For years, Don Hill eked out a modest living as a lawyer, and while he could disarm a jury with a folksy grin and a friendly yarn, he struggled mightily outside the courtroom. Secretaries had to call him repeatedly to remind him of meetings or else he'd never show. Hill spent most of his time at City Hall, where he served as a powerful council member, but at his day job he cut a modest presence, often wearing a pair of shoes with a gash peeking through the left sole.
Hill's former boss, J.H. Barr, defeated him once in a hard-fought case. After that, Barr, who built a thriving law practice in the middle of Oak Cliff, kept asking Hill to work for him every time he saw him at the courthouse. It took years of asking, but Hill finally took a job at Barr's firm in 2003, and while he could be frustrating to deal with at times, with his penchant for leaving clients waiting in his empty office, he was a good lawyer when he wanted to be.
In one case in a South Texas border town, Barr's firm was defending a construction company accused of building a shoddy road that caused a man to crash his car. It was a serious accident; the man became a paraplegic and sued the construction company. Barr sent Hill and another wet-behind-the-ears attorney to defend the case.
"I get a call from the young lawyer telling me that they got the paraplegic rolled into the courtroom, the plaintiff's lawyer landed his jet in the local airport, and he and Hill got to the hearing a little late," Barr says. "The judge comes in, and what do you know, she's a paraplegic. So the plaintiff is paralyzed, the judge is paralyzed and Hill wins the motion. A black guy in a Mexican-dominated town, and he pulls it out of the hat."
Now Hill faces a far thornier and more personal legal challenge. On October 1, Richard Roper, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, charged Hill with 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion after a long FBI investigation into influence-peddling at City Hall. The starring figure in a 166-page federal indictment of 14 current and former public officials, Hill is the alleged ringleader in an elaborate series of schemes that traded his authority as a city council member in exchange for envelopes of cash for him and his cronies. Hill's attorney Ray Jackson says his client looks forward to proving his innocence, but if he's going to beat the U.S. Attorney's Office he's going to have to once more pull something out of a hat—like a library of exonerating evidence to combat a federal case full of recorded conversations, wiretaps and seized e-mails.
The people who have long supported the 55-year-old Hill, and who still stand by him, wonder how he came to this point. They ask how their ambitious council member, who always measured his words and stances with such precision, found himself mixed up in a federal bribery case linked to a cast of troubled characters. Hill wasn't supposed to end up the object of pity and derision like that clumsy, creaky former council member Al Lipscomb, who fought for civil rights while taking cash on the side.
As frustrating as he could be when he showed up late for a meeting with nothing more than a smile, many still tabbed Hill as the next mayor of Dallas. Hill had that special ability, kind of like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, to win with class and style, even if you don't quite know how he did it. Of course, there were other views of Hill. Some saw him as a disorganized attorney, a lousy husband or just a decent neighborhood leader. No one figured him for a crook.
"He always reminded me to always do right by the people you are entrusted to represent and keep the faith and keep fighting and pushing hard," says Michael Sorrell, the young president of Paul Quinn College. "That's what makes all of this so ironic and in a sense so surreal. The man who had always provided great advice to me always told me not to do these types of things."
Don Hill, who has long been friendly with reporters, declined to comment on his case, but his wife, Sheila, who also faces a federal indictment for allegedly taking part in the same bribery scheme, says that she and her husband are innocent.
"He's known to be an honest politician, a man of great integrity," the former Sheila Farrington says. "If you know Don Hill, you know he's a man of God."
Though a seasoned politician, Hill could be awkward at times, with his stern brow and deep, dark eyes above a wispy, gap-toothed grin, but he never seemed slick when he touched you on the shoulder, looked you in the eye and heard what you had to say. He seemed, after a few encounters at least, a smart, amiable man with good intentions and a better heart. Although Hill could be an effective lawyer and influential politician, some folks say he looked most at ease wearing an apron and cooking food for Hurricane Katrina evacuees staying at his Oak Cliff church.