By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
It wasn't until the last minute that O'Brien found out his ticket into the Big Tent would cost $100,000. But by then he was convinced that Mike Graham and Bankers Capital were going to make him rich. He wrote a check on his company's pension fund account, which Mike Graham handed to his brother to place in a trust account as security for a line of credit.
Plans were made to travel to Baghdad, where representatives of the newly incorporated First Texas Trading Company were to meet with Iraqi trade officials. Shortly before the trip, Mike Graham hosted a Fourth of July barbecue at his home in Kingwood, where O'Brien was introduced to Farrar Alghrary, a U.S-educated Iraqi who had a successful business in North Carolina that exported medical supplies to the Middle East.
Alghrary, it turned out, was the brother of Baghdad's chief of police and a close personal friend of Saddam Hussein. In fact, he told O'Brien, following then-military officer Hussein's first coup attempt in the 1970s, Alghrary himself rescued the wounded future Iraqi president and drove him to his family's farm for safekeeping. O'Brien also met two Iranians that day. He was told they were hoping to invest some of the late Shah of Iran's fortune into the Iraqi trade venture.
Some of what O'Brien learned on July 4, 1987, may very well have been true. But in retrospect, he must wonder if Mike Graham had any sense at all: with a handful of distinguished Muslims present, the main course at Graham's shindig was roasted pig.
Nonetheless, Alghrary expedited visas for Mike Graham, Jim O'Brien and Don Mauro, a cousin of Garry Mauro and keeper of the Texas land commissioner's blind trust. In late July 1987, they boarded a Lufthansa flight and took their first-class seats, bound for Baghdad.
Don Mauro's presence on the trip is a bit of a mystery. He had been a regular presence in the Bankers Capital office, apparently because Graham was attempting to help Garry Mauro recoup some of the real estate losses that would later force the land commissioner into bankruptcy. But Don Mauro himself would later say his purpose in traveling to Iraq was primarily sightseeing.
Before the plane had even landed, Mike Graham's traveling companions must have been wishing that they all were mere tourists. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Graham suddenly confided that he was really a CIA agent and was expecting to receive an important communiquŽ once he arrived in Baghdad. After a few moments of shocked silence, Farrar Alghrary turned to O'Brien.
"This guy is crazy," he whispered. "We are going into a country where we could all be killed."
Graham's bizarre behavior continued in Baghdad. At a meeting Alghrary had arranged with Iraqi officials, Graham told a man in a military uniform that he was a representative of the American government and was authorized to negotiate trade agreements favorable to Iraq. When one of his traveling companions later confronted him over the claim, Graham said, "I can't tell you all my connections, but I have secret orders from people in Washington."
That night, the group attended a dinner at Alghrary's family farm, where Hussein had been spirited following his coup attempt. Present were several Iraqis who ran a successful food distribution company. Graham, who seemed to think he was dining with heathens rather than graduates of the Harvard School of Business, piped in that his family had once made an important culinary contribution: his great-grandfather had created the graham cracker.
Late the following evening, Alghrary told O'Brien he was leaving the hotel for a while. When he returned, he announced that no matter what Mike Graham's plans were, the rest of the group should be prepared to fly home the next day.
"For all I know, he met with Saddam, because he came back and said everything was okay," recalls O'Brien, who today sounds slightly amused by the episode. "I think Farrar was terribly embarrassed, and went and pled our case when he realized this whole thing was not real. I think he probably saved Michael Graham's life -- going over there on a phony trip, and a man like Saddam who shot his own brother because he didn't like what he was doing."
Back in Houston, O'Brien had lunch with John Ford, whose path he had crossed at Bankers Capital Management, and the two men traded notes on Mike and Pat Graham. After the lunch, O'Brien immediately tried to stop payment on the $100,000 check he had given Bankers Capital. It was too late: Pat Graham hadn't placed O'Brien's check into a trust account, as promised, but had converted it into a cashier's check, which he had then deposited into the firm's corporate account. The money was then transferred into a certificate of deposit, which was used as collateral for a loan to Bankers Capital.
On August 14, 1987, O'Brien sued Bankers Capital Management, alleging fraud and breach of contract. Later that year, the Grahams' firm also would be sued by a travel agency for $49,000 in unpaid airline tickets. And Commonwealth Bank would foreclose on the loan collatoralized by the CD purchased with O'Brien's check.