The Trial of Joe Russo

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

Underlying Wright's death-knell of discouraging numbers, though, is that fierce, desperate optimism that kept Russo's 1986 in-house projections predicting 95 percent occupancies within a year. "Best of all possible worlds projections?" asks Clark. "I think we had a very positive attitude," says Wright carefully. She agrees with Berg that Russo never indicated pessimism or said, "We're going under"; that he never considered downsizing or firing people. Given the numbers, it sounds more like denial than optimism -- but then, there was always a dark current of denial running through Russo's Houston Proud crowd; talk positive or shut up was the dogma of the day. Listening to Wright, it is hard not to wonder whether that near-delusionary positivism dug many a bust-era hole deeper than it had to be. "Was there reason to hope?" Berg demands of Wright. "There was always reason to hope," she answers, and hearing his cue, Berg sits down. A short while later, the government rests its case.

October 6: The Man of Vision
There's a new spring in Russo's step now that his version of the story is due to be told, a trace of the old exuberance for which he was so famous. Certainly publishing executive George Wethersby's turn on the witness stand is just what the doctor ordered. Wethersby, the onetime president of New UPI Inc., is here to draw Russo's pursuit of the foundering wire-service company in heroic terms, the better to cast the disputed Orange loan in a flattering light. In Wethersby's view, Russo was not just a serious contender in the race to buy UPI -- he was the sort of visionary that UPI badly needed.

Wethersby grows quietly hostile as Mike Clark suggests Russo was only a minor player cut into the final deal by Mexican media mogul Mario Vasquez Rana because he needed an "American figurehead." "You thought Russo was a rich Texan with deep pockets?" asks Clark sardonically. "My impression was that he had adequate backing," retorts Wethersby, "and that he brought management talent, imagination and a unique vision of the product as his major asset." Wethersby says Russo wanted to move UPI into the electronic realm of a CNN, move its headquarters to Houston and use local technological talent to develop new products. It sounds like vintage Joe Russo, all right; he was never short on energy and ideas and school spirit, even when he was short on cash. Listening to Wethersby, whose admiration seems genuine, it's easy to feel a pang of sorrow for what might have been.

But the current inglorious reality finds Russo shaking his head over Clark's snipes at the Lear Jet he bought to pursue UPI business, and stewing over Clark's suggestion that at one point he couldn't even afford a plane ticket to Washington. "Not during my dealings with him," replies Wethersby stiffly.

"Hey, can you lend me some money?" Russo calls out to an acquaintance in the hall during a break. "I've gone from a Lear Jet lifestyle to not being able to buy a plane ticket!" Schmoozing with well-wishers, he's every bit the confident gladhander of yore. An important looking fellow darts down the hall, briefcase in hand. "Hey Joe!" he hollers. "Hang in there!"

October 11: The Man and the Myth
The suspense is over. At 10 a.m., Joe Russo settles himself in the witness chair, making eye contact with the jury. Russo's supporters are out in force; on conspicuous display at Sally Russo's elbow sit two of Houston's prominent African-Americans, the Reverend Bill Lawson and Howard Jefferson. Prompted by a respectful Berg, Russo tells a story that assumes the outlines of a primal Houston myth. Voice warm and relaxed, he tells of his up-by-the-bootstraps rise from humble roots, the bus commute to Lamar High, the service in the Army Corps of Engineers, the tiny first office he shared with Julio LaGuarta in the back of a beauty salon. It was "the size of this jury box," he says with the smile of a salesman for whom relating to the customer is second nature.

Russo proudly allies himself with the great gods of Houston development, Gerald Hines and Kenneth Schnitzer, calling them "good role models" and "my mentors" (a characterization that might chafe Hines, who was no t exactly a fan). He speaks stirringly of that central Houston romance -- the development of raw land -- as creating value and jobs; as Russo tells it, even his jump into the prestigious downtown market was fueled less by ambition than a civic-minded desire to clean up a bad part of town. When Berg produces a glossy blow-up of the skyscraper, Russo clutches it as if it were a talisman. "It seemed timely," he tells a jury that should know better by now.

"Great" is a word that pops up a lot in the gospel according to Russo, along with "impressive" and "first-class" and "exciting" -- boosterish locutions that echo his Dale Carnegie training. But those rah-rah adjectives drain from the narrative when Russo speaks of the economic travails he encountered as oil and then real estate took their mid-'80s dive. His voice goes flat explaining that despite his companies' internal projections, he was not worried about his cash flow. He'd been close to the bottom of the barrel in 1974, and took away the lesson that good assets and hard work could see him through any downturn.

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