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Speaker Jim Wright's Old Pal George Mallick Is Rarin' for a Fight with Congress

updated 05/15/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 01:00AM

In a state where millionaires were once as common as jackrabbits, Fort Worth's George A. Mallick has never been considered especially notable. With a $10 million oil and real estate empire that is modest by some local standards, the short, graying entrepreneur spends his time doing what he loves best—working. Seldom seen at the showy charity balls or exclusive country clubs favored by the city's prime movers, the 54-year-old father of five is most often found behind a black-lacquered desk in his Art Deco west Fort Worth offices. Chain-smoking Marlboros and drinking rivers of Diet Coke, Mallick often makes deals right up until late evening, when he switches on the TV opposite his desk and tunes in to Nightline or one of the other news programs to which he is addicted.

These days the programs are apt to sound more like This Is Your Life for Mallick as he increasingly finds himself and House Speaker Jim Wright, who represents Fort Worth in Congress, the subject of discussion. An intimate of Wright's since the two became friends following a 1963 ribbon-cutting ceremony for a shopping center, Mallick is now at the center of the widening investigation into Wright's finances and ethics. Once concerned with issues like zoning, mortgages and oil rights, Mallick now huddles with Wright's staff, confers with attorneys and defends himself to reporters.

Topic A, of course, is the bombshell bipartisan investigation that suggests Wright may have accepted nearly $145,000 in gifts from Mallick in exchange for unspecified favors. (The panel also contends that Wright "demonstrated an overall scheme to evade the House outside-income limit" through bulk sales of his book, Reflections of a Public Man.) Branding the congressional report "a pack of lies," Mallick says the charges against him amount to "lunacy. I have never asked Jim Wright to vote any way on any legislation. I have never lobbied him for anything." Mallick is incensed by the allegations that Wright's wife, Betty, a former secretary whom the Speaker tearfully defended in his own response to the report April 13, did nothing to merit her $18,000 annual salary or the generous perks—including use of a company Cadillac—she received from Mallightco, the investment partnership that Wright and Mallick formed in 1979. Never mind that investigators found no memos in which Mrs. Wright was mentioned, much less any she had written. "She earned her money," Mallick says. "She was an integral part of the decision-making process."

He is similarly indignant about the charge that the Wrights turned an improper profit totaling $270,000 on the sale of a Mallightco-owned oil-and-gas well last year. He insists that Wright's properties were in a blind trust at the time and that Wright himself had no knowledge of the transaction in which a West German company paid $440,000 for what has so far turned out to be a dry well. In short, says Mallick, the 456-page House report is "100 percent bull——," and he is "determined to fight this thing through to the bitter end."

Squaring off against the big boys is nothing new for Mallick. The grandson of a Lebanese immigrant who owned a general store in Fort Worth, he has never been part of the city's establishment. He began scrabbling at age 8, when his father, who made a fortune in meat markets, brought him into the business as a gofer. In June 1947 the 13-year-old left school to become a street entrepreneur. With his tiny savings, he bought an ice shaver, a 50-pound block of ice and a batch of syrup and set up a snow-cone stand at a downtown bus stop. By the end of the summer, he had 10 employees and five stands—and a profit of $880.

During a stint in the Army—he served as a mess sergeant—Mallick earned a high-school equivalency degree. After his discharge, he found his calling as a property developer. He put in a year on a construction crew "just to see how it was done," and began launching deals to build apartment complexes and office buildings. By the time he was 28, he says, "I was a millionaire."

For all his success, Mallick has remained an enigma to many of his colleagues. Says one Fort Worth businessman: "If Jim Wright showed up for something, George Mallick was usually around somewhere. But somehow people got the feeling that Mallick didn't want too much light on some of his deals. There was a feeling, right or wrong, that he was the sort of man who would get too close to the edge of propriety."

In turn, Mallick has always shown pungent disdain for the good ol' boys who constitute the city's business elite at the Fort Worth Club. He describes himself as a private man who prefers the company of a few close friends—friends like Jim Wright: "It takes a deep friendship to exchange ideas, and I don't have that many deep relationships."

In that case, Mallick should have plenty of energy to concentrate on the task at hand—launching an offensive against his accusers. He has testified before the House ethics committee three times now, and he says that he will be pleased to offer himself up again. Already he is working up the requisite sense of indignation: "I have been cast into this position," he says, "and I'm not going gentle into that good night."

—Michelle Green, Kent Demaret in Fort Worth

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