This just in: Prison sucks.
So says Patrick Graham, a con artist serving a ten-year sentence for attempting to swindle $150,000 from a woman who happened to be a government informant.
At a hearing before state District Judge William Harmon late last month, Graham pleaded to be released, complaining that his treatment at the Goree prison unit near Huntsville is of a "punitive nature." Perhaps confusing the penitentiary with a Carnival cruise ship, Graham told the judge that his cell is a cramped, lonesome place in which he is forced to remain "all the time, day in and day out, week after week."
Graham's assessment of the accommodations provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice seemed accurate enough. In fact, Graham's description of prison life -- how tough it is to get a good haircut, for example -- evoked sobs and gasps from his wife and daughter, who had positioned themselves second-row center in the courtroom gallery, where Harmon was sure to notice their anguish.
Graham also invoked his role as an undercover operative for the FBI, which led to the conviction last May of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards on 17 counts of racketeering. Graham implied that his status as just another inmate serving time in TDCJ was unbecoming of a deputized agent of the federal government. As a snitch, moreover, Graham is persona non grata at Goree and in danger of vigilante inmates.
"It is considered a red badge of courage to seek out and find an informant and inflict some kind of retribution," Graham told Harmon.
If the judge was moved, he didn't show it. When Graham's attorney, Dan Cogdell, offered to track down a mysterious Goree inmate known only as "Stan" to corroborate the alleged threats to his client, Harmon brushed him off and sent Graham back to Goree. This ignited more weeping and gnashing of teeth by Graham's daughter, who pointed out that her father's incarceration hasn't included any efforts to rehabilitate him.
"Ma'am," the judge replied, "rehabilitation isn't the only reason people are sent to prison."
That TDCJ isn't teaching Pat Graham how to earn an honest living might be a good reason to keep him locked up. For years the means to an end for Graham typically involved some significant corruption of the truth and the subsequent fleecing of an innocent party (see "The Brothers Graham," by Brian Wallstin, March 28, 1996).
Sometimes it was Pat himself who floated the lie; sometimes it was his business partner and older brother, Michael, an affable name-dropper who over the years has flashed the credibility of others -- Mark White, Jim Mattox, Fred Hofheinz and Edwin Edwards, to name a few -- like a badge of honor.
In reality, it was more like a license to steal. At last count, the Graham brothers owed tens of millions of dollars in defaulted loans, fines and court-ordered restitution to former associates and investors, dating back to the 1970s. They have served time -- Pat, three months; Michael, nine -- for tax evasion, and they still owe the IRS almost $4 million between them.
Apparently Pat was acting independently of his brother when he used his relationship with Andy Collins, then-director of TDCJ, to lend weight to a phony scheme to break a wife-murderer out of prison. The ruse backfired when the convict's girlfriend helped set up a sting that culminated in Pat's arrest in January 1996. Pat eventually copped to felony theft, by which time he and Mike had cut a deal with federal prosecutors to deliver evidence that Edwin Edwards was being bribed by former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz.
Indicted by a grand jury in New Orleans in November 1999, Hofheinz has steadfastly maintained that he was the victim of a scam by the Graham brothers, who were working as consultants for the former mayor on a proposed juvenile detention facility in Jena, Louisiana. And in fact, the federal prosecutors seemed to have little evidence -- other than the Grahams' testimony, that is -- that Hofheinz was guilty of paying off Edwards in exchange for approval of the project (see "Let's Make a Deal," by Brian Wallstin, June 1).
The feds admitted as much last month, when they dropped the bribery charges against Hofheinz. He agreed to plead guilty to the lesser crime of failing to report an extortion attempt by Cecil Brown, a Louisiana lobbyist with close ties to Edwards. It seems that Hofheinz had signed a contract, brought to him by the Grahams, that would have paid Brown $1.3 million (with a portion allegedly going to Edwards) if the project went forward.
Hofheinz says the government's deal, which comes with a $5,100 fine and a year's probation, was "a no-brainer." For one thing, Hofheinz no longer has to take his chances in a Louisiana courtroom, where he would have been tried alongside Brown, who also was convicted on racketeering charges last May. If he had been found guilty of attempted bribery, Hofheinz almost certainly would have faced jail time under federal sentencing guidelines.
"Edwards would be a ghost in the courtroom over there, and I would be sitting in the room with an already convicted felon," Hofheinz says. "There is just no telling what accident might happen in that circumstance. And as innocent as I am, just being there somehow casts a pall of guilt."
It's peculiar to the Graham brothers that anyone who gets too close to them has to somehow live it down. Take, for example, Andy Collins, who, like Hofheinz, must loathe Pat and Mike fervently.
Collins met the Grahams in 1990 while the brothers' company, N-Group Securities, was building jails in six Texas counties. When TDCJ refused to use the finished jails, claiming they failed to meet security standards, investors sued N-Group for fraud. The Grahams were found liable in 1994 and were ordered to pay roughly $33 million.
Skip ahead 18 months or so, to late 1995: Collins is set to retire as TDCJ's executive director; Pat Graham brings him in as a consultant to Hofheinz's juvenile jail project in Louisiana. Collins returns the favor by introducing Pat to VitaPro Inc., a Canadian company that had a $30 million contract to provide a meat substitute to TDCJ.
When Pat gets arrested for the bogus jail-break scheme in January 1996, he has a VitaPro business card on him. That triggers an internal TDCJ investigation that finds that Collins may have improperly influenced the awarding of the VitaPro contract. Meanwhile, Pat becomes an FBI informant in Louisiana. While dishing dirt on Hofheinz and Edwards, Pat tells the FBI that Collins had accepted $10,000 a month from VitaPro for many months before he retired from TDCJ.
Collins was indicted and is awaiting trial in Houston on charges of accepting kickbacks. Over in Louisiana, lobbyist Cecil Brown is awaiting his trial for allegedly extorting Hofheinz. The outcome of both cases will rest heavily on testimony by the Graham brothers -- in particular, Pat.
Not surprisingly, Pat is trying to massage for maximum advantage his position as the key government witness in two high-profile corruption cases. His highest priority is, of course, his freedom. Having lost his bid for probation in Harmon's court, Pat apparently is seeking the ultimate get-out-of-jail card: the federal witness protection program. Unlike Harmon, however, the feds are taking seriously Pat's complaints about Goree -- or so it seems.
At a deposition in Houston in September, Jim Letten, an assistant U.S. attorney from Louisiana and lead prosecutor in the Edwards case, acknowledged that the government is worried about Graham being a "viable witness" in the upcoming cases. Letten expressed concern that Pat's welfare "is not being adequately watched out for by state authorities." For example, Letten said, Graham was being kept in a cell "where the temperatures were extraordinarily high during the summertime, apparently in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit."
Letten said Graham's application for witness protection status is in the "threat assessment" stage. However, he admitted that, aside from the lack of air-conditioning in Graham's cell, he is not aware of threats against Pat. Nonetheless, he said, Graham's situation at Goree could be considered cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He added, "Some people do like to defend the Constitution."
But the Constitution also provides that people be punished for their crimes, says Mike Ramsey, an attorney for Hofheinz and Yank Barry, the owner of VitaPro and a defendant in the Collins case. Ramsey fears the government has promised Graham a new identity as a free man, which would give him the opportunity to carry out new scams on an unsuspecting public.
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"It is disturbing to me not to know whether they really will or not" put Graham in the witness protection program, Ramsey says. "If they do, they're just taking a big-time risk with somebody like Pat Graham."
The unsavory possibilities that might arise from Graham's freedom were apparently a consideration in Judge Harmon's decision last month. In denying Pat's plea for probation, the judge probably knew that the Harris County district attorney's office is investigating allegations that the Graham brothers swindled Houston developer Fred Rizk out of $250,000 a year ago.
After Pat Graham was hustled out of court for a return to Goree, Harmon was good enough to answer questions posed by Graham's tearful wife and daughter. Though somewhat sympathetic, the judge offered no reassurances. Shortened prison sentences are a rarity, he said -- a fact that no doubt would please Graham's community of victims more than his relatives.
"What I'm telling people now," Harmon said, "is to expect to serve every day of your sentence."