Former Dallas Councilman Don Hill told the jury in his corruption trial Friday that he “did not extort anyone.”
Hill is accused of leading a conspiracy to seek payments from affordable housing developers in exchange for his city council support. Hill spent the entire day testifying in his own defense after more than two months of government testimony in the case.
Hill said “the most painful part of this entire trial” has been repeated references by prosecutors to his wife Sheila Farrington Hill as his ‘former mistress.’ In his only confession on the witness stand, Hill admitted committing adultery. He said Sheila had been unfairly forced to pay for his sin. "If I could do it again, I would do it much better," Hill said about his divorce.
Hill’s relationship with his current wife is a key part of the government case. Prosecutors claim a large consulting contract between Sheila Hill and developer Brian Potashnik amounted to a bribe for Hill. But Hill was still married to his prior wife at the time and he told the jury he had not told anyone else about his personal relationship with Sheila.
“They claim that Potashnik gave it to Sheila because it was his girlfriend,” defense attorney Ray Jackson said about prosecutors’ theory. “In fact, he was having a relationship that nobody knew about.”
Hill and defense lawyers said the contract with Potashnik was a legitimate business opportunity for Sheila. “She had community contacts and relationships that would be helpful in furthering the contracts, objectives and goals,” said Sheila Hill’s attorney Victor Vital.
Potashnik is a co-defendant who pleaded guilty and testified against the others earlier in the trial. Potashnik said the consulting contract with Sheila Farrington Hill was unnecessary but that he agreed to in anyway under pressure from the Hill and his plan commissioner D'Angelo Lee.
Lee is a co-defendant, accused of shaking down developers on Hill’s behalf. Hill said he was not close to Lee, but appointed Lee to the Plan Commission because Lee was an energetic member of Hill's church, experienced in real estate issues.
“The government is trying to insinuate that they were friends and they were all in this together,” said Lee’s attorney Doug Greene. “What the jury is finding out is that they didn’t really know each other.”
Much of the government evidence comes from competing developer Bill Fisher who was an FBI informant in the case. Fisher secretly recorded conversations with Lee and other defendants making demands for money.
Hill said he favored Postashnik's projects over Fisher because Potashnik was known for quality and his projects were simply superior. Hill denied extortion or receiving bribes.
Earlier in the day, Hill discussed a 2000 city council debate about new ethics rules under former Mayor Laura Miller. It came at a time when the council, for the first time, had a majority of African American and Hispanic members. Hill said it appeared that the changes were directed at the majority minority council. "We just felt it was unfair and it was wrong," Hill said.
Hill said economic development was a priority for the city, especially in his southern sector district. He told the jury that encouraging the use of minority contractors was another legitimate city goal. The government alleges that the conspiracy required developers to use certain minority contractors at inflated prices.
Hill began his testimony Thursday afternoon. He spent several hours on the stand talking about his childhood, legal career and accomplishments as a council member. He will be back on the witness stand when the trial continues Tuesday.
“Don Hill comes off as very likable, extremely smooth,” said Attorney Clint David who has been watching the trial. “It will be the prosecutors’ job to get under his skin.” Cross-examination by federal prosecutors may come Wednesday.
The government rested its case earlier this week after starting testimony June 29. Two other defendants are also in the trial which is scheduled to last through October.