The Trial of Joe Russo

An intimate look at how -- and why -- Houston's high flyer of the '80s was taken apart in court

There were times during the bank fraud trial of Joe Russo when courtroom observers might have had trouble recognizing the man who, in the boom that fueled the giddy 1970s and early '80s, came to symbolize everything that was brash and energetic about Houston. In the middle of the last decade, the city's booster extraordinaire often graced the pages of the Houston Post or the Houston Chronicle, striking a classic CEO-victorious pose: arms crossed, shoulders thrown back, eyes gazing fearlessly into the future. This was the look of a man who behaved as if nothing were impossible, whether it be building a string of high occupancy office complexes, running for mayor or making Houston the center of a worldwide communications empire.

Yet in Judge Melinda Harmon's courtroom on the ninth floor of downtown's federal building, that particular Joe Russo appeared only intermittently. In his place was a trim man who seemed somehow grayer and smaller than he once did, a man whose bold posture had yielded to something more inward, to the faintest protective hunch. Perhaps it was the possibility of spending his retirement years behind bars that had tamped down the old Russo persona, the old feisty strut. To see him in this unfamiliar guise, every errant twitch of the cheek illuminated by the courtroom's flood of mock-daylight, was to wonder how not just he, but also the city to which he once seemed surgically joined, had come to this.

Of course, Russo's subdued drawnness could have sprung partly from fatigue; at times it seemed as if his trial would last forever. Certainly Judge Harmon must have thought so on the morning of November l, when she screwed her pale, small features into a mask of desperation and blurted, "I just can't stand this any longer!" Before her, a squadron of lawyers squabbled over halting the bank-fraud proceedings to await a juror whose wife had landed in the intensive care unit. "This has got to be the world's most jinxed trial," groaned Harmon.

It was a cathartic outburst. "I'm finding this juror is unable to perform his duties further," Judge Harmon suddenly decreed. She dialed the fellow on her speakerphone and bade him a kind farewell; his disembodied voice echoed surreally in the marble courtroom. The trial lurched forward into its 12th ill-starred week.

Summer had turned to fall and still Russo sat quiet and grim and self-contained, scribbling notes on a legal pad. Flood and then fire struck as the government strove to prove that Russo and fellow savings-and-loan owner Ronald A. Piperi -- together with Piperi's son, Ronald Drew -- had conspired to commit bank fraud, bribery and misapplication of funds. There were time-outs for a juror's wedding, a panoply of holidays, lawyers' toothaches and kidney stone attacks. Both sides spun dark metaphors. "Chinese water torture," sniped a defense lawyer; muttered a weary prosecutor, "It's something out of Sartre."

Yet the trial's pseudo-epic sweep seemed only fitting. The rise and fall of Joe Russo is one of Houston's major loose ends, a nagging, unexplained reminder of that era when boom turned to bust -- and when many Houstonians desperately wanted to believe Russo's optimistic gospel. He seemed to be everywhere back then: flogging the new think-positive-or-else civic association, Houston Proud; waging a bold but fruitless campaign to bring the Democratic Convention to town. One day he was going to buy United Press International and move its headquarters here to diversify the city's reeling economy; the next day he was going to buy an endangered classical radio station to preserve Houston culture. Even when his schemes failed to pan out, Russo's image as a quintessential can-do Houstonian and self-styled civic savior flourished -- at least until Thanksgiving 1987, when he and his various real-estate companies filed for bankruptcy.

Russo's fall from grace is the kind of drama that has always cried out for a large stage. But few Houstonians suspected that his story would ultimately play out in a half-empty federal courtroom. Save for some Russo supporters who showed up on cue at crucial moments, the trial unfolded in obscurity. Yet a rich cast of Houston characters and a powerful subtext -- the bust-era skeletons that still rattle in our civic closet -- made this interminable trial a curiously gripping event.

The legal talent alone was eye-popping. At Russo's table sat both the hyperkinetic David Berg, famous for having gotten Robert Sakowitz off the hook, and Berg's partner, Joel Androphy, whose client Teresa Rodriguez has put him on the map. Arguing for the elder Piperi was Mike DeGeurin, the folksy Percy Foreman protege. The younger Piperi was represented by the dapper Dan Cogdell, a smooth, witty talker fresh from the Branch Davidian wars. U. S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones dispatched heavyweight Mike Clark, head of her criminal division, to supervise the government team.

In this teeming petri dish, cross-examinations sizzled. Tempers flared. Red herrings flitted through and vanished into the sea of doubt. The ins and outs of the disputed charges were dauntingly hard to follow. Rife with the twisting byways of banking procedure, the case involved a cast of dozens and amounts of money (a few hundred thousand here, a million five there) that seemed almost tiny compared to the mountains of debt that flowed through the city as the boom bottomed out. The only things that rose clearly, hovering over the proceedings like uneasy spectres, were two warring interpretations of the era that birthed both Russo the conqueror and Russo the bank-fraud defendant.

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