Naked City

The Moral of Morales

In an abruptly anticlimactic end to a political career steeped in melodrama, former state Attorney General Dan Morales pled guilty July 17 to mail fraud and filing a false tax return before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. Morales, 47, admitted to two counts of the 12-count March 6 indictment, acknowledging he had back-dated official government contracts -- supposedly agreeing to pay his friend and Houston attorney Marc Murr (who later declined the fees) $200 million from the private attorneys' share of the state's massive settlement with the tobacco companies -- and that his declared 1998 income of $40,000 was much lower than his true income that year. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton said the guilty plea demonstrated that "one of the greatest things about America is that no one is above the law." And Enrique Fasci, the Internal Revenue Service "Special Agent in Charge" of the IRS criminal investigation, said, "No one, including the former Texas attorney general, is above the law." Morales will be sentenced in October and faces as many as four years in federal prison and as much as $1.25 million in fines.

At one time Morales was not only the law in Texas but also the brightest rising Hispanic star in state politics, and his landmark 1998 $17.3 billion tobacco litigation victory -- won with a team of the state's most brilliant, junkyard-dog trial attorneys -- was the highlight of a tenure that continued the state's intermittent tradition of aggressive anti-corporate litigation. But the fight over the attorneys' fees, his abrupt departure from and then return to politics, and his determination to go his own way as a "moderate" Democrat -- running a bitter race against Democrat Tony Sanchez in the 2000 primary and subsequently endorsing Rick Perry -- alienated him from fellow Democrats even while his personal situation deteriorated.

Former Chronicle Politics Editor Louis Dubose (also co-author of books on George W. Bush and Karl Rove and now at work with Jan Reid on a book about Tom DeLay) has followed Morales' career for many years and says bluntly, "It is now evident -- and probably was to federal prosecutors -- that Morales ran for governor because if he did so, he could justify using campaign money left over in his state-officeholder account to pay criminal-defense attorneys to keep him out of Club Fed. ... Of approximately $550,000 spent on the campaign, $485,000 was spent paying his defense counsel. Some campaign. What did Al Kauffman and Dan Morales have in common? Both were directors of a Mexican American Legal Defense Fund." Dubose reviewed the tawdry record of Morales' attempt to manipulate the tobacco settlement -- not to mention Dapper Dan's astonishing attempt to obtain fraudulent loans for luxury cars, after his indictment and after he'd told Sparks he was indigent -- and concluded, "I guess he has four years to think about these things.

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