Ex-banker seeks pardon

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN – Lady Bird Johnson is among a group of well-known individuals, including Walter Cronkite, waging a behind-the-scenes campaign seeking President Clinton's pardon of a convicted bank swindler and one-time big Democratic campaign donor.

The petition to wipe clean former Austin banker Ruben Johnson's criminal slate has angered federal authorities who helped convict him – as well as the judge who sentenced him to eight years in prison in 1989. He was released in 1994.

Mr. Johnson's lawyer, Denise Tomlinson of Austin, confirmed that the former first lady and Mr. Cronkite, the longtime CBS anchorman, are among a number of "prominent" people who have written the Justice Department in support of a pardon.

Now 70, Mr. Johnson was convicted on federal charges of taking more than $100,000 in kickbacks from a contractor doing finishing work for tenants in the downtown Austin building housing his bank, United Bank.

In addition to his prison sentence, Mr. Johnson was ordered to pay $4.6 million in restitution to the federal government for losses suffered by the bank, which failed in the wake of the case. He was also ordered to pay a $65,000 fine.

He later declared bankruptcy.

Mr. Johnson, known for his taste in fine antiques, was one of the top contributors to Democratic candidates in Texas in the 1980s.

In 1989 alone, he personally contributed more than $100,000 to Democrats across the ticket and approved millions more in loans to their political campaigns, records show. He also made a home loan to Ann Richards, who as state treasurer directed millions in state deposits to his bank.

Mr. Johnson lent Garry Mauro $228,000 for his 1982 campaign for state land commissioner, records show. Mr. Mauro put Mr. Johnson on the land office payroll after his release from prison.

A millionaire at the time, Mr. Johnson made his jet readily available to Democratic candidates in the '80s.

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents declined to comment publicly on Mr. Johnson's pardon petition. But they have privately told acquaintances that they are infuriated by the effort to cleanse his record.

U.S. District Judge James R. Nowlin of Austin, a Republican appointee who presided over Mr. Johnson's trial, fired off a blistering letter last year opposing the pardon.

In the letter, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, the judge said pardoning Mr. Johnson would be "ludicrous" considering the nature of his crime.

Mr. Johnson, he wrote, has shown "little or no remorse" for his misdeeds "and has failed to pay any significant part of the restitution to victims ordered by the court."

Judge's opinion

"If Misapplication of Funds by a bank officer who happens to have been active in his political contributions and activities is considered acceptable conduct by the Executive Branch then perhaps a Pardon should be granted," the judge wrote.

"Should the Executive Branch believe in equal justice for all then this application should be rejected."

The petition is pending in the Justice Department, which, after its review, will send it on to the president with a recommendation, said officials in Washington.

Mr. Clinton, however, is free to grant the pardon even if Justice officials recommend against it.

Betty Tilson, a spokeswoman for Ms. Johnson, said the former first lady and Mr. Johnson – no relation – have known each other for years.

"He is a good friend of hers. She thinks very highly of him," she said.

Mr. Cronkite's office in New York said he was unavailable for comment.

Ms. Tomlinson, Mr. Johnson's attorney, said he didn't want to talk about the petition because he didn't think it proper.

"I don't think Ruben would like to appear as if he is putting his case in the paper. I don't think he thinks that is the proper way to handle it," she said.

Ms. Tomlinson said Mr. Johnson is jobless and, though he has limited resources, has faithfully made minimal payments to the court.

"He is living on Social Security," she said.

Mr. Johnson was allowed to keep the home in which he has lived for several decades in one of Austin's most exclusive neighborhoods, Old Enfield. The 8,700-square-foot home is valued at $840,000, according to Travis County tax records.

Ms. Tomlinson said the restitution order against her client was "blatantly illegal" in that he was ordered to pay restitution for things for which he wasn't charged or convicted.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal on a "technicality," she said.

Ms. Tomlinson said Mr. Johnson has long been a friend to those who have offered support and is a pillar of the community.

"He's known Lady Bird Johnson and Walter Cronkite and many other prominent people for years and years," she said. "He's done a lot for the community."

Ms. Tomlinson said she is convinced that Mr. Johnson has been mistreated by the judicial system.

"He has just completely impressed me with his integrity, so much so that I have basically kind of taken up his cause," she said. "I really believe in him."

Lady Bird's support

This is not the first time Ms. Johnson has come to Mr. Johnson's defense.

Three years ago, she wrote a letter supporting Mr. Mauro's appointment of Mr. Johnson to a job with the land office that paid $61,343 annually.

Mr. Mauro, who managed both of Mr. Clinton's presidential campaigns in Texas, said he hasn't talked to the president about the pardon.

"I'm not going to talk to the president about anything until after the election," he said.

He also said that Mr. Johnson has suffered enough and should be left alone.

"He's not a public figure anymore," Mr. Mauro said.