Friday, February 12, 2016
La Raza Unida and trumped-up prosecutions
I was amused this week to read a piece by Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia, detailing how the indicted Crystal City city manager/city attorney James Jonas had written a screed blaming his troubles on La Raza Unida - a political party that has been dead for more than three decades.
The publicity bio was apparently meant to be distributed to Fox News and other such outlets to build national support before last week’s bribery indictments of Jonas and a majority of the Crystal City council.
In it Jonas refers to “the daily La Raza machinations, corruption and influence that keeps poor communities poor and steeped in crime.”
This isn’t the first time La Raza Unida has been charged with corruption.
It happened 40 years ago, when the party controlled Crystal City and its school board.
Four years earlier, its gubernatorial candidate had won 6 percent statewide.
It won a majority in one South Texas county and a third of the votes in 15 heavily Mexican-American counties.
Little wonder that Attorney General John Hill sent his investigators down to Crystal City to look for dirt in 1976.
He didn’t mention it at the time, but the next year he would announce for governor.
Republicans had already busted up Texas as a one-party state, having elected John Tower to the U.S. Senate and Bill Clements as governor.
The last thing Hill needed was Raza Unida siphoning off traditionally democratic Hispanic voters.
So in June, 1976, the San Antonio Express-News blared this front-page headline: “11 indictments hit three in Crystal.”
When Angel Noe Gonzalez took over as school superintendent in 1970, Crystal City’s school buildings were decrepit, few teachers spoke Spanish though it was the first language for a substantial majority of students, and the dropout rate was abysmal.
When he left four years later for a job in Washington with the Department of Education, nearly all the teachers were bilingual, the dropout rate had been lowered and more students were heading off to college, including the likes of Harvard and Stanford.
And a bond issue had been passed for new schools.
That’s where the indictments came in.
They accused Gonzalez of hiring two buddies for “no-show” jobs related to school construction.
Gonzalez was stunned by the indictments.
He turned for help to a then 42-year-old lawyer named Phil Hardberger.
The prosecution charged Gonzalez with paying a man named Adan Cantu for doing absolutely no work.
The trial lasted a week.
During it, Hardberger unrolled a 3-foot high, 30-foot long time-line colored-coded to show, day-by-day, invoices signed, phone calls made, reports submitted and other material documenting Cantu’s work as supervisor of new-school construction.
Crystal City Police Chief and school board member Ramon Garza, a key prosecution witness, testified he didn’t know Cantu was on the payroll for his first eight months.
Hardberger produced board minutes showing that Garza had been present for numerous reports by Cantu and had actually made a motion in connection with one of them.
Witness after prosecution witness testified against Cantu.
Hardberger undermined them all.
At several points, the jury laughed.
“I noticed that when they walked out of the courtroom they would walk over and shake hands with (Gonzalez),” said one juror, “like they felt ashamed or sorry for him or something.”
The jury promptly voted 12-0 for acquittal.
Charges against the other two defendants were dropped.
Newspapers around the state had put the indictments on the front page, but only the Express-News did so with Gonzalez’s acquittal.
Many newspapers didn’t even run that story.
The publicity had its effect on an already-weakened Raza Unida Party.
The next year its candidate for governor, San Antonian Mario Cumpian, won only 14,213 votes, or .6 percent.
Nevertheless Hill’s efforts were in vain.
He lost to former Gov. Clements by nearly 17,000 votes.
I’d like to say the lesson is that crime doesn’t pay.
But unfortunately, trumped-up politically-motivated prosecutions aren’t illegal.