Smoke-filled room

When Dan Morales brokered Texas' $17.3 billion tobacco settlement, he blew away Governor Bush. He also made sure his friends got a few puffs.

To his credit, Morales has used his office to institute some protections for residents of the desperately poor colonias along the border, and has championed litigation to stop development of substandard housing in these towns.

Morales' most controversial position as attorney general--at least in Democratic circles--was his decision not to appeal the 1996 Hopwood ruling. In some people's eyes, it was a betrayal of his ethnic roots.

In the lawsuit that resulted in the landmark ruling, Cheryl Hopwood and three other white students sued the University of Texas in federal court, claiming they were discriminated against when the university's law school would not admit them.

Morales, who admits he may have benefited from affirmative action policies himself at Harvard, refused to represent the state university in its appeal of the favorable verdict for Hopwood. At the time, Morales said he didn't support racial considerations in the university admissions process and saw little chance of success in an appeal. He later broadly interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case as meaning UT could no longer use race as a factor in selecting students.

(Notably, Joe Jamail, the Houston lawyer who has publicly questioned Morales' conduct in the tobacco case, appears to have positioned himself opposite the attorney general in this debate as well. This summer, Jamail, a descendant of Lebanese immigrants, donated $4 million to endow two minority scholarship programs at UT.)

The tobacco case, which Morales filed in March 1996, would give the attorney general his highest profile ever and finally grant him a reputation as a power broker. Up until then, Morales had been a relatively unknown attorney general--especially in comparison with Mattox. Indeed, Victor Morales, the former Democratic candidate for U.S. senator, rose from obscurity in the polls largely because voters didn't know the schoolteacher wasn't the attorney general.

The tobacco suit brought national headlines for Dan Morales. Time magazine featured him in a piece on rising Democrats, saying he "won't be pigeonholed as a liberal or conservative." And in 1996, Texas Monthly named Morales on its list of the state's 20 most intriguing, influential people. As the magazine's headline put it, "A heavyweight in state politics: Taking on the tobacco industry and other foes, Texas' attorney general is smokin'--at last."

With his recent marriage, his first, Morales has given the public some personal sizzle as well. Last year, he wed former Brownwood resident Christine Glenn. Thirteen years younger than her new husband, Mrs. Morales appears stunningly attractive on television.

Her background bears no resemblance to the typical political wife. Morales met the single mother of two at a Better Business Bureau luncheon in Abilene. They got engaged a few months later. Shortly before the wedding, Glenn told her hard-luck story to the San Antonio Express-News. Dispatched to orphanages as a child, Glenn married young to a man she claims abused her. At one point, she resorted to topless dancing to support her children.

In a fairytale turnaround, Morales has altered that bleak economic picture. Last March, the couple purchased a 5,000-square-foot home appraised at $835,000 in a gated community in the exclusive and breathtakingly beautiful Westlake Hills neighborhood of Austin.

The new home has been the subject of much curiosity. How did Morales afford it on his $92,000 salary as attorney general? Records show he bought it from a Houston woman named Tanya Hill, who'd purchased it herself less than a year earlier and never lived in it. Morales' spokesman Dusek says his boss is making monthly payments on the luxury home. "It's possible that once he starts earning more money [in the private sector], he may make some arrangements with regards to the house," Dusek offers vaguely, declining to give any further details about the attorney general's personal business.

Morales initially rejected the Observer's requests for an interview. Dusek said his boss was tired of talking about the $17.3 billion settlement.

Pressed again for an interview, Dusek voiced concern about the Jamail allegations. "Have you talked to Jamail?" he asked before agreeing to approach Morales again. (The Observer made several attempts to contact Jamail, but he wouldn't return calls.)

When he finally did speak, Morales seemed eager to elaborate on the battle over the attorneys' fees. "When I give someone my word, I mean it," he said. "When I sign a contract, I intend to honor that contract. I don't think that is so unusual a position for a public official to take. I am a little bit surprised that there would be those who would even question whether it is a proper thing for a public official to do."

He also argued--not very convincingly--that money was only a secondary concern for the team of lawyers he hired to represent the state, a pack of five firms led by Walter Umphrey, Wayne Reaud, Harold Nix, Eddie Williams Jr., and controversial plaintiffs' lawyer John O'Quinn. "These guys really wanted to do it," Morales said. "They are all millionaires. They are multi-millionaires. They've made plenty of money. I think their motivation was not so much making more as it was taking on this heretofore undefeated industry that had done so much damage to our state and to our nation and to our future over the course of the last 60 or 70 years. They viewed this sort of as I view it--as a mission--rather than just another lawsuit."

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