A Family Affair
Roland Garcia Jr. is, by all accounts, a nice guy.
He has an earnest, sincere manner, a taste for hard work and an ability for quiet but determined self-promotion that have served him well as he's climbed the rungs of the Texas legal and political establishment.
A Corpus Christi native, the first of his immediate family to graduate from college, Garcia came into Houston as an outsider, a Hispanic who worked his way though the unglamorous South Texas College of Law; by the age of 38 he had landed a lucrative partnership at an elite downtown firm, the presidency of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, the friendship of many key Democratic politicians and -- he thought -- a shot at the prestigious position of United States Attorney for Houston and the Southern District of Texas.
November 8 was a big day for Roland Garcia Jr: There he was on the front page of the paper, pictured bustling about his office answering calls congratulating him for being recommended for the U.S. Attorney's job by the five Democratic members of the Southern District's congressional delegation.
His family, he says, was bursting with pride that day. But one member of that family probably took a little longer to get the news -- Garcia's younger brother, Edgar Arnold Garcia, was sitting in a federal prison, serving time for running a huge marijuana-smuggling operation and brutally killing a onetime colleague who crossed him.
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Roland Garcia somehow never saw fit to mention to his congressional sponsors or their staffs that he had a younger brother in prison -- he's given a series of startlingly disingenuous reasons for not bothering to do so -- and the disclosure has darkened his chances for getting approval from the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate for the job. The flap has also raised questions about the comically chaotic methods used to pick a candidate for the critical post, methods that, critics say, were only window-dressing for a pick that came down to a political calculus that was surprisingly cynical even for these times.
Roland Garcia may yet become U.S. Attorney -- the five members of Congress from South Texas still back him as their recommendation, at least publicly -- but the story of his choice is one of a family's heartbreak over drugs, of political ambition and power, and, seemingly, of a respected lawyer's belief that he could make a dark family episode go away simply by not mentioning it.
Talking about his brother is still not one of Roland Garcia's favorite things to do. Resigned to performing damage control, he'll sit for an interview -- but only on the phone. And he doesn't want the rest of the family getting involved.
"My parents are just devastated," he says of the initial wave of publicity about his brother. "My mother cried for days. We all love my brother. It's a tragic thing -- drugs have victimized a lot of families."
Garcia is the oldest of five; he says he's not sure how old his brother is ("36 or 37..."). The family grew up in Corpus Christi's Country Club Estates, an older enclave of wealth that is now overshadowed by newer, more modern neighborhoods of the city's elite.
His father dabbled in real estate and owned half of Hacienda Records, a respected independent Tejano recording label run mostly by Garcia's uncle.
The family has turned out well -- one of Garcia's siblings is a lawyer, another an investment banker.
There was little indication Edgar would end up any differently. "Growing up, we were very close -- we were in Boy Scouts together, we played Little League together," Garcia says. "The family all went to church, we were Catholic.... But families, sometimes even with loving parents, can be impacted by the evils of drugs. It's unfortunate, but my younger brother got seduced."
Edgar began working as a sound engineer at the family's recording studio, according to one of the prosecutors who handled his conviction. He met bands, began traveling with them on tour "and learned very quickly he could make contacts in the drug world," says Greg McMahon, chief of special prosecutions for Florida's Eighth Judicial Circuit. "He started in Texas, moved to Louisiana and eventually came east to the rural areas of our circuit."
None of the other members of the family were ever implicated in any part of the operation, but eventually Edgar controlled one of the larger South Texas drug operations.
Part of the operation involved fronting large amounts of drugs, almost exclusively marijuana, to local dealers, including his man in Florida, a sad sack named Marty Cryer. Cryer was eventually fronted over a hundred pounds of dope, worth about $100,000 on the street, and was evading attempts to pay up.
Edgar Garcia sent word out to Cryer through the drug network that it was time to settle his accounts; when that failed, Garcia, in February 1991, went to Florida with some lieutenants to take matters into his own hands.
They rented cars and started looking, eventually finding Cryer's car parked in the lot of a cheap motel in tiny Chiefland, Florida. When they stormed Cryer's room, their guns drawn, they found him with his wife, a four-year-old daughter and his mother-in-law.
After moving the women and child to an adjoining room, Garcia pumped nine shots into Cryer's body, enough to kill him several times over.
"Garcia said, 'I was afraid he was going to go for a gun,' " says prosecutor McMahon. "But another guy who was there said that [Cryer] was so doped up he couldn't respond to Garcia, and that Garcia just got frustrated."
Garcia fled the scene, briefly taking the dead man's family with him (the mother-in-law, at least, was deeply involved in the drug operation, McMahon says). He hid out for a while in the Corpus area and then moved to Boston, where he found a church organization and posed as an illegal alien escaping political persecution in his native land.
From there, Garcia moved to Madonna House, a Catholic religious retreat near Ottawa, Canada. Officials there described him as a conscientious, quiet worker, and were shocked when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came and arrested him in June 1991 (Phone records had given him away, McMahon says).
Years of legal wrangling followed, but eventually Garcia was extradited to the U.S. when Florida agreed to waive the death penalty. Garcia pleaded guilty this year to federal drug-trafficking and state murder charges. He is serving 30 years in federal prison.
By the time the younger Garcia's troubles began, his older brother Roland had begun moving in a totally different sphere. He graduated from Baylor in 1981 and, five years later, while working for Shell Oil to finance himself, he got his law degree from South Texas.
"I went off to college," Roland Garcia says. "And I really haven't been back to Corpus Christi except for the holidays. I never really kept up with [my brother] -- I knew he dropped out of high school, and eventually got his GED, but no one in the family knew about the things he was apparently getting into. We were all shocked by it."
Roland testified on his brother's behalf, asking the judge for leniency in sentencing. "I was surprised at the contrast," prosecutor McMahon says. "Here was this very successful young lawyer, versus the brother who had obviously taken the other path."
Garcia hugged his brother on the way up to the witness stand -- momentarily startling court officials who frown on such contact with inmates -- and tried to convince the judge that his brother should be released for time served, because he regretted his mistakes and because his father was ill.
"It was heartfelt and sincere -- he said that [Edgar] was a member of the family, that he loved him -- but it was kind of naive," McMahon says.
Roland Garcia's efforts failed to sway the judge. The extended family pitched in to help raise Edgar's three preteen children and, except for the occasional phone call from prison, his brother's life began to have even less to do with Roland's fast track to success.
Roland got hired by Vinson & Elkins, and almost immediately plunged into a crushing work schedule. He also played an active role helping then-City Councilman Vince Ryan, who was pushing law firms who did business with the city to recruit and hire more minorities. The pair, and others, pressed management at the city's largest firms to open up their recruiting procedures beyond chasing the top students from the University of Texas and the nation's elite law schools.
Results have been mixed, at best, but Ryan says he appreciated Garcia's willingness to try.
"He was very helpful," Ryan says. "As a relatively young associate in a big firm, he would do it, and that's a time when it is not necessarily the way to move up, rocking the boat.... We were trying to get firms to attract and retain minority attorneys. It took a little guts on his part: In those cultures, working 60 hours a week and keeping your head low is the way to get ahead, and he definitely wasn't keeping his head low."
On the other hand, it was a chance for a junior-level associate to come in contact with key players at the city's top firms. Garcia was no radical when it came to pushing Ryan's project -- cooperation rather than confrontation is definitely his method ("He has a very pleasant style, very easygoing," Ryan says) -- and he soon grabbed the notice of former state Supreme Court justice John Hill, a name partner in Houston's Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill & LaBoon.
Hill recruited Garcia to his firm, where he has specialized in civil litigation and mergers of health-care companies. Along the way, Garcia has nurtured ties to the Democratic Party, working on campaigns for city controller-elect Sylvia Garcia and becoming fast friends with state Senators Mario Gallegos and John Whitmire.
It was the intercession of those last two politicians, Garcia says, that first turned him on the road to the U.S. Attorney's office. Applying for the job had not even crossed his mind, he says, when incumbent Gaynelle Griffin Jones announced in October that she was leaving. That's perhaps not surprising, given Garcia's near-total inexperience with criminal law.
"The day Gaynelle Griffin Jones announced her resignation, I got a call," says Garcia. "Immediately, people were asking me to consider the position. Senator Gallegos was the first -- he said, 'Roland, I want to send your name to the White House.' I think they wanted a Hispanic trial attorney to consider the position."
Another key player was Whitmire, newly ensconced at Liddell, Sapp (as a thank-you, some critics grumble, for his yeoman work in the last session pushing the baseball-stadium bill on behalf of firm client Drayton McLane). Whitmire is tight with Congressman Gene Green, who represents a largely Hispanic district in Houston and was all but guaranteed to be lobbying for a Hispanic nominee.
Neither Whitmire nor Gallegos returned calls about Garcia, but by the day after Jones's resignation announcement, the civil attorney had become a leading candidate for the post.
"I thought it was a good opportunity, something that I would enjoy and be good at," Garcia says. "It wasn't something I had thought about -- I've got a lucrative law practice, and this will be a tremendous pay cut.... It's a two-and-a-half-year appointment, so I'll probably be using most of my savings to hold me over."
(The Texas Lawyer, a weekly legal publication, reported in its most recent survey of law-firm finances that Liddell, Sapp's "profits per partner," roughly analogous to salary, were $348,000. The U.S. Attorney in Houston makes $115,700 a year.)
Despite the financial concerns and a professed feeling that "I wouldn't get it and that it was just an honor to be considered," Garcia activated one of the most aggressive campaigns for a patronage job that Southern District congressional staffers can remember.
"You wouldn't believe the number of letters and calls we got, and the caliber of people doing it," one staffer says. Among those acting on Garcia's behalf were Metro Chairman Holcomb Crosswell, former Metro chair Billy Burge, Port of Houston Chairman Ned Holmes, state Representatives Garnett Coleman and Domingo Garcia, and prominent attorneys such as Richard Trevathan and Lynne Liberato.
"I joked with him -- I said, 'You knocked down a forest with all these letters,' " Green says.
Garcia paints the letter-writing effort as a spontaneous outpouring of support on his behalf. "I had people calling me and writing, saying, 'Roland, how can I help you, I know you'd be great in the job,' " he says. "Essentially it was a collaborative effort between both the minority community and the business community -- they came together in an active, joint effort to help out."
Spontaneous or not, Garcia's campaign was just about the only thing that was organized in the selection process. With no Texas Democrat in the U.S. Senate, and with the state's Democratic House delegation lacking a dominant leader, the five members of Congress charged with making the choice stumbled through a comedy of errors.
Applicants for the job filled out a brief questionnaire asking for such rudimentary information as name, address and educational history; they then waited for further instructions. The next thing they knew, nine semifinalists were told to fly up to Washington -- with only a few days notice -- forking out $1,300 or so for last-minute airfare.
When they got there, they were greeted not by a poised staff ready with a precise schedule of interviews with the congressional delegation, but with a collective shrug of the shoulders.
No interviews were scheduled, the applicants were told; if they wanted to meet the representatives, well, they were all scattered around Capitol Hill, frantically trying to wrap up the session and deal with the politically charged vote on extending President Clinton's fast-track negotiating authority.
Almost immediately, candidates realized their trips would be wasted unless they started scouring the halls for the harried representatives.
"It was just bizarre," one applicant says.
Another agrees. "I think the congressmen were kind of embarrassed by the lack of planning," the applicant says. "They were just kind of squeezing us in, in between votes. We were meeting them in caucus rooms, in committee rooms, in their offices, wherever we could track them down."
The actual voting by the delegation was also a hurried affair, with the discussion lasting less than an hour (well less, according to some sources) in a meeting conducted on the fly between floor votes.
In the end, all the rushing around had little effect. Filling plum political jobs in the Southern District has become a matter of math, with Gene Green joining with the two congressmen from Corpus and the Valley to have a Hispanic appointed.
That, critics say, is how journeyman state judge Ruben Guerrero got chosen earlier this year over Keith Ellison, an Anglo with an Ivy League education, a Rhodes Scholarship and a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship on his resume. And that, they say, is how Garcia got the nod.
The two South Texas representatives wanted Carlos Valdez, Corpus Christi's popular district attorney; Green insisted on a Houstonian, so his South Texas counterparts went along provided Valdez was named as an alternate choice, which he was. Garcia's being a Corpus native also helped his chances.
Green had, for a time, pushed for Houston City Councilwoman Gracie Saenz, but her boomlet was short-lived because of her antiabortion views. ("You can't imagine the amount of letters you receive if you're a Democrat thinking of appointing someone the pro-choice and Planned Parenthood people don't want," one congressional staffer groaned.)
Another candidate pushed by Green and Gallegos was Berta Mejia, an assistant city attorney and former state district judge. The candidates of the two other Houston-area Democrats also showed just how blatantly the ethnic factor played into the choice: Representative Ken Bentsen pushed for two fellow Anglos, former federal prosecutors Phil Hilder and Tom Hagemann, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee's candidates were two fellow African-Americans, U.S. Magistrate Calvin Botley and Assistant U.S. Attorney Cedric Joubert.
One losing candidate says the method for filling the slot was "so constituency-driven" because the state no longer has a dominant Democrat. A senator from the same party as the president typically makes the choice for such a job; until he was ousted in 1994, powerful Democratic Congressman Jack Brooks dominated the process during the Clinton administration. The Southern District's current delegation is made up of relative newcomers to the House and so, critics say, the job-filling process has degenerated.
"The difficulty stems from not having a Democratic senator," says one losing candidate who claims to be completely disillusioned by the experience. "When it comes down to a level of people who are so constituency-driven, you don't get a search for the most qualified person."
In fact, when filling the federal judge position that eventually went to Guerrero, the five representatives at first threw up their hands and sent a list of four names from which the White House could choose. Baffled administration officials rejected the unusual method and told the group to compromise on a single name.
Knowing the White House wouldn't accept a multiple-choice for the U.S. Attorney's job, the delegation voted 3-2 for Garcia. The pick was made unanimous for public consumption, and Garcia's name was announced November 7.
Garcia's campaign didn't end there: "Within minutes of the vote," one surprised congressional staffer says, "he was out there giving TV interviews and press conferences. Typically, the nominee plays it pretty low-key and puts himself in the White House's hands, but he jumped out himself. I guess if you live by the sword, you die by the sword."
Ten days after he was recommended for the post, events began to turn sour for Garcia. Someone -- the popular theory is that it was one of the jilted applicants -- leaked word to the Houston Chronicle about Garcia's brother, and the putative nominee's asking for leniency for a convicted murderer.
Garcia's luck held for a while: The Chronicle, displaying the aggressiveness that comes with being a monopoly daily, sat on the story for days. Garcia scrambled in the interim to call the representatives in a belated effort to warn them of the situation. But KTRH/740 AM radio broke the news on Wednesday, November 19, and it ended up on the Chronicle's front page the next day.
"I did get a call from the reporter, and right after that I called every member of the congressional delegation," Garcia says. "I didn't want the Congress members to be caught without any information [the media] had. I told them I'd be happy to answer any questions and I wanted to see what they thought."
What they thought, according to staff members, was that they had been burned.
"It's just amazing that he didn't think it would come out at some point," one staff member says. "Why he didn't inoculate himself, it just shows no political common sense."
"This kind of laundry, you've got to come in waving it in front of you," says another. "You just put it on the table and deal with it."
Just why Garcia chose not to, of course, only he can answer. And he's given a series of answers, none of them all that convincing. "I said to him 'Roland, in a case like this, the way to go is full disclosure up front,' " Green says. "He told me he thought it was common knowledge. I know I didn't know about it, and none of the five members knew about it. He just said he thought it was fairly common knowledge and that it was a family affair."
Garcia told the Chronicle his brother's conviction "has been a matter of public record."
In an interview with the Press, Garcia maintained he "never tried to hide anything. None of that [asking about any potential embarrassments] was in the questionnaire or on the interviews."
He offered a three-pronged argument: Most convincingly, he said he should not be judged on his brother's actions; less convincingly, he said, "It never occurred to me that my brother being in jail would have an affect on the nomination"; and, least convincingly, the political veteran claims he didn't consider that Republican senators might make an issue out of the affair.
"I am new to any of the inner workings or the procedures used in the national confirmation process," he said. "I just didn't know about it. At the time, I had no clue about those procedures."
Such a view is either incredibly naive or aggressively disingenuous, congressional staffers say.
"People appointed by Bill Clinton, even for lower-level positions than this, it's amazing the things they will have to explain [to investigators]," one staffer says. "I mean, stuff like fallouts with high school girlfriends, temperamental behavior when you're 19 years old and your hormones are raging."
A blue-ribbon screening committee, such as those used by Republicans in the Reagan-Bush era and by Democratic Senator Bob Krueger, would have asked, somewhere along the line, whether a potential nominee had anything embarrassing in his past. But in the frenzied interviewing process that resulted in Garcia's pick, the question was never asked.
"It's not our job to vet candidates," a staffer offers by way of a defense. "That's the FBI's and the White House's job."
Such "vetting" is becoming increasingly important as national partisan politics plays an ever-widening role in filling federal jobs. The Clinton administration says Senate Republicans have intentionally delayed approving nominees, noting that some judicial candidates have been waiting for a Senate vote for more than two years.
And Republican Senator Phil Gramm has made national headlines by blocking one of Clinton's judicial choices, Michael Schattman of Fort Worth, because he found Schattman to be too political. Neither Gramm nor Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have commented on Garcia's recommendation.
Without being directly asked by anyone about potential embarrassments, Garcia saw no need to volunteer information. "For our family's sake and for my brother's children's sake, we've tried to keep my brother's life private," he says. "I've never felt it was relevant to my professional career. When I try a suit, when I'm interviewed for a job, when I ran for president [of the young lawyers' group], I never felt the need to say, 'By the way, my brother's in prison.' It's not a normal reaction, to go into details like that."
The congressmen and their staffs were clearly upset when they learned the news. "I've told him, 'You should've told us,' " Green says. "But I've gotten past that. He's still a quality candidate."
Green's affirmation of the choice has been publicly echoed by the other four members of the delegation -- partly due to another campaign by Garcia.
Within days of the news hitting the media, the representatives again began receiving faxes and calls, this time urging them not to dump Garcia.
Once he ascertained that his sponsors would be sticking with him, Garcia moved on to the media. He said he got a call from U.S. Representative Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi, the dean of the delegation, on November 21, informing him that Ortiz "had spoken to all the members and they had reaffirmed their unanimous support."
"That day I called the Chronicle and said, 'Hey, you guys ran a piece that this [controversy] was casting doubt on my nomination, but it's been reaffirmed, so why not run a piece saying so?' I complained, and then some of my friends called and complained, and luckily they finally did run a story that explained the actual status," Garcia says.
The Chronicle's story, on the front page of the November 27 issue, was headlined "Garcia still Democrats' top choice."
While he may remain the official top choice of the delegation, whether he will make it through the White House, much less the Senate, is debatable.
"I think the nomination probably is in trouble, not because it's fair but because the White House has so much trouble getting anyone through the Senate these days," says Green, who nonetheless maintains he would have voted for Garcia even if he had learned about Garcia's brother at the interview stage.
"It's gonna take a huge amount of effort to get him through," says a staffer. "It's gonna take not just a Virgin Mary, but a Republican Virgin Mary, to get through the Senate, much less someone who's been in the paper with something like this."
Privately, some staffers expect the White House to deliver the bad news to Garcia after the FBI investigations of both him and runner-up Carlos Valdez.
Garcia adamantly insists that isn't so, and he rails against anonymous sources who call into question his chances.
"If anyone felt I should not go forward I'd have thought I'd have heard that by now," he says. "But I've heard nothing but support and encouragement. I'm getting letters from people I don't even know. There's been an incredible amount of support community-wide. You'd be surprised how many people have a cousin, or a sister, or somebody who has problems."
That's true, of course, and even Garcia's critics say that his brother's actions should not play a role in whether he wins the post. But the way the situation came out, with an air of cover-up, only serves to give Republicans ammunition to block Garcia until so late in Clinton's term that the process would be a moot point.
If that scenario occurs, Garcia will have paid a high price for family loyalty -- and, some would say, for trying to keep that act of loyalty private while still ambitiously trying to climb in the political world.
While he says he could have better handled the manner in which the story came out, Garcia quietly insists he wouldn't change anything he did for his family.
"We all have brothers and we all have families," he says softly. "We all have -- we don't get to pick who our family is. I abhor what he did, but I still love my brother.
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