On September 11, 1994, the fifth Profile in Courage Award was presented to U.S. Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, Chairman of the House Banking Committee, who launched a series of dramatic hearings on the savings and loan crisis, which resulted in far-reaching legislation to clean up the mess and reform the industry. Charles Keating was convicted of seventeen counts of fraud and sentenced to ten years in prison, and five U.S. Senators were later criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for intervening with regulators on Keating's behalf. Congressman Gonzalez was also cited for his political courage in investigating, regardless of the attempts to strip him of his committee chairmanship, the involvement of high-level officials in the Reagan and Bush Administrations in the sale of U.S. arms to Iraq before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He died in 2000.
At age 78, and with 41 years in public office, Henry B. Gonzalez, the Democratic Congressman from the 20th District in San Antonio, Texas, has distinguished himself as an outspoken voice for the voiceless, a battler for the embattled, and a politician of unwavering honesty, principle, and integrity. With his well-known insistence on ethical conduct, tireless pursuit of the truth, respect for the Constitution, and opposition to special interest groups, Congressman Gonzalez personifies the high purpose and value of public service.
Often referred to as a "maverick," Gonzalez has demonstrated political courage on many occasions by standing firm for causes he believes in, and risking the wrath of his colleagues in both parties with his refusal to "go along to get along." In 1989, Gonzalez risked censure and intense opposition from his colleagues and powerful interest groups when he unhesitatingly investigated both the savings and loan scandal and the sale of U.S. arms to Iraq.
In 1979, he predicted and spoke out against the impending crisis in the savings and loan industry, which he blamed on excessive deregulation. As early as 1982, he testified before his House colleagues that further liberalization of the thrift regulatory rules would have damaging long-term consequences for taxpayers. Despite his testimony and long hours of speeches via "Special Orders" (when the House floor is open to speeches on any issue), his warnings were largely ignored.
In December 1988, after 27 years as a member of the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, Gonzalez was elected as chairman. In January 1989, he began a series of hearings to address the underlying causes that led to the crisis in the savings and loan industry. Later that year, acting on evidence of improper handling of a failed thrift that was known to have serious problems, he intensified his investigation and held hearings into several failed thrifts and the improper intervention of lawmakers with federal banking regulators.
In December 1990, House Democratic colleagues launched a surprise challenge to Gonzalez's leadership and tried to strip him of his Banking Committee chairmanship. Gonzalez survived the challenge when the House Democratic Caucus voted 163 to 89 to retain him as chairman.
As a result of the hearings, Gonzalez succeeded in passing the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, considered to be among the most important financial legislation in 50 years. The hearings also led to the December 1989 resignation of Danny Wall, head of the Office of Thrift Supervision, who Gonzalez believed was responsible for allowing the crisis to reach such large proportions. In September 1990, Charles Keating, chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan in Irvine, CA, and a key target in the investigation, was indicted for defrauding 22,000 investors of more than $250 million. Keating was convicted of 17 counts of fraud, and in April 1992, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In addition, five senators were criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for their conduct in intervening with regulators on Keating's behalf.
Congressman Gonzalez also demonstrated political courage when he waged a vigorous and lonely battle to uncover the truth about the role of high-level officials in the Reagan and Bush Administration with Iraq, Italy's Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), and the U.S. Commodities Credit Corporation regarding U.S. arms sales to Iraq prior to the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
In 1989, Gonzalez learned about the role of the Atlanta, GA, branch of the BNL in extending an illegal multi-billion dollar line of credit to Iraq. When Gonzalez, as chairman of the House Banking Committee, proposed holding hearings on BNL to investigate whether foreign banks with branches in the U.S. were being adequately supervised, he was asked by high-ranking government officials to desist on the grounds of national security.
Despite the intense opposition of the Bush Administration and efforts by some House colleagues to censure him, Gonzalez pursued the "Iraqgate" investigation and discovered that, from 1986 to 1989, BNL used U.S. agricultural credits and illegal loans to help Iraq pursue nuclear and chemical weapons development and purchase military hardware leading up to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. As Gonzalez said,"...not only did our own service men and women face military material that had been exported from the U.S., the U.S. military itself relied on these Iraqi front companies for some of the military goods they used" during the Persian Gulf War.
Gonzalez began his career in public service as Chief Probation Officer in Bexar County, Texas from 1946 to 1950. From 1951 to 1953 he was Deputy Director of the San Antonio Housing Authority.
Gonzalez was first elected to public office in 1953 as a member of the San Antonio City Council, where he sponsored the ordinance that ended racial segregation in recreational areas. In 1956, he won election to the Texas Senate, becoming the first Mexican-American to hold a legislative seat. In his first session, he attracted wide attention with his 22 hour-long record-breaking filibuster against 13 segregation bills. He defeated eight of the 13 bills; another was later found unconstitutional.
He ran unsuccessful races for Texas governor in 1958 and the U.S. Senate in 1961. Later in 1961, he ran for Congress in a special election after President Kennedy appointed the incumbent to a federal judgeship. Vice President Lyndon Johnson campaigned for Gonzalez and he won 55 percent of the vote. He has been re-elected to office every two years since then, usually running unopposed and never with less than 60 percent of the vote.
Gonzalez has been a member of the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs since 1962. Since 1981, he has been chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development. He also served for many years as a member of the House Small Business Committee, but relinquished membership after being elected in December 1988 as chairman of the Banking Committee.
Gonzalez has worked tirelessly to obtain federal grants and loans for housing, hospitals, schools, federal buildings and military bases. His major legislative achievements include the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990, and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 on the savings and loan industry .
Gonzalez has received several awards, including the 1993 Amicus Award from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America for his "leadership in sounding the alarm about the looming crisis in the savings and loan industry," a 1993 "Lifetime" Achievement Award presented by the Minority Law Student Association of St. Mary's University School of Law for his "lifetime achievements and commitment to the Hispanic community," and the 1993 Philip Hart Public Service Award from the Consumer Federation of America "in recognition of consistent and courageous defense of the public interest."
Born in San Antonio in 1916, Gonzalez graduated from St. Mary's University School of Law, where he received LL.B. and J.D. degrees. He also attended San Antonio Junior College and the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied civil engineering. In 1965, Gonzalez received an honorary doctor of law degree from St. Mary's and later was made a member of the Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity. Henry Barbosa Gonzalez died of a heart attack in San Antonio, Texas, on November 28, 2000.