Other People’s Money

A man with big ambitions, Paul Rush bought his way into San Antonio society. Too bad the money he spent wasn’t his.

It was a humid evening during fiesta season in 1989, but the waiter at San Antonio’s Republic of Texas restaurant was not in a festive mood. A short, balding thirtyish man wearing a dark blue apron with the name “Paul” monogrammed on it, he became distracted, even flustered, when such passing VIPs as chamber of commerce head Joe Krier or Congressman Lamar Smith stopped to greet him before hurrying off as if pressing business awaited.

The waiter understood the reason for their discomfort all too well. Just weeks earlier, he had been wearing not a waiter’s apron but a custom-tailored pin-striped suit. As Frost National Bank’s most promising young vice president, Paul Adams Rush was being groomed for a top position. His ascent had been mercurial. In 1983 the local Jaycees had named Rush, then only 24, their Outstanding Young Man of San Antonio. A year later, he was on a first-name basis with the city fathers. By the late eighties, the loyal GOP team player and political fundraiser was the rising star in local Republican circles, and in 1988 his painstaking thoroughness won him the co-chairmanship of George Bush’s Bexar County presidential campaign.

Rush’s financial prospects seemed to be as stellar as his political ones. No matter what the occasion, Rush always had a supply of money. Despite his moderate $47,500-a-year salary, he attended GOP fundraisers at $1,000 to $2,500 a pop, got friends invited to Bush’s inauguration, and generously contributed to campaigns. He was such a soft touch that former Bexar County GOP chairman Lonnie Wulfe called him a “modern-day Robin Hood.”

Everyone assumed that Paul Rush would become a major behind-the-scenes operative, if he didn’t wind up in a prominent political office in Washington, D.C. But those luminous prospects were eclipsed on April 14, 1989, when Rush was summoned before a group of stone-faced bank officers and an auditor. Under close questioning, Frost Bank’s golden boy admitted that over three years he had systematically embezzled more than $500,000 from the bank. After being interrogated by the FBI, he was tried and convicted of misapplication of bank funds and willful tax evasion, and in September 1990 he began serving a 27-month sentence at a federal minimum-security facility in Millington, Tennessee.

What made Paul Rush do what he did? By the time he was 29, an age when most ambitious young men are still laying the groundwork for a career, Paul Rush had risen, peaked, and crashed. Granted, the eighties in Texas were a time of spectacular successes and equally spectacular failures, but even in that context, Rush’s rise and fall were stunning. Why did he self-destruct? Was it greed? Was it a lust for power? Did he become addicted to embezzling, like a gambler who can’t stop rolling the dice?

Among many of Rush’s detractors, the prevailing theory was blind ambition. They scoffed that his stealing from the rich was simply an attempt to buy social access and influence among the rich. They contended, as one bitter fellow banker put it, that Paul Rush was a “con artist who used his filthy lucre to become a big muckety-muck.”

But there was another, more forgiving theory. According to that scenario—summed up by George Ames, a real estate professional who is related by marriage to Rush’s wife—Rush stole not for money or power but because “he desperately wanted to be somebody—in a hurry.” He wanted to be part of a group that mattered to him very much. Those who had known him well understood that Rush was so desperate to change his image that he took a disastrous shortcut. It was Rush’s misfortune to come of age when Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky were culture heroes. Like too many people in that heady era, Rush believed that money could buy him friends.

Paul Rush had grown up in Dallas’ notoriously snobbish Park Cities area, a place that fueled his drive to excel and at the same time seemed to confirm his fear that he was a nobody. As a pudgy teenager at Highland Park High School, Paul was always in the shadow of his identical twin, Parker, who was everything Paul wasn’t. Handsome, thin, muscular, Parker was confident and popular with the girls, and in his senior year he was elected class president. Paul worked on the school newspaper and was a member of ROTC. He never had a steady girlfriend and rarely had a date; he was considered something of a nerd.

When Paul Rush moved to San Antonio to attend Trinity University in 1978, his immediate goal was to earn a business degree. But his hidden agenda was to make himself over. By the end of his freshman year, he had lost weight, become more outgoing, and been tapped by a popular fraternity, Chi Delta Tau. In due course, the new Paul Rush was elected president of his pledge class and became a member of the student senate, a resident assistant, and a vocal member of several campus committees. By his sophomore year, Rush had attracted the approving eyes of Trinity’s administration, especially those of the school’s president, Ron Calgaard. He became the administration’s darling, inspiring such trust that neither students nor faculty objected when he, as student body president, was allowed to sit in on committee meetings of Trinity’s board of trustees.

Despite the difference in their ages, Rush and Calgaard had many goals and interests in common. During Rush’s last semester, Calgaard was only too happy to call his good friend C. Linden “Corky” Sledge, the CEO of Frost Bank, and urge Sledge to hire his promising young protégé. Within a month of graduating in 1982, Rush was working at the bank as a credit analyst.

Rush worked hard, but he also understood that success meant putting in more than bankers’ hours. He cultivated his new boss as a mentor, just as he had Ron Calgaard, and he networked relentlessly. “His appointment calendar was really phenomenal to behold,” says a colleague. Most Saturdays, Rush labored at one campaign headquarters or another—doing nuts-and-bolts things

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