The former mayor of a small Texas town lies on his deathbed when his son’s cell phone rings. “Brian, this is George Bush. How’s your dad?” The president was calling out of genuine concern for a genuinely decent man. David McCall was mayor of Plano when it was a place of its own rather than a Dallas suburb. A Texas town he once said “had more Cadillacs per person than anywhere else in the state. A first-class, high-class town.” He moved there after he got out of the Marines, went to work as a high school teacher, basketball coach and football announcer. He bought a Plano insurance agency, joined the Sunrise Rotary Club, attended First Baptist and, in 1956, was swept into office by a 276-60 vote. Then he put together a group of investors, bought controlling interest in a local bank and was twice named Plano’s “Citizen of the Year.”
He also was a white-collar criminal. That’s why the president was calling.
In 1996, David McCall pleaded guilty to cooking the books at the already insolvent Plano Savings & Loan, in a case that involved more than $25 million in fraudulent loans made in the 1980s. Another ex-mayor in the deal had turned state’s witness and was prepared to testify against ex-Mayor McCall. Both exes and three other men did time in federal prisons for a scheme that was common at the time: a daisy chain, moving bad loans from one institution to another to avoid foreclosure. George Bush was calling at what proved to be the last minute to inform David McCall that he was pardoned for his crime. The morphine drip was slowed and when he awoke he was told the president had pardoned him. Four days later he died.
There was never any proof that David McCall was dragging the pot at Plano S&L. He was struggling to keep the institution afloat — even if that meant inflating the value of collateral and lying about liabilities. From the day he walked out of prison and back into the Sunrise Rotary Club, he never represented any threat to society. No prosecutor could have objected to the pardon. The FBI could only write a green-light pardon report. It was the way the system was supposed to work.
Because George Bush does almost no pardons. They’re labor-intensive, entail considerable political risk and provide little political or pecuniary gain. At 12, he’s about to set a record for the modern presidency. That’s only nine more than the number of turkeys he’s pardoned in the annual pre-Thanksgiving ritual.
Forget “Remember the Alamo.” Remember the S&L collapse. You’re still paying for it. No one knows the final tab, $300 billion to $500 billion in taxpayer-funded bonds to be retired in the future. More than half that was a transfer payment out of the pockets of taxpayers in the other 49 states and into insolvent S&Ls and bloated real estate deals in the Great State. Texas led the nation in failed S&Ls with 237, according to Robert Bryce’s Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate, due out in June. (California trailed Texas with a mere 101.) Just as Enron moved billions from individual portfolios and state teachers’ retirement systems into private bank accounts in Texas, the national S&L collapse was a net gain for Texas: $4,775 for every man, woman and child in the state. We should have sent thank-you notes.
The round-robin deed flip, in which a dozen buyers sell the same piece of property around a table in one day — each increasing its price so each buyer makes money until the final buyer defaults on the insider loan — was invented at Vernon Savings & Loan. As was the daisy chain. When it comes to plunder, as they say in Amarillo, Texas is the ne plus ultra. Maybe that’s why the city of Plano named a plaza after Mayor McCall a week before Bush pardoned him.
But why this S&L executive and not others? Just as Bush went to the head of the line when he enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard, certain people are handed “get out of jail” cards before others. Brian McCall is a Republican state rep from Plano who worked with Bush in the Texas Legislature. His brother is the name partner in a Plano law firm. Florence Shapiro, who called on the White House to ask for the pardon, is a former mayor of Plano who now serves in the Texas Senate. And is a protégé of Bush political adviser Karl Rove.
“This all went through the proper process,” Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo told The Dallas Morning News. “The pardon attorney reviewed the application, they did the required background check, talked to all the affiants. They did the FBI investigation, all of that.” That process takes from six to 18 months when everything is working right. A source close to the department says the McCall file arrived the week before he was pardoned — late in the week.
The real story here is not who gets pardoned, but who doesn’t. Bush is a notorious hard-ass on crime. He defeated Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994 by promising to crack down on rising crime in Texas at a time crime was declining. His second campaign used adolescents in one of his new tough-love juvenile prisons as props in his TV spots. He presided over the execution of 152 people in one of the most flawed criminal-justice systems in the nation. And in a Talk magazine interview with Tucker Carlson he mocked Karla Fay Tucker’s pleading for clemency (not a pardon) several days before he signed her death warrant. (“‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me.’”)
Bush did a little pardoning in Texas before he finally gave it up. In 1998, he pardoned a Waxahachie constable who lost his job because of misdemeanor drug possession. Two months later the guy’s nose was back on the white line after he took his cut of evidence he recovered at a roadside drug bust. Bush had been burned. As he would say four years later: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee. I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, ‘Fool me once shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.’” Anyway, you know what he means, I think, and he’s not going to get fooled again on pardons.
That’s unfortunate. One of the advantages of class-driven crony criminal justice is that presidents hide their political pardons among small clusters of cases that have been through the full process. One attorney in the pardons office used to refer to non-political pardons that could be slipped through with the president’s pals as “packing peanuts.” That advantage is no more. Bush has a low grant rate and is willing to do stand-alone pardons of friends, rather than move them along in batches of qualified applicants.
Think about it. For every Elliott Abrams you used to get 10 or 15 rehabilitated young men from the inner city doing draconian terms for nonviolent drug offenses. (W. Bush’s current Undersecretary of State Abrams pleaded guilty of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal in 1991 after he solicited $10 million from the sultan of Brunei to distribute to Nicaraguan contras. He was pardoned by Bush senior but has never quite demonstrated the requisite remorse for a presidential pardon, referring to the federal prosecutors who worked on his case as “filthy bastards.”)
Testifying before Congress, former Department of Justice pardon attorney Margaret Colgate Love suggested that the pardon process in the Clinton White House was all madness and little method. Nonetheless, people got pardoned. Poppy Bush signed 77 pardons, including a pack of Iran-contra criminals. Clinton did an astounding 456. If he cleared the record of the notorious Marc Rich, he also ordered his White House counsel to get him a list of applicants who had no “power, money or influence.” Love didn’t like the process, but she pointed to Clinton’s midnight pardon of 20 people doing drug sentences of 10 to 85 years. All had served at least six years, most were only small-time players in the conspiracies that had sent them to prison, and some were recommended for commutation by prosecutors locked into rigid sentencing guidelines.
Don’t look for George Bush to be so generous. The Bush family is long on noblesse and short on oblige. But if he wins a second term, watch the white-collar collars start to walk. And if the president’s randy pisswit of a brother Neil doesn’t wrap his divorce and seal his depositions, he might someday need big brother’s help. Texas bank-fraud prosecutors who thought doing a daisy chain meant shuffling bad loans from one institution to another could learn a lot from Neil. Pressed by his wife’s divorce attorney, he admitted it’s unusual for a man on a business trip in Asia to “just go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her.” Even more unusual when it happens on four or five occasions in four or five hotels and the man doesn’t know if the women are prostitutes — although he never has to pay them.
Well, go figure.
And hope that all goes well with Neil and Grace. That’s Grace Semiconductor, the Shanghai company managed by the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Grace is paying Neil Bush $2 million in stock to consult and discuss business strategies — plus $10,000 for every board meeting he attends. He has no background in semiconductors. But lots of experience in S&Ls.