Friday, February 1, 2013

Bingo King's Bid for the Light | Casey's Last Word

Last week former staffers of the San Antonio Light marked the 20th anniversary of the newspaper’s demise.

As newspaper folk do, they remembered with drinks and stories.

I was unable to attend, but I have a story to tell. You can provide your own drink.

It was early October 1992 when Hearst honchos came down from New York to tell a stunned newsroom that the company had reached a deal to buy the Express-News from Rupert Murdoch.

The company would, the executives said, either sell or close the Light.

We knew from the outset that the likelihood of finding a buyer was not robust.

But Hearst had to make an effort.

Under federal law, Hearst would not be allowed to simply close the Light and create a newspaper monopoly in San Antonio without convincing the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division that it had made a good-faith effort to find a buyer.

It would take nearly four months before the Justice Department accepted the obvious:

There was no serious buyer for the second-place newspaper in what was then about the nation’s 40th largest market.

But at some point during those four months, we became aware that, under pressure from the Justice Department, Hearst lawyers from New York were discussing a possible deal in which a, shall we say, colorful local businessman would take over the Light.

That businessman was Eddie Garcia, called “Fast Eddie” by some of his friends and dubbed the “Bingo King” years earlier by the Light.

It was not a title Eddie liked.

It was associated with stories about his political influence over state bingo regulators.

Eddie owned four bingo parlors and, by state gambling law, he could only run bingos for charities.

It seems some of the charities were not entirely aware that he was running bingos for them.

But Eddie had other problems.

In the months leading up to his attempt to acquire the Light, leaks were emerging from a wide-ranging investigation by the Washington-based Public Integrity Division of the Justice Department .

Eddie, it seems, had special relationships with the late State Senator Frank Madla, whom he hired to run a home healthcare company.

Madla chaired the Senate committee with oversight of such companies.

He also had a key role in overseeing bingo operations.

Investigators also looked at Eddie’s relationship with then-Congressman Albert Bustamante, who had gone to bat for a food service contract Eddie had at Lackland Air Force Base.

In 1993 Bustamante would go to prison after a federal jury found him guilty of accepting bribes.

Eddie Garcia was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.

You can imagine the consternation among reporters at the prospect of being owned by the “Bingo King,” with his coziness with key politicians and his air of living at the edge of the law.

His friend, lawyer Jack Pytel, would later tell the Texas Monthly Eddie was serious about saving jobs and keeping journalistic competition.

“In the back of his mind, though, I know what Eddie was thinking,” Pytel said. “At last I’m going to force them to write something good about me.”

Yes, and about his friends.

The deal Eddie was said to propose seemed preposterous.

He basically wanted Hearst to give him the Light, and let him use the employee pension fund to finance operations.

But in a similar deal, Hearst would later buy the San Francisco Chronicle.

To get federal approval, though, it had to give its smaller long-time flagship Examiner to a minority family (Asian) – as well as a generous $66 million for operations.

It’s possible that one arm of the Justice Department saved the other from embarrassment here in San Antonio.

Eddie would later be gunned down at his office, apparently by a hit man.

The DA got a controversial conviction, but nobody has ever figured out who bankrolled the alleged hit.

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