CBS11 reporters Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs reported last night that the FBI has tapes showing the delivery of a $50,000 check to a bagman for Mayor Pro-Tem Don Hill on the day Hill reversed himself and voted to allow a development he had opposed. The full story is worth reading:
EXCLUSIVE: FBI TAPES ALLEGED TO SHOW MAYOR PRO-TEM DON HILL CLOSELY INVOLVED IN NEGOTIATING CASH PAYMENT, OTHER COMPENSATION, FOR DEVELOPMENT VOTE
PHOTOS SHOW MONEY EXCHANGED AT EXXON GAS STATION ON DAY HILL MOVED TO APPROVE ZONING HE HAD LONG DELAYED
Defense attorney says money was for legitimate legal and political services
Oct 6, 2005 9:00 pm US/Central
By Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs
A Dallas lawyer and two local contractors claimed to be working closely with Mayor Pro-Tem Don Hill this Spring when a developer paid them a $50,000 down payment on a deal in which Hill would stop stalling a south Dallas project and get it approved, say two independent sources familiar with covert tape recordings of the negotiations.
Dallas attorney John Jerome Lewis, a longtime professional acquaintance of Hill, also an attorney, is heard on the FBI audio tapes negotiating the financial terms to clear Hill’s political obstruction of the development, the two sources told CBS-11 News. Working with Lewis was Grand Prairie cement contractor and former NFL football player Kevin Dean, and Desoto contractor Ron Ferguson, the two sources said.
The trio is heard in tape-recorded telephone conversations from at least April through May of this year working out the payment of a $250,000 total cash sum, along with other highly lucrative financial benefits from developer Bill Fisher. In exchange for Fisher’s compensation to them, the men were to have Mayor Pro-Tem Hill stop blocking a zoning ordinance for the commercial project, the two sources familiar with the FBI-monitored recordings said. The mens’ references to Hill indicated that Hill was maintaining an arms-length but ever-present oversight of their negotiations with Fisher.
In October 2004, Hill killed tax credits for Fisher’s Dallas West Villas affordable housing project in his Pleasant Grove district, then delayed a revived version of the development for nearly six months. The mayor pro-tem finally moved to approve the zoning on May 11, the same day that Fisher paid Lewis $50,000 of the $250,000 and delivered signed agreements for ownership stakes and contracts worth far more, CBS-11 has learned. Later, Lewis met Dean in the parking lot of an Exxon gas station and handed him an envelope containing the money, which the two men split.
Unbeknownst to any of his negotiating partners, Fisher had long been working as a confidential FBI informant recording conversations and meetings while the zoning languished, and the $50,000 he paid the men for Hill to move on the Dallas West Villas project was FBI sting money.
Through an email from a City Hall aide, Hill declined to comment for this story. The Mayor pro-tem is not heard on any of the tapes described to CBS-11 News, although the FBI posesses many others that have not been described. It remains unknown whether any of the money Fisher paid or promised ever reached the elected council leader, or whether Hill believed he would be compensated at the time he finally voted – all circumstances that certainly would interest federal prosecutors.
Hill and his plan commission appointee, D’Angelo Lee, are widely regarded as a persons of interest in an ongoing FBI bribery and extortion investigation related to an affordable housing boom in southern Dallas County.
Fisher has repeatedly declined to comment about his role in the FBI investigation. Attorneys for Ron Ferguson and Kevin Dean declined to comment on this story. Mike Snipes, a former federal prosecutor who is now a private criminal defense attorney, represents Lewis.
Snipes, who is familiar with the recordings that have been described to CBS-11, said the FBI tapes involving his client “sound incredibly damaging” but that they are “being taken out of context.”
Snipes said Lewis’ share of the $25,000 share of the money was a legitimate fee for legal and political work, not a bribe.
“My client John Lewis is innocent,” Snipes said. “He never bribed anybody, never intended to bribe anybody.
“They were paid $50,000 as part of the transaction, the real estate transaction and as part of my client’s legal fees,” Snipes said. “That’s absolutely consistent with legal practice here in this town. You need real estate lawyers for that.”
DOING MAYOR PRO-TEM HILL’S BIDDING?
Although it remains unknown whether Hill directed the negotiations for his own financial benefit, CBS-11’s two sources say Lewis, Dean and Ferguson are heard repeatedly describing — mainly in recorded telephone calls with Fisher – recent communications they claimed to have had with Hill throughout the talks.
For instance, at one point during the recorded negotiations, just days before a scheduled April 13 vote on the project, Fisher demanded that Lewis go back to the mayor pro-tem and find out how much money he wanted.
“I can’t agree until I know what Don wants. I need to know what Don’s number is,” the two sources said they heard Fisher tell Lewis.
Lewis returned a short time later with the answer, ostensibly from Hill: $125,000 to be delivered before the next day’s vote and $125,000 immediately after, the two sources say. When he claimed he couldn’t come up with $125,000 on such short notice, Fisher was warned the project could die at the council table if the money wasn’t paid and if agreements for other financial concessions weren’t signed before the vote, the two sources said.
Hill had the vote postponed for the May 11 meeting, and FBI-monitored negotiations resumed.
After more recorded haggling, the deal on Fisher’s project was concluded just in time for the May 11 council meeting.
A $50,000 CHECK CHANGES HANDS IN A GAS STATION PARKING LOT AS THE COUNCIL VOTES
CBS-11 has learned that on that day, shortly before Hill was to move for a vote, an FBI surveillance team photographed Lewis driving into an Exxon gas station parking lot. FBI photos described to CBS-11 show Lewis walking over to a parked pickup truck occupied by Dean and Ferguson. Lewis handed Dean an envelope containing what one knowledgable source tells CBS-11 was the $50,000 check from Fisher and signed agreements for an ownership stake in the project.
Snipes, the attorney for Lewis, said any contractual documents the FBI has seized support his client’s contention that he believed the agreements were perfectly legal.If it’s FBI sting money, my client certainly didn’t know that,” Snipes said. “He thought it was payment from Bill Fisher for a legitimate transaction. You are right, it was split. But that’s absolutely consistent with what they intended to do, which was to build developments in South Dallas.”
CBS-11 News reviewed one unsigned draft agreement between Fisher and Dean’s company KDAT that was crafted during this time – under the auspices of Fisher’s FBI handlers as part of the bureau’s criminal sting.
Dated April 11, the draft contract spelled out that Dean would receive upfront money “to cover direct costs incurred,” a 10-percent ownership stake of the development’s general partnership and revenues, and future construction contracts at pending Fisher developments around the state. In return, Dean’s main obligation was to deliver “the support of Councilmember Don Hill to insure our site is zoned and approved…”
The draft document also stipulated that “Nothing in the agreements shall be effective unless or until the zoning case on Dallas West Villas becomes an ordinance…”
While Lewis was handing the money and agreements to Dean and Ferguson at the Exxon station on the morning of May 11, the Dallas City Council was in session with Hill at the horseshoe.
Fisher’s ordinance came up for a vote shortly after 3 p.m. Hill asked Mayor Laura Miller to delay the vote for a short while so he could “kind of work on this item.” He stood up and left the council horseshoe table, a video of the meeting shows. It was unclear where he went or what he did, but Hill was back at the horseshoe an hour or so later when the ordinance came up again.
He quickly moved to approve it this time.
Lewis was by then present at the council meeting, having traveled from the Exxon station meeting at some point during the day, possibly still monitored by the FBI surveillance team that had followed him earlier.
THE TROUBLED PATH TO APPROVAL FOR DALLAS WEST VILLAS
The May 11 transaction had its roots in a move by Mayor Pro-Tem Hill seven months earlier to kill Fisher’s Dallas West Villas development at the corner of Bruton and St. Augustine roads.
CBS-11 has learned through records and interviews Dean, Ferguson and other individuals claiming political connections to Hill zealously initiated new negotiations with Fisher to revive the project shortly after Hill killed it.
The Dallas Plan and Zoning Commission, spearheaded by Hill’s appointee, D’Angelo Lee, approved a new zoning ordinance for a renewed project on Dec. 16, records show. Commissioner Lee made a point to make sure that the zoning would contain a provision for liquor to be sold in the development.
The measure was sent to the Dallas City Council for approval where it inexplicably languished.
A long series of postponements orchestrated by Hill then ensued at the council level, closely corresponding to dates of behind-the-scenes negotiations and meetings that were occurring between Fisher and individuals claiming they could get Hill to revive the project.
For instance, Hill had the zoning measure postponed at the February 9 council meeting and again on February 23, citing neighborhood opposition. One opponent, Jerry Tolbert, appeared at the hearing to speak while three spoke in favor.
The zoning case came up again on March 9. Although no one appeared at the hearing to oppose the measure, and city staff recommended it be approved, Hill had the measure postponed again, saying he was still working to assuage local opponents.
CBS-11 has reported that at about this time, in February or March of 2005, an FBI-wired Fisher accompanied Ferguson and Dean to the offices of black Dallas business icon Comer Cottrell. At the recorded meeting, Cottrell was asked to pass on a large bribe to Mayor Pro-Tem Hill to get the zoning ordinance moved to approval, Cottrell confirmed.
Cottrell says he declined to do so.
In early April, Dean, Ferguson and Lewis did finally meet with the mayor pro-tem. They gave him a detailed presentation on a project, according to Venita Benitez, who at the time believed she would be cut in on the development.
The zoning ordinance was next set for a public hearing on April 13. In the days before this hearing, the FBI began recording an increasing number of phone calls and meetings negotiating the terms required for the delivery of Hill’s support.
It was in one taped call the night before the April 13 council meeting that Lewis called Fisher to say there had been a meeting with Hill and that the financial terms of the agreement needed to be reworked. Fisher was told to deliver $125,000 to Lewis by 10 a.m. the morning of the vote, one source says.
Fisher, no doubt being told what to do by his FBI handlers, stalled over the high number. The stall produced other phone calls that were recorded by the FBI.
The next day, Hill postponed the vote for May 11, saying “There has been significant progress made in working with an adjacent homeowners group, but we have not been able to get all of those issues resolved.”
However, no opponents had shown up for the hearing that day.
By May 11, Fisher had negotiated the $50,000 reduced upfront fee that was exchanged at the Exxon station not long before Hill finally moved to approve the project.
To date, no ground has been broken on the Dallas West Villas.