Earlier this year, Express-News business writer Patrick Danner set out to write a story about the rising number of oil and gas companies going bust in South Texas.
What he found instead was a bizarre saga about a bankrupt company accused of fraud and its hidden ties to Texas state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.
Danner’s tenacious digging offers a shining example of why traditional, shoe-leather reporting still matters in an age of Facebook feeds and Twitter handles. Thanks to the story, Express-News readers now know that the FBI is investigating the case, Uresti says he’s been interviewed as a witness, and the senator revised his state-mandated financial disclosure report.
These are the kinds of details that can’t be found in a Google search — unless you Google Danner’s blockbuster article.
I sat down with Danner to talk about how he got the story and the challenges he faced in reporting it.
Q: I thought I’d first ask you to describe your beat, since that explains how you found the story.
A: Sure. I cover civil courts, interesting civil litigation. Bankruptcy court, which is where I came across this. And banking. And that’s pretty much it.
Is that a goldmine for stories? I mean, it seems like you find some pretty interesting things that get litigated.
Yeah, I’m just attracted to conflict. And so I’m always going through cases just to see if there’s something there to chew on. In this particular instance, it was a bankruptcy filing that caught my eye. Because I was hearing about, you know, with the decline in oil prices, that there would be a lot of bankruptcy filings from companies operating in the Eagle Ford Shale. So I was keeping an eye out for those.
Then, within the span of a week or so, it seemed like there were four (bankruptcies) that were filed. They weren’t big names. But I thought I could use that as a spring board to do a story on the wave of bankruptcies in the Eagle Ford.
I’m just attracted to conflict. And so I’m always going through cases just to see if there’s something there to chew on”
So at this point you don’t even know of Uresti’s involvement. How did you find out about it?
I found out about Uresti’s involvement when I went to a creditors hearing in FourWinds’ bankruptcy.
Can you quickly describe what that is?
Sure. A creditors hearing is conducted by a bankruptcy trustee. The trustee asks the debtor certain questions. Tax returns, things like that. It’s fairly mundane stuff. But the interesting part of the creditors meeting is the creditors have an opportunity to ask questions. So there were attorneys there for different parties. And there was also an attorney on the phone who represented a woman who was suing FourWinds. And I knew nothing about this lawsuit. It was filed down in Cameron County. And apparently she was suing for fraud and I didn’t know any of this. But during the hearing, the attorney asked Stan Bates, the CEO of FourWinds, about his response to the lawsuit, which designated Carlos Uresti as a responsible third party. I had no idea what that meant, whether it was the state senator himself.
It definitely perked your interest, though.
Yeah, yeah, it got me certainly curious. So from there, the next thing I did was try to get a hold of that lawsuit down in Cameron County. I had to look up, what does that mean, a responsible third party? In essence, what it means is that Stan Bates was blaming the problems that FourWinds had on conflicts of interest that he alleged Uresti had.
So what’d you do after that?
Well, I was curious what exactly were those conflicts of interest. Well, I found out he represented a woman who invested in FourWinds. Her name was Denise Cantu. She invested $900,000. And it turns out that Uresti was her legal counsel in a wrongful death case where two of Denise Cantu’s children died.
That’s basically summed up in the lede of your story, which is a bombshell. I’ve never really considered what happens when somebody wins a lawsuit, and what do they do with that money? And it raises all kinds of questions about conflicts of interest when their lawyer gets involved. And oh, by the way, he’s making a commission off this.
Right. In this particular case, lawyers have certain obligations, rules they’ve got to follow. Uresti makes the point he was no longer her lawyer at the time he suggested she go see Stan Bates. And Denise Cantu testified that he didn’t advise her to put her money in FourWinds — but he did get a commission from her investment in FourWinds.
So at some point you have to interview Uresti. How did that go and do you have any tips about interviews that can get confrontational or can be difficult?
This particular interview wasn’t confrontational. Clearly I had to ask some tough questions. What I had done was basically gone through and written all my questions down. I don’t usually do that. But in a case like this, I want to make sure that I didn’t overlook anything.
This is pretty technical stuff, too.
Yeah. The funny thing was I had to call him back because I forgot to ask him a simple question. He got a $40,000 loan from FourWinds. And I had been hearing rumblings about where the money went. Fortunately he called me back. The question I forgot to ask was, what did you do with the money you had gotten from the $40,000 loan from FourWinds? So he did call me back and he answered that question. But I was knocking myself for forgetting to ask.
Can you describe how (Bexar County District Attorney) Nico Lahood got wrapped into this saga?
Yeah, he represented a gentleman by the name of Gary Cain. And from that trial, back in 2014, Cain was charged with four felony counts in a land deal involving Rackspace Hosting. Rackspace claimed it was ripped off by Gary Cain. Cain was found not guilty by a jury in July of 2014. Within a couple of months, he was brought on as a sort of a financial consultant with FourWinds, where he said he was helping raise financing for FourWinds.
Maybe I’m drawn to the dry stuff. I seem to find a lot of complicated stories. I just try to keep it simple as possible”
So one of the investors, Richard Thum, who is president of SA Five Star Cleaners, he felt like he had been ripped off by FourWinds. He told me that it was Gary Cain that recommended that Richard go see Nico LaHood and tell them what was going on at FourWinds. And so Richard Thum went to the DA’s office and met with Nico LaHood and his head of the criminal division. And they basically, according to Richard, expressed interest in the case. But they said to me that they advised him to go to the FBI. Richard did go to the FBI but he said he did it on his own. So the FBI took interest in the case and they’re looking into all this.
So now we have a couple politicians who are revising their financial statements.
Yeah. Uresti did go back and correct his financial disclosure form. And LaHood went back and corrected his after (Express-News columnist) Brian Chasnoff called and asked him why didn’t he disclose his business with Gary Cain?
You mentioned you’re drawn to conflict, and conflict makes for interesting stories. But there’s also a lot of legalese, a lot of dry information in these lawsuits. It’s complicated. How do you go about writing this and making this understandable?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m drawn to the dry stuff. I seem to find a lot of complicated stories. I just try to keep it simple as possible — in this case, leading with the human element of a woman losing two of her kids, and using the proceeds from the court settlement from the loss of her two kids to invest in this company. So that was the advice of my editor to do it that way.
Really, other than the top of the story, which got rewritten a few times, the rest of the story just kind of took it in a chronological order.
That’s probably one of the more helpful ways to approach it, right? Just walk through everything that happened.
Yeah, although we did put up high the stuff about not disclosing certain things in his financial disclosure forms. We wanted to get that high in the story to make it clear, you know, here are the issues. Then get into what went on.
But as far as bankruptcies go, I thought this was one of the juicier ones. Because you had a CEO who’s accused of basically spending money, flying in women, Victoria’s Secret, exotic cars, things that you don’t normally run across. So to me, I just thought, we’ve got different elements here that you don’t normally run across. Politicians. CEO accused of living a wild lifestyle. Things you don’t come across every day.
What’s next for Denise Cantu?
That’s a really good question because she’s got her lawsuit down in Cameron County. I had set up an interview with her, and then, basically at the last minute, her lawyers put the kibosh on it. Because of the pending litigation they didn’t want her speaking with me. So I don’t know.
Well, it was a great story man. Anything I didn’t ask that would be good to know?
No, I don’t think so. I certainly appreciate it. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on things but as far as FourWinds goes that’s pretty much over and done with. There’s nothing left to pick over.