Prosecution in City Hall Corruption Case: Tapes Show Developers Were Squeezed

Jason Trahan, Dallas Morning News, July 2, 2009

The prosecution in the Dallas City Hall corruption trial gave jurors a tantalizing glimpse of what appears to be a web of intrigue in which black leaders solicited bribes from white developers because, they said, it was time for them to pay.

Defendants Don Hill and Sheila Farrington Hill arrived Monday at the Earle Cabell Federal Building. The former mayor pro tem and his wife are charged in the largest public corruption trial in Dallas history.

“The game has done changed,” says defendant Darren Reagan on a wiretapped phone call in which he also talks about how white developers had become wealthy off southern Dallas projects.

The phone recording was played by prosecutor Chad Meacham during the government’s opening statement Monday in the case against former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill and others, charged in the largest public corruption trial in Dallas history. Meacham told jurors that Hill and his right-hand man, former Dallas Plan Commission member D’Angelo Lee, “violated the public trust in return for their official actions.”

They “postponed votes and denied votes” in exchange for bribe payments.

Attorneys for the remaining five defendants, all of whom are black, assailed the government’s menacing interpretation of the tapes as well as the rest of the evidence gathered in the case.

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Most defense attorneys said that their clients were concerned only with helping foster much-needed development in southern Dallas and were unfairly entrapped by the government’s chief informant, developer James R. “Bill” Fisher.

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Hill and Lee are accused of funneling hundreds of thousands in bribe payments from developer Brian Potashnik and his wife, Cheryl, through what the government contends are sham contracts with several cohorts. Fisher, another major southern Dallas developer whom Hill and Lee allegedly hit up for money, wore a wire and captured the defendants talking about their dealings.

Meacham told jurors they would hear from Brian Potashnik, the first public admission from the prosecution that the developer and his wife had signed plea deals earlier this month. Those deals were unsealed Monday. They show that Brian Potashnik’s sentence is capped at about 3 1⁄2 years, with his wife’s capped at 16 months.

The four other defendants who have already pleaded guilty and are expected to testify have their sentences capped at about three to five years.

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Recordings of Reagan

Monday’s tapes mostly featured Reagan, who prosecutors say used his Black State Employees Association of Texas to put pressure on white developers, such as Fisher, to pay bribes to Hill and others. Prosecutors contend the group represented no employees but orchestrated protests. Reagan is heard saying on the recording that white developers had become wealthy off southern Dallas projects, and that it was time for them to pay.

On the wiretap recording, prosecutors say, Reagan is plotting with Allen McGill–who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion–to squeeze money from Fisher.

“I love to see old Bill sweating like a pig,” Reagan says to McGill on the recording, adding that, “The days of offering a few donations are over.” He likened Fisher to being caught in a bear trap and having to gnaw his own leg off.

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Meacham led jurors down a crowded timeline, pointing out that in the fall of 2004, Fisher and Potashnik had dueling low-income housing proposals before the Dallas City Council. Hill and Lee, he said, saw both developers as “two separate pots of money.”

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Timing of inquiry

Also during opening statements, Meacham said for the first time that before Fisher went to the FBI in November 2004 with information about the alleged shakedown, the FBI was already conducting a public corruption investigation in Dallas. The details of that investigation were not divulged in opening statements.

Victor Vital, attorney for Hill’s wife, Sheila Farrington Hill, said that prosecutors’ contention that she created a consulting company just to launder bribe payments for Hill is just flat wrong.

He said that at the time, she was a single mother who wanted to parlay her knack for real estate into an opportunity for growth. When Lee approached her with an offer to do consulting for the Potashniks, Vital said, she jumped at the chance.

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