Today's testimony from Bill Fisher, the government's wire-wearing witness in the City Hall corruption trial in federal court, brings us an even more explicit bribery-extortion scenario than we have seen before in this two-months-old trial.
Fisher is alleging a series of events that followed a meeting with hair-care magnate Comer Cottrell and Kevin Dean, a paving contractor. At that meeting -- a tape of which was played last week -- Cottrell promises to help Fisher get former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill's vote on zoning and approvals for Fisher's tax-subsidized affordable housing development deals.
This morning the government played a tape in which Dean, president of Kevin Dean Asphalt Technology (KDAT), tells Fisher to bill bribe money for Hill and ex-City Plan Commission member D'Angelo Lee as "consultants." Assistant U.S. Attorney Marcus Busch asks Fisher, "In your dealings with Kevin Dean and Comer Cottrell, are there some similarities to your dealings with Darren Reagan and Ricky Robertson and Jibreel Rashad [defendants in an earlier alleged bribery scheme]?" Fisher says the parallel is that Dean and his confederates knew exactly when Fisher's projects were going to be up for approval by the city council, and, "they are going to make sure that doesn't happen until I have signed the contracts."
On another tape of a conversation with John Lewis, Dean's lawyer, Fisher says, "I don't think Don intends to zone it until I have signed with Kevin and Comer." Lewis, a defendant in this case, has pleaded guilty and will testify against Hill.
In another taped meeting, Lewis tells Fisher, "We met with Don, and we got everything taken care of, but we need to take care of some things on this letter first." The letter is an agreement to pass money to Dean and Lewis.
Fisher tells the court he was told if he didn't get the letter turned around by 10 a.m. that day, his zoning case would be postponed again. Lewis told him, "There are a couple of issues." He said, "We have figured out how we are going to do the third-party invoicing," a reference to the pass-through bribe money allegedly intended for Hill.
Fisher says he was told he would have to pay $50,000 per affordable housing project for Don Hill on four or five projects, plus a 10-percent equity share in the project.
Lewis tells Fisher on tape, "I'm a lawyer. I perform consulting services as well as legal services. Typically I just get paid a retainer."
He tells Fisher the total price is $250,000, and "this is straight pass-through," meaning it goes to Hill, not them.
The day before Fisher's "Dallas West Village" is set to go before the council, Dean and Lewis call Fisher back with a higher number for the cash they want upfront. Instead of $50,000, they want $125,000. They also increase their demand to a 25 percent equity in the deal.
The government plays a tape of Dean calling Darren Reagan to see if he still has a deal with Fisher. Dean tells Fisher he is calling at Don Hill's behest. Reagan tells him he no longer has any business going with Fisher. Fisher balks. He doesn't pay the money or sign his letter of agreement. His project is delayed the next day at council.
Afterward, Fisher meets with Lewis and Dean and tells them it was, "Too quick, too much money, too fast for me."
On April 22, Lewis meets with Fisher and says he wants no paper trail. Fisher says he needs some trail because money is changing hands. Lewis says, "Well, between us." But there must be no trail to Hill.
Lewis says, "$250,000 is not worth my law license."
Lewis assures Fisher he can get the money to Hill without leaving a paper trail. He says on a tape, "I've been through forensic accounting before."
The government plays tape of a phone conversation between Hill and former council member Maxine Thornton-Reese. Fisher had projects in Reese's council district. Apparently Fisher had sent Reese three checks for $1,000 each, described as campaign contributions. All three had bounced.
Fisher immediately sent cashier's checks to Reese by messenger. But in her chat with Hill, Reese was derisive. Reese tells Hill on the phone, "You know, Bill Fisher's broke anyway. I told you he gave me three hot checks."
Hill is aghast: "Whaaaat?" he exclaims several times.
Reese says, "He gave me three hot checks for $1,000 each. I told Kathy [Nealy], you need to correct this."
"Oh, my goodness," Hill says. "I'm not foolin' with that Bill Fisher. He don't have no money."
In court, Fisher tells Busch the meaning of the chat between Reese and Hill was clear: "Pay to play," he testifies. "If I didn't have any money to play, they weren't going to pass anything down at the council."
On tape of a meeting after Fisher's project was delayed, Dean tells Fisher, "It got postponed because of us." Fisher tells the court, "I hadn't signed their contracts, and I hadn't given them their retainer."
The government plays video of another meeting in which Fisher hands John Lewis a check for $50,000. Fisher tells the court his zoning issue for Dallas West Village passed the city council the day he handed Lewis the check. Busch turns Fisher over to the defense for cross examination.
Darlene Clayton-Deckard, the lawyer for Rickey Robertson, a used-car dealer who is a defendant in the case, is cross-examining Fisher. The lawyers for the defendants higher in the food chain have all been very sharp, very effective, but this lady is way way out of her depth. She's shaky-nervous and asks questions that don't get her anywhere.
She asks, "Do you recall telling Mr. Rashad and Mr. Robertson that the only reason they were telling you they were sitting before you trying to get projects was just so that they could get the money?"
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Fisher says, "You'd have to refresh my memory."
She plays a tape of a meeting in which Robertson or another defendant -- can't tell who -- says "I don't believe in quick money."
Hmm. Not too sure about this. Who says in a meeting, "I'm in this just for some quick money?" I guess she's trying to establish that her client and his colleagues were serious legitimate guys. Given what the jury has heard so far, I would say she's got a hill to climb, and so far she's sort of circling around the bottom of it.
Fisher is very self-controlled on the stand, very careful to be polite. Interesting. If he has a mercurial streak, it hasn't come out in court yet. Lots of other witnesses have become testy, sullen or sarcastic with the lawyers. Not this guy. He's either been well-coached, or he's a cool character. Judging from some of these surveillance tapes, I would put my money on cool.