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

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