When Max Salas
first arrived on the Washington political scene five years ago, he
made a name for himself as a "mainstream" activist with perfect English and little interest in alpaca sweaters, Che Guevara buttons, or immigrant amnesty programs.As director of corporate development at the Virginia high-tech firm Cornet Technology, he shunned the social service groups that employ many of the city's politically active Latinos.Instead, he joined the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and that white-male business bastion, the D.C. Rotary Club - which named him Rotarian of the Year this summer.
With those credentials, Salas
became a board- pickers' dream - and a hot political commodity.Earlier this year, when Mayor Anthony A. Williams dumped most of former Mayor Marion Barry's Alcoholic Beverage Control
(ABC) Board appointees in favor of community-friendly types, he
.It's easy to understand why.
Eager for Latino endorsements, city pols love to claim him as a supporter.Before appointing him to the ABC Board, Williams had tapped Salas as president of his inaugural committee and chair of his transition team on Latino issues.
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham picked Salas
as co-chair of his
1998 campaign.After Salas was named Rotarian of the Year, longtime activist Pedro Lulan told the Washington Post that Salas "is the key personality in a new wave of Latino leadership that will be taking the city by storm in the coming years." After Salas was named Rotarian of the Year, longtime activist Pedro Lulan told the Washington Post that Salas "is the key personality in a new wave of Latino leadership that will be taking the city by storm in the coming years."
Unbeknownst to many of the admirers who have elevated him to political prominence, the smooth, bespectacled Salas
is a convicted felon.In 1993, he
pleaded guilty to two counts of federal tax evasion after he
was accused of embezzling nearly $200,000 off the beer and food concessions at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
A former carnival worker who once owned a string of airport concession stands, Salas
owes more than $100,000 in legal judgments stemming from unpaid bills related to various business enterprises - bills he
refused to pay even while handing out gobs of cash to D.C. and federal political candidates.And he
is currently facing criminal charges for failing to file sales-tax returns and underreporting sales taxes for a Tallahassee airport yogurt shop he
is sorry and ashamed of what happened in his
past."In the end, all it was was cheating on my income taxes.I'm ashamed and embarrassed.I made some mistakes," he
says."I'm sorry I did it.I can't die about it, and I can't crawl in a hole for the rest of my life.I've paid a lot for that.It's cost me a lot."That's a pretty standard mea culpa for an ex-con trying to get back into the political game.But what's really amazing is how seamlessly Salas
has inserted himself into the center of D.C. politics without ever having to account for that past -- even getting appointed to regulate liquor licenses that he
would be barred from holding himself.Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose campaign Salas
co-chaired last year, says he
was unaware of Salas' criminal record or of his
recent arrest, which occurred shortly before the primary election.
...Born and raised in Denver, Salas got his start in business as a carnie, selling balloons at carnivals and state fairs, according to a 1989 interview he gave to the trade publication Amusement Business.He
has also sold souvenirs at Red Sox games, owned a video-game business, spent 13 years traveling as a concessionaire with the James E. Strates Shows, and spent five years selling amusement park junk in Sandusky, Ohio.
Around the same time, he
began winning lucrative food-service contracts with the federal government particularly in airports, through the Small Business Administration's minority contracting program The business grew into a multi-million-dollar operation.
In the mid-1980s, Salas
also landed a concessions contract at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville, where his
legal troubles started.In 1991, IRS agents raided the fairgrounds as part of an investigation into possible kickbacks paid to government officials who controlled the concessions contracts.Agents raided Salas' home and office, seizing more than $200,000 in cash along with Rolex watches and other jewelry.
Prosecutors alleged that Salas
had been skimming money off the fairgrounds concessions and failing to report the income on his
federal taxes.Two years later, later, Salas
pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and was sentenced to 10 months in prison, the first five of which he
spent in a federal prison camp in Manchester, Ky, according to the Bureau of Prisons
(BOP).In December of that year, Salas
transferred to a federal halfway house in Northern Virginia, where he
stayed until April 1994, according to the BOP
It didn't take him long to get back on his
feet in the District.Barely six months after leaving the halfway house, Salas
appeared in the Washington Times
, which profiled the "grand opening" of El Bodegon
, an old Spanish restaurant on R Street that Salas
had bought with his
son and was trying to revive.From there, Salas
quickly scaled the heap of District politics, showing up at galas for Hispanic scholarship funds and getting involved in local Latino organizations.Salas
also offered something most other Latino activists in town don't: money.Salas says he had long been involved in national politics, so he knew the drill. (In fact, he gave the Democratic National Committee $5,000 only days before entering prison in 1993.) He began handing out campaign cash with a vengeance, starting with Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, who oversees the economic development committee.
Before long, he
knew everyone who was anyone in D.C. and Latino politics."It's easy," he
says."It's a very small town."
arrived in D.C., he
walked into a political vacuum that was custom-made for a guy with a good suit, Mexican roots, and as-American gumption.
, for one, says people were always calling him.That's how he
ended up on the board of Cora Masters Barry's Recreation Wish List, which has just secured $3.7 million from the city to build a tennis center in Southeast Washington."The Wish List people called because they were having a tennis tournament and wanted some Latinos to help out, so I went, " he
answered the calls because that was the best way to advance Latino causes."You gotta join the clubs," he
says."It's easy to be part of the Latino Civil Rights Center.You gotta move into mainstream America. "
Few people seem to have noticed that the politically ubiquitous Salas
has had no particular political agenda.Roberto Frisancho, president and acting executive director of the Latino Civil Rights Center - where Salas sits on the board -- says Salas is very active.
is not very ideological," Frisancho concedes.
popularity, local political figures who have been so quick to embrace Salas
also come up blank when asked where he
came from or what he
does for a living "You know, I have no earthly idea what his
business is.And I've spent a lot of time with him He
could be making widgets or pesticides for all I know," said Graham in an interview last week.
That blind spot is rather glaring given that Salas' run in unsavory headlines continued even after he
came to D. C. He
made national news as part of the Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandal that broke in 1997.That year, the Democratic National Committee
announced that it would be returning $11,000 in soft money that Salas
had donated because of his
felony conviction.The Clinton-Gore
re-election committee also refunded $250, although the Clinton folks kept the nearly $5,000 Salas
paid for tickets to the inaugural celebration.
Despite the widespread coverage of Salas' criminal record in national news stories on the fundraising scandal - whose epicenter was right here in Washington, D.C., candidates performed no hand-wringing over Salas' contributions.Last year, he
donated $1,000 each to mayoral candidates Williams and Harold Brazil, and he
wife gave $3,000 to Jack Evans, for or whom they held a meet-and-greet event in March 1998.He
also donated $500 to Graham's Ward 1 campaign.
Salas' notoriety also failed to slow down his
1998 and 1999 ABC Board confirmations.In an interview last week, Salas
history when appointed, but Councilmember Sharon Ambrose -- whose Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
handled the nomination - says she
had no idea Salas