Broadcasting entrepreneur Nolanda S. Hill made a powerful first impression on Ronald H. Brown when they met in his law offices half a dozen years ago.
She was smart, tough and successful -- and he was definitely interested in doing business with her, he told friends.
Hill, a flamboyant 50-year-old Texan who was as likely to show up at a business meeting on one of her two Harley-Davidson motorcycles as in a limousine, was impressed by the future commerce secretary as well, and even told some people that Brown was the smartest deal-maker she'd ever met. Together, she said, they'd do great things.
But the business deals that Brown and Hill did together were never successful. Instead, their relationship has brought each of them under the spotlight of government inquiries.
Congressional investigators want to know how Hill could afford to pay Brown more than $400,000 for a company they owned, First International Communications Corp., that had no successful business ventures. And the Justice Department is considering whether to appoint an independent counsel to look into the way Brown reported the payments on his financial disclosure reports.
At the same time, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Resolution Trust Corp. are examining the circumstances surrounding more than $32 million in loans that another of Hill's companies, Corridor Broadcasting Inc., failed to repay several savings and loan associations. The money was used to buy two television stations, WFTY (Channel 50) in Washington and WSMW (Channel 27) in Worcester, Mass., which has been renamed WUNI and moved to Needham, Mass.
George Terwilliger III, Hill's attorney, has denied that his client did anything wrong. "There was an extensive amount of oversight, reporting and accounting between the companies involved, the banks and the federal agencies about expenditures at the time," he said.
Hill, who declined to be interviewed for this article, gave would-be entrepreneurs this advice at a 1986 broadcasting convention: "Get yourself a high profile. Let people know who you are."
When she came to Washington, she did just that. Hill boasted about her business ties to Brown and that he named her to the site selection committee for the Democratic Party's 1992 nominating convention and got her invited to the White House on at least three different occasions, according to numerous sources. Dressed to Thrill
A former singer at Texas rodeos with her two sisters, Hill has a flair for the dramatic. She would make a show-stopping entrance at business meetings dressed in a black leather motorcycle outfit. Or she would sweep in wearing a flowing dress, a fur coat with leather fringe and an inch-wide emerald and diamond bracelet and necklace.
She was chameleon-like in personality as well as appearance, those who know her said. One lawyer who represented Hill called her the stereotype of a soap-opera Texas businesswoman who might have appeared on the TV show "Dallas" -- the drawling, big-haired Southern gal who can charm you one minute, and the smart, ruthless dynamo who would say with a smile the next moment: "I'm going to sue your ass." Indeed, she was so involved in litigation that she had a small office at the Washington law firm Patton, Boggs, which represented Corridor.
Martin E. Firestone, Hill's communications lawyer from 1967 until about 1990, said: "She's very energetic, very demanding, very aware of what she wants. . . . A lot of the adjectives that are used about Nolanda detrimentally would be used admiringly about a man."
Named after her father, Nolan, who coached Little League baseball in Irving, Tex., and had wanted a boy, Hill seemed perfectly at ease as one of the only women in the country to own a broadcasting property in a large market. But the same questions now being asked by federal investigators about this charismatic woman have been asked by many of the people who worked at her television stations: Where did the money go?
It was not the money of a silver-spoon youth. Hill's mother, Francile, was a teacher, and her father worked in a number of jobs, from lumber sales to real estate. But in 1983, for the first time in her life, Nolanda had real money after she and her partners sold Channel 33, a Spanish-language television station in Dallas then called KNBN, to Metromedia Inc. Chairman John Kluge for more than $14 million.
In 1985 Hill's company, Corridor, borrowed $21 million from Sunbelt Savings & Loan in Texas and $14 million from Sandia Savings and Loan in Albuquerque to buy the two television stations in Washington and Massachusetts, for which she paid a total of about $21 million. Corridor did not make payments on the loans, which the FDIC and the RTC took over when the thrifts failed.
Michael Volpe, former general manager of the Massachusetts station and currently a consultant in Laguna Hills, Calif., said Hill was a smart businesswoman who had good ideas, but didn't have the patience to stick with them.
"She ran her business life like a bee going from flower to flower," Volpe said. "She'd get on the phone and say What are we doing about children's programming?' She'd have a great idea and want you to drop everything. . . . Then, two weeks later, she'd be off on another tangent." Old Movies, Infomercials'
Hill ran the two stations on a shoestring, with programming that was a mix of reruns, old movies, kitchen gadget infomercials and religious talk shows.
"We owed lots of money to syndicators and were always getting threatening letters," Volpe said. "I managed to pay off some vendors and buy some equipment. . . . Those stations had a chance of turning around and paying off the FDIC. . . . Those two stations were making money; where did the money go?"
While Corridor didn't pay the FDIC what it owed, the two television stations paid ever-rising management fees to Corridor -- more than $35,000 a week during the last year or more of Hill's ownership, according to Volpe and several other former general managers of the stations. "We had to make those payments even before we paid the rent or the syndicators," Volpe said.
The other bills that got paid were Hill's personal expenses, according to employees who have seen the stations' records. Corridor paid for her apartments in Boston and Washington, first at the Watergate and, later, a $6,000-a-month apartment at 2424 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; her cherry red special edition Corvette; her motorcycles, a 1992 Harley Davidson FXRS low-rider sport and a 1990 Harley Davidson Dresser; all her first-class travel expenses; clothes; and other personal expenses.
Terwilliger declined to answer questions about whether Hill later repaid the station for her personal expenditures or whether she paid taxes on them as income if she didn't. The RTC and FDIC said they could not release that information.
"It was very frustrating to see that she had a very lavish lifestyle and we didn't have the money for anything," said a former employee, who noted that the Massachusetts station couldn't even buy a new camera because its credit was so bad.
Hill would show up at WFTY's Rockville offices to negotiate pay raises for employees, and leave her limousine waiting, according to sources at the station. Once, on a New York trip, she lectured an employee about saving money by taking a taxi instead of a car and driver from the airport. Later that afternoon, Hill asked the employee to accompany her on a shopping spree, where she spent thousands of dollars on clothes and accessories -- and charged it to the company, according to employees who have seen the stations' records.
At the same time, Hill was exploring dozens of other deals outside of her broadcasting ventures. In her partnership with Brown, for example, she pursued ideas including a Hungarian wine venture, a Polish cable company, selling posters and china imported from Poland and selling compact discs and cassettes in Uganda.
None was successful. Congressional investigators question whether money from Corridor was paying for Hill's ventures, including the money she later paid Brown.
"Any claim or allegation that it is improper for money or assets to be exchanged among closely held corporations of common ownership is flat wrong," Terwilliger said. Telling Texas Tales
The mercurial Hill is tough to get a fix on, acquaintances say, partly because she has told so many different stories about herself.
"She tells such stories with such passion and vigor that she begins to believe them herself, and leads you to believe them," said Michael Jones, who worked for Hill as a station general manager and, later, as vice president of broadcasting.
One of the stories that Hill has told numerous sources: She lived a hardscrabble life in rural Texas, a youth so poor that she had to sleep on a bare mattress on the floor of the family home.
Hill's family denies that they suffered hard times. "There absolutely was no poverty," said Jacqualea Cooley, Hill's cousin. Hill's younger sister, Mary Lou Blaylock, described the family as "extremely normal and hard-working and very happy."
Another tale Hill told widely: She went to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., on a rodeo scholarship. Hardin-Simmons officials said she had no scholarship, though at the central Texas school she was involved in rodeos and goat-roping -- common activities there.
Texas rodeos also provided a stage for Nolanda Sue Butler and her two sisters to sing tunes such as the cowboy's lament "Cool Water." They also sang at ladies clubs and church functions, making the circuit in Texas in a 1955 Chevy. They eventually went to California to audition for television shows and entertained at hospitals with Bob Hope, according to her two sisters.
Hill told a number of people that she sang in lounges. "We were absolutely not lounge singers," said Blaylock, Miss Texas in 1965. "We were more Lawrence Welk-type singers -- three girls in navy blue dresses and white gloves," at a time when hippies in tie-dyed T-shirts were the norm, Blaylock said.
They didn't make the big time, and the Butler sisters returned to Dallas, where Mary Lou, then 19, had been offered a job as host of a live daily talk show.
In between singing jobs Nolanda Butler was attending various Texas universities and was married briefly to her first husband, Tracy Byerly, a fellow student. She eventually graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Tex., in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in public address and a minor in theater.
"We used to laughingly say that Nolanda was going to get a degree in transferring," said her older sister, Alice Butler. "It was a natural young person's thing." The Big D' Beckons
Hill's start in broadcasting came when she got a job with KXTX (Channel 39) in Dallas after returning from California with her two sisters. Channel 39 was to become a powerful, fifth major station in the Dallas area. Hill initially carried a tiny TV set around with her, explaining to potential customers what UHF channels, then in their infancy, were all about. Later, she became a producer of live sports events there.
While working there in the 1970s, she met Sheldon Turner, the general manager of the station, who would become her second husband. He was several decades older than she and was a fixture in Dallas broadcasting circles, with high white hair and a cowboy hat.
"She can put on a country-girl act if it suits her," Turner, who died in 1992, said of Hill in an interview several years ago with the Worcester (Mass.) Star-Telegram. "Many a businessman has stepped into the spidery, country-girl web."
From Turner, Hill learned about broadcasting. "Sheldon had been in the business a long time," Butler said. "He recognized Nolanda's potential. They were a great team."
After Hill married Turner, they purchased KNBN, the Dallas Spanish-language television station. They struggled financially to keep the station going until Kluge bought it, according to Hill's sisters. Although Hill and Turner divorced, they remained business partners and friends.
In 1976 she had married Billy B. Hill Jr., chairman of a bank holding company, Ameritex Bancshares Corp., and the lawyer for Thomas M. Gaubert, then the high-flying owner of Independent American Savings Association of Irving, Tex.
Gaubert became partners with the Hills in looking for television stations to buy. He also became one of the state's most notorious S&L owners and was removed from running Independent American before its spectacular collapse in 1987. He now is serving a five-year sentence in a Texas prison for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
Both men and women who know Hill have described her as having a great ability to manipulate people, whether husbands or employees, to get what she wanted.
According to several former employees, Hill was fond of saying: "I've used every asset God gave me to get where I am."
They said she also boasted of her ability to meet men who could help her get where she wanted to go. "Sheldon had the broadcasting expertise when she needed it; Billy was the lawyer with banking connections when she needed a lawyer and money," a longtime acquaintance said.
And when she wanted a high profile in Washington, acquaintances said, she became friendly with Brown. They were introduced by Joseph R. Reeder, a classmate of Billy Hill at the University of Texas who is now undersecretary of the Army. Reeder was Hill's lead attorney at Patton, Boggs, where Brown was then a partner.
Hill loved to get involved in the litigation at the firm, which has represented Corridor in more than 20 lawsuits since 1986. She was in her office there on a daily basis "barking orders at the lawyers," according to managing partner Timothy May, who said he had been led to believe that Hill was a lawyer herself.
Brown and Hill became close personal friends, with Brown often showing up unexpectedly at Hill's apartment when others were there, sources said. Hill helped raise money for Brown when he was running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 1989. They talked on the telephone many times a day, according to WFTY employees. In addition, Brown's daughter-in-law, Tamara, was a Corridor vice president and worked closely with Hill.
Hill's current troubles have quieted the colorful character. She has taken a vacation, traveling with her mother, according to her sisters.
It's unclear what the former entrepreneur will do next. But one thing people who know Hill are sure of: She'll be back.
"She's always been able to grab hold of her boots and pull herself up," her cousin Cooley said. CAPTION: Nolanda Hill could make a grand entrance in jewels or black leather. CAPTION: THE BROWN-HILL CONNECTION
Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown has maintained that he did not know much about business partner Nolanda Hill's business ventures. But Brown and Hill had many ties. Here are some of them:
* Corridor Broadcasting, Hill's main company, failed to repay more than $32 million in debts held by the FDIC and the RTC. Corridor owned WFTY, Channel 50, in Washington and WUNI, Channel 27, in Massachusetts and provided office space, accounting and other services to:
* First International Communications, a company owned by Brown and Hill that tried without success to invest in posters and china from Poland, oil from Angola and Saudi Arabia, wine from Hungary, a Polish cable service, a Texas housing project and other failed ventures.
* Harmon International Inc., once owned by Brown and now owned by his son Michael, leased video equipment to Corridor.
* Tamara Brown, wife of Michael, was hired as a trainee at Corridor and became vice president for programing within two years.
* Tracy Brown, Brown's daughter, was paid $12,500 by Corridor while she was a student at St. John's law school in New York. Hill said the payment "equal to St. John's tuition" was for letting Corridor use Brown's mailbox, phone and fax machine as a "New York office."
* Know Inc., a company owned by Hill, arranged to take over an $87,000 debt Brown owed to the FDIC, then told Brown he didn't have to pay it back.
* Columbia Productions, another Hill company, was paid $50,000 by the Democratic National Committee to make a video about Brown that was shown at the 1992 Democratic convention. Columbia collected another $25,000 for convention consulting work while Brown was DNC chairman.
* Hill was invited to three White House lunches with President Clinton courtesy of Brown.
* Hill organized the 1993 tribute to Brown dinner that was canceled after disclosure that companies with interests before the Commerce Department were being asked to buy tickets.
CAPTION: Nolanda Hill.