Nearly all of the 16 jurors grabbed their notebooks and focused on Brian Potashnik as the prosecution Wednesday morning called the witness expected to provide the most damning evidence in the City Hall corruption case. But while Potashnik's testimony raised concerns about the ethics of some of the five defendants, he struggled to directly implicate anyone in any apparent federal crimes.
On several occasions, Potashnik claimed that he felt pressure to pay consulting money to Sheila Farrington in order to get his company's affordable housing development projects approved in former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill's district, although he admitted that he was unaware of a relationship between the two at the time. He also denied knowing that former City Plan Commissioner D'Angelo Lee was sharing the fees received from Potashnik's company, Southwest Housing.
Potashnik, who pleaded guilty to one count of bribery just before the trial began, explained that he didn't originally confess to the FBI because his wife and two young children were home when they arrived early in the morning. "I was not being honest with myself or the agents," he said.
After the FBI explained the relationship between Sheila and Don Hill and played a wire tap of a conversation between FBI informant Bill Fisher and Darren Reagan, Potashnik decided to take a deal. Potashnik said he "crossed a line" and admitted to involvement in a bribery conspiracy.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marcus Busch used Potashnik's relationship with former city council member James Fantroy to establish a baseline for Potashnik's knowledge of how things worked at City Hall. Potashnik explained that Fantroy asked him to use his son's security company to oversee a few of his developments, stressing that he didn't have a personal interest. But after theft increased at the three properties and 12 computers were stolen from one of the community centers, Potashnik fired Fantroy's son, which resulted in heated discussions and Fantroy vowing not to support Potashnik's projects. Potashnik later found out that the elder Fantroy did indeed have an interest in the company.
The lesson learned: "If I did not work with elected officials and succumb to the pressure imposed, I would not be able to gain support," Potashnik said.
Potashnik said Hill introduced him to Lee in August 2004, claiming Lee was the one making decisions about what zoning cases would be approved and that he was a surrogate for Hill. "There was no question that it was made clear to me that we had to satisfy commissioner Lee."
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Hill also suggested that Potashnik hire Farrington as a consultant, Potashnik said, even though he didn't need one. So why didn't he say no? "I knew I wouldn't have the political support to move forward [with my projects]."
Potashnik spoke often of the "pressure upon me" but refused to discuss specific conversations he had will Hill where he said his approval of a project was contingent on his payment of a consultant or anyone else.
And what about the over-the-top contracts from Darren Reagan? Reagan asked him to be a "project manager" on two Southwest Housing projects (Laureland and Scyene), ensuring they met minority participation goals for a whopping $250,000 plus 7 percent of the developer's fee, cash flow and residual value, which could have been another couple hundred thousand dollars. Potashnik said he wouldn't sign it and told Hill it was threatening. Potashnik never signed the contract, and Hill's involvement is sketchy at this point.
Busch will likely continue his direct examination of Potashink into the afternoon today, with cross-examination expected to produce several fireworks as defense attorneys Ray Jackson and Victor Vital claim they've caught Potashink in several lies.