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Nico on defense

Attempts to cover his drug-dealing past dog the man who would unseat DA Susan Reed

Bryan Rindfuss
Bryan Rindfuss

 

Nicholas “Nico” LaHood is a product of San Antonio: son of a judge, graduate of Central Catholic High School and St. Mary’s University, and a former bit player in the city’s 1990s drug scene. Now, with star-studded fundraisers and high-profile backers, LaHood is out-raising 12-year veteran Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed and evolving into a credible election threat for the County’s top law-enforcement post.

“I think you find your true potential when you start living for other people,” LaHood says. After his 1994 drug arrest and the murder of his older brother two years after that, LaHood committed himself to putting his father’s mind at ease that the family, his mother Norma and younger brother Marc, would be safe if and when Nico should come to replace him as head of the family.

But part of his reformation has included efforts to destroy all evidence of the offense, beginning with a failed 1999 request for law enforcement and court documents to be expunged, or destroyed. While the machinations of his youth, like the drug arrest itself, may be easy for some to forgive, potential voters must still come to terms with LaHood’s most recent court filing, in which he attempted to eliminate the evidence of his botched erasure weeks after declaring his run for office.

LaHood has often used anecdotes about his arrest (and subsequent repentance) to inspire young people and legal clients, but had his efforts to have those records destroyed proved successful voters might never have known it was a felony-level arrest rather than a misdemeanor. Or that a handgun was involved. That he was dealing the party drug Ecstasy, rather than cocaine or heroin.

As LaHood well knows, the voting public’s perception of this 16-years-past crime will likely be the most important pivot on which his success or failure teeters. And while his inability to control the story has worked against him, the arrest may prove less interesting to voters than later efforts to suppress the residual documents.

The 37-year-old LaHood is poised and precise in his trademark suspenders when I meet him. He leans in close to accentuate key points, feigning a tap to my arm or shoulder before suddenly withdrawing. I’d been warned the young candidate might come across as overly produced or even slick. Like any lawyer worth their metaphorical salt, LaHood is an adroit manipulator of discourse. But he doesn’t monopolize. He engages and listens and reflects. LaHood’s style draws on another tradition, as well, one that precedes his legal training. In his senior year of high school, LaHood began studying Wing Chun, a martial art that demands fast advances, moving inside the reach of an opponent to throw well-timed punches and kicks, oftentimes simultaneously. “An attorney is a legal bodyguard to me, that’s the way I look at it,” he says.

Across the table, he hangs back while describing his decision to run for District Attorney (repeatedly citing a propelling “spirit of service”); well-worn stories of personal tragedy and triumph, and his love for his wife (whom he calls both “Mi Amor” and “True Love” during a seconds-long check-in during our interview). But when he begins painting his vision for dismantling Reed’s institution, he steps inside the strike zone and unloads statistic after statistic on our societal ills and resulting incarceration rates.

Eight in 10 Texas inmates are high-school dropouts, he says, which means it is incumbent on the County’s top law enforcer to help intercept juvenile offenders and put them back on track with their studies. “Lack of education means lack of opportunity; lack of opportunity means lack of hope; lack of hope equals crime,” he says. “Bottom line? We need to address education, and we need to do that at an early stage of the juvenile system.”

Of rehabbing non-violent offenders, he says there’s a 96-percent chance jailed offenders will continue to break the law after they are released. Handled through probation rather than incareration, that figure drops to 60 percent. And entered into one of Bexar County’s nationally recognized drug courts, the likelihood drops again, to 10 or 12 percent. “We have a very successful drug-court program here in Bexar County that is nationally recognized that is not getting the support from the DA’s office that it should. It’s not getting the funding. And it works.”

In a story published in March of this year, the Current reported that local felony and misdemeanor drug courts were seeing recidivism rates of between 8.5 percent and 17 percent, compared with a state-jail reincarceration rate of 33 percent for all inmates. A frequent criticism of Reed is her unwillingness to work more closely with the drug courts or allow for alternative styles of sentencing such as pre-trial diversion. For instance, it is policy at the DA’s office never to offer probation on a drug-dealing charge, regardless of whether it is a first, second, or third offense, said Assistant DA Cliff Herberg.

The point is, LaHood wants to get to the point, to the root, of crime.

“We have a justice system that’s set up to react. Someone gets charged with an allegation, you react to it. But we need a system that’s proactive about it,” he says. “And we have to analyze and evaluate with the community what are the root causes of crime, what’s making it rise.”

That attitude has bagged LaHood some attractive supporters. Conservative Republican developer Joey Guerra held a fundraiser for LaHood in the spring that drew a mix of Republicans and Democrats. “The key to Nico is he wants to apply what has happened to him in his life into the lives of others. What better candidate to have than a guy who has been arrested for drugs, who turned around his life, who found a higher calling during that process?” Guerra said. “I have a great respect for Susan Reed, but it’s time for a change.”

The son of successful and influential County Court-at-Law Judge Michael LaHood and a graduate of St. Mary’s University School of Law, LaHood has been practicing law in San Antonio for seven years. He’s been tapped for several years running as a “Rising Star” by Law and Politics Magazine, rankings that are published in Texas Monthly. He serves as a board member at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Center for Family Relationships, formerly San Antonio Kids Exchange. But this string of successes very nearly didn’t happen.

As the Current reported in November 2009, LaHood was arrested in 1994 on a charge of aggravated delivery of a controlled substance (201 capsules of Ecstasy) at a local nightclub. WOAI’s Brian Collister first secured the paperwork from the DA’s office in May, revealing the 21-year-old LaHood was conducting his business with a .32-caliber revolver, which he placed, wrapped in a towel, beneath the seat of his truck prior to the attempted deal with an undercover officer.

The charge could have resulted in up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Instead, Judge Sid Harle granted LaHood 10 years probation, 320 hours of community service, and a $1,000 fine, court records show. LaHood was not without gratitude, writing Judge Harle the year of his arrest: “I know I have embarrassed my family greatly, and it will take a long time for them to get over this. I committed a stupid mistake and have learned greatly from this. I have hopes of one day becoming an attorney, and when this day comes, I will again think of you and thank the Good Lord for your compassion towards me in this case.”

Though originally directed to do his community service through the City of San Antonio Parks & Recreation Department, LaHood was allowed to volunteer instead at St. George Maronite Catholic Church, where he performed Lebanese folk dance. In February 1996, after less than two years of supervision, LaHood was released from the terms of his probation.

LaHood says he doesn’t believe he received any preferential treatment, that he has been open (if not exactly specific) about his criminal history. And while he now says he wants voters to fully understand his old drug charge, he has exerted plenty of effort to bury it.

The motion to have his arrest record expunged was filed in 1999, the brief prepared by San Antonio attorney Baltazar “Walter” Serna Jr., an influential City Hall lobbyist and this year’s Rey Feo, and signed by LaHood. It stated that the original case against LaHood had been “dismissed because there was absence of probable cause,” which was not true. A successful expungement would have destroyed the documents. Such a motion is typically granted in cases of wrongful arrest. After District Attorney Susan Reed’s office recommended the request be denied, Serna withdrew it.

In 2005, however, LaHood sought and received non-disclosure status for his criminal records, which limited access to the records to law-enforcement agencies.

Then, a few weeks after declaring his candidacy in May 2009, LaHood filed another request: This time he wanted to erase his 1999 request for expungement. In this filing, Serna suggested the original petition was filed in error and argued, “The sealing of the records in this action will not have an adverse effect on the public health or safety, and the records do not involve matters that should be available to the general public.” The pair asked that this new request also be sealed.

Though they failed to provide a copy of the motion to the District Attorney’s Office, it was quickly granted in the 57th District Court on June 16, 2009. As Herberg emphasized to the Current: “This is after he’s announced his candidacy for office. So, here’s the guy who’s telling everybody once again, ‘I want everyone to know about this.’ And this is what he tells the court when he’s getting his secret order. That’s where I hammer him, because I don’t like his duplicity.”

In early 2010, a pair of open-records requests were filed with the DA (the first by a California-based consultant hired by LaHood’s campaign; the second by Collister) to excavate LaHood’s then-unavailable record. Reed’s office argued to the Texas Attorney General office that since LaHood failed to provide the DA with a copy of the motion for sealing the records, the documents held by them were not subject to it. In an April 2010 ruling, the Texas Attorney General succumbed to the DA’s argument, releasing much of the responsive documentation.

“I just really wonder who advised him to run for District Attorney and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about a conviction for selling drugs. … That won’t hurt you,” said San Antonio attorney Jay Brandon, author of Law and Liberty: A History of the Legal Profession in San Antonio. “It just seems poorly planned.”

Supporter Guerra agrees LaHood’s recent effort at secrecy was an error in judgment, but one anyone could have made. “I think that was probably a mistake on his part, but that’s a human thing that each and every one of us would do,” Guerra said. “There’s not a person running for office that doesn’t have something they’re embarrassed by. The problem with politics is just that: People start slinging mud rather than talking about the issues. There’s a lot of things that Nico could say about Susan Reed, but he hasn’t said any disparaging things about her.”

The public LaHood, the one who must work a room of prospective donors, speechify on a dime, and make nice with unkempt reporters, walks perception’s razor line. On the one hand, people rightfully resent anyone they feel has been able to game the system through family connections. On the other hand, even in prosecution-happy Texas, we still love our redemption stories. We enjoy the sense that, however irregularly it may happen, the system still works.

Whether it is raw ambition or LaHood’s “spirit of service” that drove him to file for office in the first place, the young attorney says he put himself through a rigorous self-evaluation before declaring his candidacy last year. “I asked, ‘Am I OK with myself? Because I guarantee they’re gonna criticize me. I’m going to be under a microscope. I’ll get ridiculed.’ I hope I can inspire people, motivate people, but I know there’s critics out there,” LaHood said. “So, I had to make that assessment — am I OK with myself? And the answer was yes, I am very OK with myself. … I’m definitely not proud of what I did years ago, but I am definitely proud of who I am today.”

Despite — or because of — his complicated past, LaHood resonates with San Antonians. San Antonio Spur Tony Parker and his wife Eva Longoria Parker hosted about 50 prospective donors at an intimate home fundraiser recently, pulling in an estimated $70,000 in one night, according to a source close to the LaHood campaign.

Spur Tim Duncan sank $22,000 into LaHood’s campaign, and his father Michael kicked in another $10,000, according to the candidate’s most recent campaign-finance report, helping turn a long shot into this season’s hot-ticket item. While Democrats have struggled for years to field a viable challenger against Reed, even today’s demoralized Bexar County Democratic Party, burned by a recent embezzlement case that has left the Party in disarray, hasn’t hindered LaHood. The attorney rung up $190,204.41 in donations this filing period alone, leaving him sitting on $229,685.12 in ready cash. Reed, by comparison, is nearly $25,000 lighter, with $205,679 in her campaign chest. Perhaps troubling the veteran candidate is the fact her trustiest weapon, Nico’s own past, long an open secret in SA’s legal circles, seems to have gone from sizzle to fizzle too quickly.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out,” LaHood said. “I knew what the attacks would be. I came to a decision that I’m comfortable in my skin. I know myself. I know what I want to do for this community.”

What will likely linger and chafe is his 2009 legal argument, made after he filed for office, that his court records “do not involve matters that should be available to the general public.” In a somewhat disjointed response this week, LaHood allowed, given the chance, he would have done it differently.

“Honestly, if I could go back now and think to myself, knowing that there was going to be an issue now … would I have done it? Of course not. … All I know is what I had in my heart. If I truly want to keep the whole thing a secret, I would have done the whole thing beforehand.” •

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