Victor Vital, attorney for Sheila Farrington, began the morning's proceedings in the federal Dallas City Hall corruption trial by asking affordable housing developer Bill Fisher several questions about whether he hoped the jury in this case would render a "just and merciful" verdict. Finally the judge told him to move on.
Then, after a long silence, Vital asked Fisher, "What do you think about Laura Miller?"
He asked Fisher a series of questions about Miller's career as a journalist and politician. Then he read a news clipping in which Fisher was quoted as saying that Miller was taking "massive donations" from Brian Potashnik and, in a tit for tat, "opposing my projects." Fisher and Potashnik were competitors as developers of tax-subsidized affordable housing in Dallas in 2003 through '05. Fisher, of course, is also the government's main witness against former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill; his wife, the former Sheila Farrington; and the other defendants in this bribery-corruption trial.
Fisher, who came to the FBI's attention over contracts he gave to a company owned by a city council member, agreed to wear a transmitter and gather evidence in the case. Potashnik is a defendant who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution as this trial began nine weeks ago. The central allegation is that Hill ran an extortion operation from his council office, squeezing money from affordable housing developers who needed his vote for zoning and other approvals.
Since early in the trial, the defense has worked to show the jury that former mayor Miller was an active protagonist in the competition between Fisher and Potashnik. Miller received campaign contributions from Potashnik, which she reported fully. Miller's persona is controversial in the older Southern Dallas black community (as opposed to newer, more upwardly mobile and diverse neighborhoods).
As a columnist for the Dallas Observer, Miller wrote tough investigative about local politicians, including black politicians. In South Dallas, her work was viewed as racist. City council races are non-partisan, but Miller is a liberal Democrat who grew up in Connecticut.
As a city council-member and later as mayor, Miller called attention to contracting arrangements she believed were corrupt. The Dallas city attorney believed that the arrangements were legal. The FBI suspected they were not, which is one reason this trial is underway now.
Vital moved from the subject of Miller to another hot-button topic -- the lucrative contract Fisher entered into with Carol Reed, the city's most prominent Republican campaign consultant and rainmaker, whom Fisher hired to win white votes on the city council. Fisher hired African-American consultant Kathy Nealy to get him the minority votes he needed.
Reed's fee was $100,000. Nealy got $175 per hour plus a $20,000 "success fee" for each of Fisher's projects that passed the city council and plan commission. Vital references "Laura Miller, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Brian Potashnikr, some of which didn't show up in the campaign."
If I am not mistaken, this is a brand-new and completely unproved allegation of fraud against Miller. Vital said it real fast, sort of as a drive-by, and the judge let it pass. Wow. I don't know if the judge heard it. I sure did.
As it turned out, Vital was not alleging that Miller took unreported campaign contributions. He was quoting remarks Fisher made on some wiretap in the past. It sounded to me like Vital was stating it as fact, but I was wrong. Who knows what the jurors thought they heard.
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