC wasn't a bribe since "they were actually doing work."
Vital disputed Potashnik's claim that his client hadn't performed any services to earn her consulting fees from Southwest Housing, playing wire taps of Hill talking to her husband and former city plan commissioner D'Angelo Lee about meetings with Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle and others regarding Potashnik's developments.
Vital provided e-mails showing that Bill Fisher, Potashnik's competitor turned FBI informant, had been proposing deals with retail components, which led to Potashnik instructing him to produce plans submitted to the city plan commission. Vital didn't have the documents, but suggested that Fisher was trying to distinguish himself in a fierce competition with Potashnik, leading to Potashnik signing a consulting contract with his client approximately one month after the e-mails from Fisher discussing retail.
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Jurors also heard about Potashnik's relationship with former council member Leo Chaney, as described in this October 2005 story in The Dallas Morning News, highlighted by an alleged $40,000 donation to Tulisoma: South Dallas Book Fair & Arts Festival, which Chaney founded. Additionally, Southwest Housing hired Melvin Traylor while he served as Chaney's appointee to the City Plan Commission, and Vital produced a $100,000 promissory note from Southwest Housing to the Ferguson Road Corridor Community Development Corporation, which was lead by Chaney's campaign manager, Vikki Martin, and opposed one of his developments because of a misrepresentation regarding the number of units.
Potashnik denied knowledge of the promissory note, and upon seeing it, noted that it was never signed or executed. He defended the charitable donations as ones he believed in, and instead of agreeing with Vital that donating $4,000 to Chaney's campaign through his company and its employees was "savvy," he called it "part and parcel to the process."
And hiring people connected to politicians like Traylor -- is that savvy?
"No. It's stupid," Potashnik said.