By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Again, Graham demanded money up-front before he would go to work. The company owner says that with every promise he would be asked to write another check. One $15,000 check, he later learned, was used to meet the Bankers Capital payroll. Graham's reimbursement check bounced.
After about three months, the pipeline company owner lost the opportunity to expand his business. He says he was "brokenhearted" but unwilling to pursue the money he had given the Grahams.
"I was afraid to sue them, actually," he says. "Somebody told me that someone went in through Mike's garage at two in the morning one time and threw him against the wall and threatened to kill him. The stories just went on and on, and I thought maybe I'd take my losses and get away from it."
Then there was the experience of James O'Brien, an oil field equipment manufacturer from Bay City. O'Brien is retired now, but in 1986, he and a partner from Dallas had finalized their plan to build a pipe mill in Panama under a federal law known as the Caribbean Basin Act, which encouraged the creation of manufacturing jobs in U.S.-friendly companies in the region.
O'Brien and his partner, who has since died, had approval from the Department of Commerce in Washington but had been unable to raise the money to build their plant. Toward the end of 1986, a friend recommended a visit to Bankers Capital Management, where they met with Mike Graham.
Graham wasted no time making an impression. He showed his guests into his private office, and as he stood by the window, pointed toward the blue-green columns rising up from Greenway Plaza. "Ipretty much built all of that," he said, embellishing just a bit on his role as a commissioned salesman for Century Development.
While O'Brien and his partner absorbed that whopper, Graham breezed over to his computer screen. Checking the latest market figures, he mentioned that he was keeping an eye on $100,000 he had recently invested on behalf of the state, at the direction of Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. O'Brien had no reason to doubt the claim; Graham often made a show of taking phone calls from his influential friends.
"You'd be sitting there in his office, and he'd go, 'Excuse me a minute, Garry's on the phone from Austin,' " O'Brien says. "Or he'd go, 'I have to talk to Claytie,' " -- meaning Clayton Williams.
"You never knew who was going to be on the other end of the line."
Even when he wasn't on the phone with "Claytie" and "the governor," Graham bristled with a sense of his own importance. Everyone at Bankers Capital was at Mike Graham's beck and call -- even brother Pat. Although he officially was vice president of the firm, Pat was occasionally called upon to chauffeur Mike around town. At times, Mike's conceit turned to impetuousness. One day, he fired his longtime secretary, who had followed him from Century Investments, after she called in sick.
"You'd have to be on edge," notes a former Bankers Capital employee, "if you know you've promised stuff to everybody in the world, and they're calling to pin you down on it."
On January 12, 1987, several weeks after their first encounter with Mike Graham, O'Brien and his partner were invited to return to Bankers Capital. At that meeting, Graham announced that he would have no trouble raising the $1 million needed to build the Panamanian pipe mill. He asked the partners to put up a $12,000 advance, which they did.
O'Brien's partner, who was suffering financially, was the first to get nervous. He began calling Bankers Capital regularly, asking about the status of the Panama funding. Graham usually told him he'd have the $1 million within a week, two at the most. At one point, he said a family-owned supermarket chain had agreed to back the venture. Once, O'Brien's partner was told to expect Mike Graham in Dallas, only to arrive at the airport and discover Graham wasn't on the plane.
After more than four months, O'Brien also started to wonder about the funding for his pipe mill. Then Mike Graham presented him with an opportunity that made the Panama deal look like a lemonade stand: the exclusive rights to sell pipe and oil field equipment to the Republic of Iraq.
The proposal appealed to O'Brien. His business was slipping as the Texas oil industry continued to suffer. Meanwhile, the U.S. was courting Iraq in the hopes that increased trade between the two countries would induce the Middle Eastern nation to end its ties to the Soviet Union. Under the circumstances, Graham's plan to sell bonds to fund the start-up and operation of the First Texas Trading Company, of which James O'Brien would be president, sounded like an idea whose time had come.
"I felt like the kid looking at the hawker at the carnival, who finally went into the tent," O'Brien recalls.
To set the hook, Graham shifted his name-dropping into high gear, insisting he had the federal government's support to initiate international trade agreements. And, Graham promised, his close connections in Austin almost guaranteed state funding through something called the Texas Economic Exportation Initiative.