Best of 2008 » Best of 2007 » Best of 2006 » Best of 2005 » Best of 2004 »

Originally published in The Dallas Observer.


The Sins of the Father

Cantankerous, proud and devoted to helping immigrants, Father Justin Lucio's singleminded sense of duty led to overblown charges of "scandal"

On the day his name first appeared in the news, Father Justin Lucio had no reason to believe that it would be there at all. He was sitting at his desk, completing paperwork that would help an undocumented immigrant become legal. This was in 1984, when one afternoon a 30-year-old Mexican named Fermina Vasquez sat down in front of him and said, “Father, I came so that you could prepare me for my death.”

Lucio has a habit of listening to someone while performing some unrelated task. “My head is one thing, and my hand is another,” he likes to joke, but the request prompted him to put down his pen.

“What?” he asked.

“I want you to prepare me for my death,” the young widow and mother insisted. “I’m a dialysis patient. I’m here illegally, and I went to Parkland, and they told me that they weren’t going to treat me anymore. I’m using up a machine that belongs to a U.S. citizen.” At that time, only three cities in Mexico offered dialysis, and the closest was 250 miles from Vasquez’s hometown. Parkland had found out that she was using a friend’s Social Security card to get free treatment, and if she was deported, she was as good as dead.

“She’s lying,” Lucio thought. “That isn’t possible.”

So he called Parkland Memorial Hospital, thinking that whoever picked up the line would say, “Father, Fermina’s pulling your leg! We never said that.”

“That’s basically correct what she told you,” the person from Parkland said.

“How can you treat a person like that when we don’t even treat animals like that?” Lucio demanded. “If you people hit a dog, you stop and you render aid and take him to the vet. How can you do this to a human being?” He hung up the phone.

“I told you so,” Vasquez said. “Will you now prepare me for my death?”

“Let’s see if the community of Dallas will send you to your death,” he said, and then called his first news conference.

In those days, Lucio didn’t brood when he prayed. God has always been more like a friend to him than an aloof, white-bearded supreme being. “I consider him at the same level with me,” he says. “‘You put me on this earth, you gave me an intelligence, I can do it by myself,’” Lucio still tells God. “That probably gets me in trouble.” God occasionally must use harsh language to deal with him. “Shit!” he says God once yelled at him. “I’m here! Stop fucking around!”

Like Vasquez was, Lucio is damaged and dying. He is 61 and has had three heart attacks in the last three and a half years; he receives dialysis treatments three times a week. But 20 years ago, when his head didn’t shake, he could stare Vasquez down before he called in the media and say, “Fermina, do you have anything else to tell me? Everything you’re telling me, this is your life?”

It was a good question, because as Lucio would later find out, Vasquez had not told all of the truth. The news that night in Dallas was that an illegal immigrant had been denied medical treatment at Parkland; even the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service had told Lucio that they wouldn’t lay a hand on an immigrant whom they knew would die if deported. “It was one of the few times I was able to get the Hispanic and Anglo communities fighting a common cause,” Lucio says.

Unfortunately for Vasquez, authorities later learned that in 1983 she had agreed to store four pounds of marijuana at her apartment for a friend. She told Lucio that when the cops arrived, he flew out the back door, leaving her to foot the bill. Vasquez was sent back to Mexico, where she died from an infection in a Mexico City hospital two months after she was deported.

For the rest of that decade, when he was also the pastor at St. James Church in Oak Cliff, Lucio’s name popped up whenever the subject of immigration became news in Dallas. “He was a Cesar Chavez-type priest,” says Adelfa Callejo, an attorney who used to lead demonstrations with him. After he moved to Dallas in 1979, Lucio began conducting immigration seminars, where he would tell the undocumented how to become legal. Immigration attorney Margaret Donnelly, who would attend his seminars and advise his audiences on legal issues, recalls that he would tell the crowds, “‘You have to do something about your immigration status because, as you know, we Mexicans are pisados, stepped on. You have to fight back, you have to fight back.’

“I know he would mean it by becoming informed, by fixing your immigration status,” Donnelly says, “but it didn’t come across that way sometimes.” She warned him not to tell the immigrants that Dallas is full of racists. “Don’t say this city is not kind to the Chicano!” she admonished him. But Lucio, Donnelly says, “doesn’t listen to advice.”

Lucio’s strident self-assurance has often served him well: when he fought for Vasquez, for example, or in 1989, when he founded Casita Maria, a nonprofit center in Oak Cliff that became the largest charitable immigration agency in North Texas, counseling up to 22,000 immigrants a year about their legal status at little or no cost to them. Spurred on by a keen sense of social justice and what he regards as the spiritual honor of serving the poorest of the poor, Lucio could be found working “from dawn sometimes until midnight,” says Juan Campos, the Oak Cliff artist who painted a mural of him at Casita Maria. “There’s no question about the fact that his heart was in the right place,” Callejo says. “There’s no question that he served the community. It ruined his health, that’s for sure.”

It is perhaps the strangest irony of Lucio’s life that someone who strived to serve the poor would one day be accused of stealing from them. Early last year, The Dallas Morning News published a series of allegations against Lucio: He and other top administrators at Casita Maria had used the money that immigrants paid to the agency and lavished it on themselves, the paper said. The News also resurrected a 1989 sexual scandal involving Lucio, asserting that two Mexican immigrant brothers had accused Lucio of forcing them to have sex with him. Spurred on by the articles, the attorney general of Texas investigated Casita Maria’s financial operations and found that although the accounting procedures were unacceptably lax, Lucio had not, in fact, knowingly stolen anything from Casita Maria. Despite that, Lucio was eventually fired from Casita Maria and was issued a court order barring him from the charity.

Lucio and a number of people who know him say that the scandals are the logical consequence of fighting for the pisado immigrant community. But while some may dislike Lucio because of the people he champions, it’s difficult to believe the nonprofit was taken from him simply because of his political advocacy. The same qualities that make Lucio a worthy champion for someone like Fermina Vasquez—his nervy eloquence, his resolve to fight until he can’t fight anymore, his defiant naïveté that people will do right—are the same qualities that cause people to say he is cantankerous, too militant and stubbornly unrealistic. What Lucio sees as a mission—that Latino immigrants should be able to become legal residents at no great cost to themselves—is an uncompromising obsession, and that has often damaged his cause.

“Father Lucio is his own worst enemy,” more than one person told me. He worried more about his obsession than the running of his nonprofit, so it was taken away from him. Stripped of his accreditation to counsel immigrants, he is still mustering all his strength to continue his fight. “He kind of goes through life by his temper,” Lucio’s lawyer, Michael Thomas, says. “I think there’s a real good heart there, but I also think there’s a very jaded, secular side he has as well, almost as though he’s above the rules of the church.”

Lucio grew up on San Antonio’s poor west side and recalls not speaking English regularly until he was 12 or 13, when his father found work in the car factories in Michigan and moved his family there. In San Antonio, Lucio would go to the bars on the west side and shine shoes, where he remembers seeing “degradation” because the bars were “the only avenue that my people had to find some type of supposed ‘happiness.’” The Anglos he saw growing up were usually policemen. “The police would stop the person, and I remember them lowering their heads,” he says. “I said to myself at that time, ‘I don’t know how, but I will never lower my head to the police or to any person in authority.’”

Even as a child, Lucio possessed a deep sense of honor and pride that affects him today. This summer, when he was in court trying to wrest retirement funds from Casita Maria’s current management, his wounded sense of honor would get in the way of his own cause. He needed the $5,000 that was being offered to him that day, and the man who had the power to give it to him asked for the routing number of his bank account so he could wire the money. “They’ve already got all this stuff. They’re making me jump through hoops,” Lucio complained to Thomas, his lawyer. “‘Yeah, Father, I know they are,’” Thomas recalls telling him, “‘but sometimes it’s easier to jump through the hoops than it is to fight.’ And his whole life has been geared at fighting, no matter what the consequences.”

In the late ’50s, when he was at a religious boarding school in Michigan run by the Holy Cross Brothers, Lucio thought that he had left all that boozy happiness behind in the San Antonio bars. The Franciscan brothers who taught there “didn’t have a sense of being false in their happiness,” he says. “I wanted to know where they got their happiness from, and that’s what attracted me most to the religious life.” Soon, however, he would discover that religion is “a system, too, and that in its own sense, there was also a lot of humiliation.”

At one point while attending Assumption Seminary in Chaska, Minnesota, Lucio lived in a friary on the same block in St. Paul as the governor of Minnesota’s house. “Their rationale for it was that the poverty area began on our side of the street,” Lucio says. “But there was nothing poor about that.” One day Lucio was teaching a group of teenagers from the ghetto, and one of them asked to see the friary. When the student showed up, Lucio gave him “the spiel,” as he says, that the Franciscans distinguished themselves from the other orders by vowing to live in poverty. Lucio was walking up the stairs with his student behind him when the teenager tugged on Lucio’s clothes and said, “You don’t believe that shit.”

“No, I don’t believe that shit,” Lucio admitted.

“OK, that’s good,” the student said, and they continued the tour.

The awakening that the teenager provoked in Lucio never quite died. It caused problems for him in 1972, after he was ordained and sent to San Jose Mission, a Franciscan ministry in Carlsbad, New Mexico. He didn’t last long there. This time, the friary was in a poor part of town; the problem for Lucio was that the friary was sumptuous while all around it were the simple adobe homes of the people the brothers were there to serve. The pastor of the mission had a pool installed in the back yard of the friary, saying that it was there for the use of the entire community. But a 7-foot wall surrounded the pool, and there were no gates for neighbors to enter. So Lucio confronted the pastor. “Why do we have a pool when no one else has one?” he asked.

“It’s for the community,” the pastor said.

“OK, I can accept that,” Lucio said. “Now why is the only door to the back yard accessible through the friary? Are you going to allow all the community to go through the friary and through the back yard?”

The pastor looked at him for a moment and said, “Whatever you may think, it is for the community,” but Lucio says he never saw a non-brother use it. He asked the pastor if he could live a life of radical poverty, out among the poor, but the pastor said that it would be against the rules of the order for him to live alone.

So he returned to San Antonio, where he worked as a counselor for eight years before becoming an assistant pastor at St. Mary Parish in Fort Worth. By 1979, he was in Dallas, where he worked for the Dallas Housing Authority for less than a year, for Catholic Charities’ immigration office and then at St. James.

By 1986, Lucio had established himself as the area’s most outspoken advocate for immigrants. The Reagan administration had just ushered in an immigration reform so overhauling that it has become known by its shorthand, “the amnesty.” It allowed illegal immigrants who could prove that they had lived for five years in the United States to stay here.

When amnesty was first announced, Lucio was ecstatic because Catholic bishops had made a joint announcement that the church was going to be “at the forefront” of the daunting work of legalizing all the immigrants who would be applying. He thought, “Shit, you can’t beat that,” and soon assembled a group of immigration attorneys and nonprofit agencies called the North Texas Immigration Watch Committee to pressure the INS to clarify the jumble of contradictory messages it had been dispensing to immigrants and their employers.

Lucio roamed North Texas in the mid-’80s, conducting seminars for huge crowds of the undocumented. Wherever he spoke, he took immigration attorneys with him. At Immaculate Conception in Grand Prairie, “we paraded with an effigy of the Virgin of Guadalupe and all those roses,” attorney Alicia Guevara-Burkman remembers. “It was so emotional to walk in and see probably 500 people there to listen to Father Lucio. They loved him. Of course, he was not going to preach about God; he was going to talk about amnesty. He spoke in Spanish, and he was very good and charismatic—very straightforward and direct.”

But he is also what Guevara-Burkman calls “non-conformist.” After three meetings of the North Texas Immigration Coalition (its new, less alarmist name), Lucio declared that the area’s immigration attorneys should stop charging excessive fees and devise one basic cost for what he optimistically referred to as “a simple amnesty case.” Lucio estimated that there were going to be 200,000 cases to process in North Texas during amnesty, and for lawyers “to be quibbling over ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that’ is utter nonsense,” he told the Morning News in March 1987.

When Lucio laid down the gauntlet to the lawyers, the rift caused the cancellation of two seminars that had been planned for immigrants. Two months after he first announced that lawyers were charging excessive fees, he quit the group for good, saying, “I was not going to be sitting at a table with an attorney who is charging [immigrants] $1,000.”

The rift was another sign of Lucio’s mercurial, obsessive side. “See, he had no business dictating to attorneys what our fees should be,” says Adelfa Callejo, who was a member of the coalition. “If a person wants to come to a private immigration attorney and not go to [a nonprofit], that is not his affair, and he ought to be happy because that’s one more poor person who gets served. But that wasn’t his attitude.”

One way to get around lawyers’ fees was simply to do the work himself. In 1989, he and Joe Granados, a longtime friend who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico City, founded Casita Maria, a nonprofit center where Latino immigrants apply for green cards or citizenship at reduced cost or often for free.

Casita Maria, located in a sprawling old house in Oak Cliff, is a bustling place crowded with expectant and anxious immigrants who often wait hours to get a consultation. Televisions tuned to Spanish news or Mexican soap operas are set up in the expansive waiting room. On both sides of Casita Maria’s wide staircase are evocative murals that, on one side, depict the mechanisms of Latino immigration: trucks blazing down highways, the unrelenting Rio Grande, and above them, an immigration judge banging his gavel as he orders someone to leave the country.

The opposite wall depicts Lucio and Margaret Donnelly being interviewed before TV cameras; Lucio seated in a pulpit chair that resembles a throne; Lucio pointing a finger against his naysayers. Juan Campos, the murals’ creator and a former member of Casita Maria’s board, envisions Lucio as vigorously fending off all kinds of attackers. “He wakes up in the morning to fight,” Campos says. “He is like a quixotic spirit fighting against the windmills. He may never win, but he never gives up.”

After Lucio and Casita Maria’s top administrators were accused of taking money from the charity, a number of people—investigators, reporters and immigration attorneys—questioned why a priest, who is supposed to be humble, would allow a mural that seems to be an homage to him. Both Campos and Lucio say that they didn’t discuss the details of the murals before they were painted, but after they were completed, Lucio asked Campos about the images of him. “He said that the way my life has been of service to the community that I had had enemies, I had had accusations, and he wanted to visualize a concrete image of how that was represented,” Lucio says.

Casita Maria was never an arm of the local diocese, but because Lucio was its executive director and for a long time the chairman of its board, its religious underpinnings have always been forceful. Between the two murals, on the landing of the staircase, is an altar dedicated to the Virgen Maria de Guadalupe. A wooden banner above her proclaims in vibrant red Spanish letters that she is the Mother of Immigrants. The staircase landing is where Lucio would go to pray to the Virgin Mary. The last time he went to her for help was about five months ago, when it became clear that he would be fired from Casita Maria and issued a temporary restraining order to keep away from it. “Why is this happening to me?” he asked her. “Our Blessed Mother,” he prayed, “I dedicated this to you from the very beginning. You know all the work that has been accomplished through you and through us to legalize the immigrants, and it’s in your hands. I can’t do anymore; I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Lucio founded Casita Maria because it gave him an opportunity to work with the poor, but it also gave him an escape route from the Dallas diocese, which he spoke out against when he believed the bishop at the time, Thomas Tschoepe, was not disbursing funds to the city’s poor Hispanic Catholics. Casita Maria also gave the local diocese an escape route from Lucio.

When the Morning News began publishing allegations about Lucio in early 2003, one of the complaints was that, in addition to embezzling money from immigrants, Lucio had been “credibly” accused of forcing two men to have sex with him. In 1989, a parishioner from St. James named Charles Wilson took two immigrant brothers from Mexico—Lucio’s friend Joe Granados’ brothers—to the diocese because he said they had told him that Lucio coerced them into sex. According to court depositions, after Wilson brought the two Granados brothers forward with their accusations, Bishop Tschoepe and one of the diocese’s monsignors had a meeting with Lucio in March 1989. The bishop (who now has Alzheimer’s and “doesn’t know if he’s in heaven or hell,” as Lucio puts it) wanted him to admit that he was gay, had raped a woman, had embezzled money from the church and had AIDS. “If you keep quiet,” Lucio testified Tschoepe told him, “I will get you the best medical help available.”

Lucio insisted that he hadn’t done any of those things and didn’t have AIDS. Joe Granados stood by him, believing that his brothers’ claims were false, a decision that has left him estranged from them. Lucio would later say in one deposition that he was “hauled in and just thrown out of my ministry and my parish.” Three months after the March meeting, he staged a hunger strike, which lasted for seven days, at the recently opened Casita Maria. “I felt that God had turned his back on me,” Lucio recalls. “Without sharing it with anybody, I had decided that if God didn’t resolve this, then I was going to see him. And he did resolve it for me.”

Believers say that God works in mysterious ways: Lucio’s longtime political ally, Callejo, ended the fast, publicly chastising Tschoepe for ignoring it. “Are you a good shepherd for all Catholics or only some of them?” she asked. “Because you’ve got one that’s dying over here.” The next morning, the bishop showed up at Casita Maria and, Lucio says, asked for his forgiveness. “He looked at me laying down there, and he says, ‘I want you to eat something in my presence,’” Lucio recalls, so he ate a little piece of bread and told the bishop that he wanted his help in growing Casita Maria.

It was, as the Morning News reported at the time, an “emotional reconciliation,” and although at the time the bishop announced that the allegations against Lucio had been “unsubstantiated” and the diocese never disciplined him, by December of that year the bishop still had not assigned him to a new parish or given him funds to support Casita Maria. “Our position was that after those allegations were resolved, Lucio wanted his sole mission to be the development of a service center for Hispanic immigrants,” the diocese’s spokesman, Bronson Havard, says. The diocese put him on an $800-a-month salary without the room and board dispensed to active parish priests. Lucio, however, was as active as any other priest in the diocese, holding makeshift outdoor worship services in garages and alleyways. “If the man is under a tree, we go under the tree,” one of Lucio’s followers told the Morning News.

By early 2003, however, when America was in the throes of hysteria about abusive Catholic priests, the facts—that Lucio was never found guilty and the diocese had never disciplined him—were not an indication that he might be innocent but that he had somehow evaded censure.

Miguel Granados refuses to talk about the scandal, and his brother Enrique could not be located. Lucio claims that the brothers accused him because he refused to sign their applications for citizenship. Doing so would have forced him to lie, he says.

The Morning News did not quote testimony Lucio gave about an encounter with one of the Granados brothers: Enrique, Lucio said, acknowledged that he had been sent to tape-record Lucio confessing to the affair. Lucio told Enrique that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

“And as I was going to approach him he took out a tape recorder and… I believe he said, ‘I was sent to tape-record you.’ And then he ripped it up. He said, ‘I can’t do this to you.’”

A more dramatic occurrence was yet to come: Lucio sued Wilson, the parishioner who had brought the issue forward, for libel. “I’m not seeking to recover any money,” Lucio said when asked by Wilson’s attorneys exactly what he wanted. “I never got a clear vindication from the authorities. I want my name cleared.” Lucio says he ran out of money as the suit dragged on, so he dropped it. “I was looking at about three or four years [of legal activity],” Lucio says. “I was just starting Casita Maria, and I wanted to continue on with my life.” (Wilson declined to comment.)

Lucio prayed to the Virgin Mary that day at Casita Maria five months ago because he was distraught on more than one account. The Morning News had printed a series of articles asserting that Lucio “charged [immigrants] millions for help while spending large sums on real estate, cars and other purchases that benefit him and his associates.”

The News’ list of financial grievances against Casita Maria was lengthy: Casita Maria’s administrators had amassed “a small fleet of automobiles,” the paper said, a problem since transportation was not one of the services the nonprofit offered to its clients. The Morning News uncovered Casita Maria’s board of directors bestowing loans to its own members. Instead of soliciting grants and donations from outside sources, as the federal government requires for a charity accredited by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Casita Maria depended on income generated by the thousands of immigrants who went there seeking help. (Casita Maria charged a $30 donation for helping an immigrant renew a green card, for example, while Catholic Charities charges $50.)

Using that income, Lucio and David Villatoro, a maintenance worker from El Salvador, had bought a house in DeSoto in 2001 for $170,000. Two months later, the title of that property was switched over to Casita Maria, and the two men were allowed to live there for $10 a month in rent, approved by Casita’s board.

In 1997, $42,000 in cash and $6,000 in gold jewelry was stolen from Casita Maria’s safe, a theft that remains unsolved, even though there were no signs of forced entry into Casita Maria or the safe and only one employee was entrusted with the combination. Because Lucio was the executive director of Casita Maria and also the chairman of its board, he elected to give himself and three other chief administrators $10,000 bonuses each in 2001, and $3,500 for every other employee, because they had all worked well and hard, they decided.

In an editorial about the resurrected sex scandal and the new financial allegations, the News wrote that Casita Maria was guilty of “rank and sickening corruption, of glaring mismanagement and of mercenary mistreatment of vulnerable people whom the charity was established to serve.” Lucio’s behavior was “morally repugnant,” and Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann “must resign so that a new bishop can have a chance to clean up the diocese’s mess.”

It is no surprise that Lucio now says that the articles were “extremely damaging.” The Morning News, however, had a reason to suspect that financially shifty things were taking place at Casita Maria. Its 2001 tax return stated that $141,702 had been spent that year by Casita Maria on automobiles alone.

But then something unexpected happened: Five months after the News’ articles about Casita Maria’s finances appeared, the Texas Attorney General’s Office concluded that although “there have been several instances of impropriety in the operations of Casita Maria,” they were “largely the result of unfamiliarity with charitable, nonprofit fiduciary obligations, not willful and knowing violations of law.” The problems were minor enough that they could have been avoided “had the board been properly educated in nonprofit entity management and fiduciary duties.” The administrators at Casita Maria had not, in fact, been spending immigrants’ money on themselves in large sums. Lucio was ordered to pay back $18,000 that the attorney general said had been used for his own well-being, purchases that Lucio says he cannot account for.

“Oh, that doesn’t surprise me,” says Frank Sommerville, a lawyer for Casita Maria. At Lucio’s home, phone numbers are scrawled across the backs of checkbooks and on pill boxes. Lucio paid great attention to the details of immigration law but not to the finances of his organization. Casita Maria and Lucio often seemed to be one and the same.

Joe Granados, one of the nonprofit’s top administrators, was told to return two watches that reportedly had been donated as raffle items for a fund-raiser. The attorney general ordered Casita’s board to stop making loans to anyone and required Lucio and Granados to resign from the board. Casita Maria, the attorney general concluded, is “a viable and worthy ongoing nonprofit enterprise and…there is a need in the community for the mission services provided by Casita Maria.”

When the Morning News first began investigating Casita Maria, it was, financially speaking, a “seat-of-the-pants” organization, says Garrett Vogel, an accountant appointed by a probate judge in Austin late last year to monitor the charity’s finances. Vogel applied for, and received, a temporary restraining order to ensure that Lucio, Granados and Maria Briones, another chief administrator, would not meddle in financial reforms he was trying to bring about. That move prompted “something of a war,” Vogel admits, between the three administrators and himself. He eventually fired all of them.

But even Vogel acknowledges that “in my opinion, the financial questions about Casita Maria were more one of form than of substance.” Casita Maria tended to earn between half a million and a million dollars a year, but its finances were run as if it were a mom-and-pop store. “When I came in, they could not tell you how many people they had seen the preceding day, much less the preceding year,” Vogel says. That makes it impossible to craft a budget. Many days, Casita Maria would take in $5,000 in cash and stick it in the safe. “There was probably nothing that was inappropriate if it had been properly documented,” Vogel says. The problem was something known as Founder’s Syndrome. “The people who founded it think that they had an entitlement,” Vogel says, “and, without going through proper board approval and documentation of transactions, lend themselves money or pay themselves bonuses that they characterized as different things at different times. The amounts were not huge.”

Founder’s Syndrome is “very common in charities,” says Sommerville, an Arlington lawyer who specializes in nonprofit clients. Founders of charities are sometimes “so passionate about the mission that they tend to blur those lines between themselves and the organization because their vision and hard work created the organization.”

“Well, yeah, and you can kind of see why,” says Michael Thomas, the attorney for Lucio and Briones. “…You’ve got a priest who [has dedicated] his whole life and Maria Briones—that was her whole life, too,” Thomas says. “It’s unfortunate to know that a guy that’s done what he’s done has to scramble to make money…but the law is the law, and you’ve got to cross your T’s and dot your I’s or you’re not entitled to things.”

Sommerville points out that Lucio never had any training in running a nonprofit or any kind of business. Lucio acknowledges that he relied on experts in the subjects he knew nothing about (like accounting). But “the evidence that I saw shows that those individuals did not give him proper guidance,” Sommerville says. “So how can you expect him to know the law when the people who he hires to teach him the law don’t teach him the law?” When Lucio was told by the attorney general to step off the board of Casita Maria and begin to pay back the $18,000, he did. “If he had hired the right people in 1989 and stuck with them,” Sommerville says, “this never could have happened.”

If a charity tells the IRS that it spent $141,000 on cars in one year, it certainly may look like the charity had “assembled a small fleet of automobiles.” But Sommerville says “the preparer for 2001 was totally incompetent…Every time [Casita] purchased a new automobile, they added it to the books, but they never took the old ones off, so you ended up with $141,000 on the books, but that’s not real and never was real.” In the charity’s 2002 return, the mistakes made in the 2001 return were corrected, and the $141,000 figure had decreased to $33,000. “Father had a 6-year-old car with 100,000 miles on it; Joe Granados had a Chevy Yukon SUV,” Vogel says. “Whether or not it’s the business of a charity to provide its officers with vehicles is one question, but it’s not like they had 20 to 30 late-model sports cars they were driving around in; it was for basic transportation.”

The fact that the attorney general found Casita Maria to be “worthy” while The Dallas Morning News found it “sickening” is explained by the nonprofit’s shoddy bookkeeping. There is another dichotomy that is harder to explain: The Morning News thinks Lucio is “morally repugnant,” while Margaret Donnelly says, “Sometimes I think we’re preparing Father Lucio for sainthood because it’s been so hard for him.”

When the same person is called both a saint and a monster, it is natural to assume that either his supporters or his detractors are employing rhetorical hyperbole. There is a little of that in the case of Lucio: Newspapers, like people, can exaggerate, and Donnelly may feel the need to emphasize Lucio’s good qualities because all the recent news about him has been negative. The confounding thing about Lucio, though, is the range of divergent reactions he inspires: People admire him or they revile him, but it is rare to find someone who has a mild opinion of him.

Lucio’s determination to counsel immigrants is almost freakishly strong. He spends his time now trying to salvage retirement money from Casita Maria, going to dialysis and, because of his reputation as an immigration counselor, occasionally advising immigrants who insist on seeking him out. In May, Briones and Lucio attempted to start a second Casita Maria (for-profit this time) named Casita Guadalupe, but they didn’t get far before the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services caught wind of the effort from a Morning News article and announced that Casita Guadalupe was not an accredited organization. One day not long ago, however, Lucio could be found talking on the phone with a real estate agent about some office space. He is dying, and he’s not accredited by immigration authorities, but he thought the office sounded like a nice place to start counseling immigrants once again. “That sounds good,” he said. “That sounds good.”

Nothing came of that conversation, but recently, because Casita Maria is dangerously low on funds, Vogel was ordered by an Austin judge to sell the three buildings it owns. According to a report filed with the judge, there were three bidders; one of them is a 36-year-old immigration attorney named Michael Warrior, who has represented Lucio before and given pro-bono legal advice to immigrants at Casita Maria. Warrior’s bid of $236,000 was $15,000 less than the highest bid, but Vogel has recommended to the judge that “it is in the best interest of Casita Maria and its clients” to accept Warrior’s offer.

“What I want to do is keep this a very low-cost community organization,” Warrior says. Warrior says he didn’t consult with Lucio before he made his bid, and when I asked Lucio if he would play a role in Casita Maria if Warrior’s offer is accepted, Lucio wasn’t aware that Warrior had made a bid. He said his presence there is up to Warrior if his bid is accepted, but that he would donate his time, “maybe an hour or so a day if I don’t get tired.”

A final hearing hasn’t yet been held on the sale, Vogel says, but a fourth bidder has made a last-minute offer. Vogel won’t reveal the bidder, but he does say that “there’s at least a glimmer of hope that [Casita Maria] might be able to come out of this looking pretty good.”

Lucio appeared in the News again on September 11. American Work Visa, a company that finds temporary or menial jobs for immigrants, is establishing an office in Dallas. The News reported that Lucio had been hired by Juanita Vera, the vice president of American Work Visa, to handle immigrants’ work visas. Lucio had secured Vera’s husband’s papers; she thought he had done an “excellent” job. What the paper didn’t print, and what Vera has confirmed, is that although Lucio “helps out” at American Work Visa, he’s not getting paid.

This article originally appeared in The Dallas Observer on September 23, 2004.

Back to top