The first time I met Gordon Hartman was over breakfast at the late and legendary El Mirador restaurant. Hartman is now a semi-retired developer and philanthropist whose Morgan’s Wonderland has gained international fame as an imaginative and innovative amusement park for special-needs children.
But our breakfast back in the mid-1990s wasn’t about that. It was about corruption and courage. A candidate on the 2019 city ballot for the District 6 council seat named Bobby Herrera was a relatively minor player, but the corruption went considerably higher and broader in those days.
At the age of 32, Hartman was already something of a homebuilding veteran. He had built his first house in Kenwood, a black neighborhood on the near North Side, at the age of 19. He then built 12 duplexes near Edison High School, and in his mid-20s, he built 22 houses in a City-sponsored project in Vista Verde, just west of downtown. Then he built Los Jardines, a successful subdivision of 87 houses for working-class residents on the West Side north of Kelly Air Force Base.
By the time of that breakfast he had, like homebuilders before him, graduated into larger, more profitable houses in Alamo Heights, Fair Oaks, and The Dominion. But he was working on a project that would take him back to his roots. He had talked an elderly woman into selling him a 44-acre farm inside Loop 410 near John Jay High School.
He had already platted a subdivision of 270 homes designed for a huge and underserved portion of the San Antonio market: people who work hard but don’t make much money. The San Antonio Credit Union (now Credit Human) had agreed to provide mortgages. SACU had worked with Hartman before, and had developed a successful mortgage program for people with modest incomes. Hartman had also lined up downpayment assistance and grants for credit counseling from a Dallas philanthropist.
Now Hartman had a problem. He was seeking an $800,000 City grant for infrastructure, and at first the councilman for that area, Bobby Herrera, was enthusiastic.
“If I could get this done, I’d be king,” Herrera told Hartman. But without explanation Herrera had gone cold. He was not returning Hartman’s phone calls.
Hartman thought he knew why. He gave me a copy of a letter from Walter Martinez, a former city councilman who became a lobbyist, proposing that Hartman hire him to help get the grant. The fee: Martinez would get $285,000 out of the $800,000 grant. Hartman was surprised. As councilman, Martinez had been very helpful on Hartman’s Los Jardines project in his district. And Hartman hadn’t needed a lobbyist.
When Hartman declined, Herrera went incommunicado. Herrera was not exactly a model councilman. This wasn’t his first scandal. He had been involved in a late-night confrontation with police investigating a fight between two female employees at a strip club, telling the officers he was a councilman and would handle it. He had also denied the paternity claims of a pregnant woman. Tests showed him wrong. The woman said he first told her to get an abortion, and then had to be sued for child support.
But what makes this ugly story uglier is what happened when Hartman sought help from higher-ups. Councilman Juan Solis was chairman of the council’s housing task force. Solis knew the quality of Hartman’s work. He not only had been an aide to Martinez during the development of Los Jardines, he had been one of the first to buy one of the houses. (Herrera’s sister and her family also owned one.) But Solis led the task force in giving Hartman a cold shoulder.
So Hartman sought a meeting with Mayor Bill Thornton together with Solis and Herrera. Joining Hartman was Paul Piper, the Dallas philanthropist. Piper was astounded by Thornton’s handling of the issue. Solis and Herrera didn’t show up, and Thornton told Piper he had gotten involved “with the wrong developer,” one who didn’t know how to work with City Hall.
“He spoke very rudely of him, and Mr. Hartman was with us in the room,” Piper told me. Piper clearly was angry with the political game being played.
In the end, Piper declined a grant for another city project – in Solis’s district – in disgust.
“If politics stand in the way of a single parent having a home with her child, that’s pretty lousy,” Piper said.
Thornton didn’t get it. After Hartman came to me with the story, Thornton actually went on a radio talk show and blasted Hartman, suggesting that Hartman was trying to fleece the City, but expressing no concern about Martinez’s apparent $285,000 shakedown attempt.
Hartman sought exposure because he wanted to get things done. He did, too. He got his new project built with help from the Dallas philanthropist, but no government help. And maybe he played a role in both Thornton and Herrera being defeated in the next election. Frankly, though, both already were in electoral trouble.
It took courage for Hartman to blow the whistle. Few businessmen do. It’s too dangerous to their bottom line.
A footnote: Another developer, having read my columns on Hartman, came forward and gave me details of how he had met with a councilman and his entourage at the old Earl Abel’s restaurant. The councilman sat silent while a relative explained that the councilman worked hard for the people, but was paid only $20 a week. As a result, the councilman got 10 percent of all grants.
The developer paid, taking an envelope full of cash for a handoff to the Plaza Club, where the mayor and some council members regularly had lunch with business leaders.
The developer told me these details on the condition that I would write the story only if he wouldn’t get in trouble. I couldn’t. He had committed a felony.
But some time later those details, lightly disguised, became a chapter called “How to Bribe a Councilman” in a novel called Milagro Lane by San Antonio lawyer and accomplished author Jay Brandon. I have often wondered if that councilman ever read the novel, which ran as a serial in the San Antonio Express-News. If not, it’s available on Amazon and at the San Antonio Public Library.