Curiouser and Curiouser

A murky tale from the '91 mayor's race continues to unfold at the courthouse

It was Sunday, December 1, 1991, and Sylvester Turner was as close as an African-American has ever been to becoming mayor of Houston. The election was six days away, and while an upcoming Houston Chronicle poll would show him trailing slightly in his runoff with Bob Lanier, Turner seemed to be gaining momentum. That day he was to get the editorial backing of the Chronicle, an endorsement that sealed his candidacy with the imprimatur of the downtown business establishment, or at least the dwindling portion that favored the monorail project Lanier opposed. At worst for Turner, the race looked to be close, and he was expected to emerge from the contest with a bright political future.

But that afternoon, on Channel 13's 5:30 news broadcast, the station opened a report by Wayne Dolcefino on a bizarre insurance scam by posing a question that to this day remains unanswered but continues to haunt Turner and Channel 13: "What role did Houston mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner play in this tale of multimillion-dollar fraud?"

Dolcefino's story was this: Sylvester Foster, described as a male model and hairdresser, faked his death in 1986 by staging a boating accident off Galveston, allegedly with the help of two other men, Keith Leslie Anderson and Russell Reinders. Three days earlier, Foster had signed a will drafted for him by Turner that named as its executor Dwight Thomas, a long-time friend of Foster's who, five years later, happened to be staying in a northwest Houston home Turner had rented to meet the residency requirement to run for mayor. (The house Turner owned, and in which his wife and daughter lived, was outside the city.) Turner represented Thomas in probate court proceedings to have Foster declared legally dead and in attempts to collect on Foster's life insurance policies, and they allegedly pursued efforts to obtain the money even after evidence surfaced that Foster had pulled a scam. Foster, as Channel 13 discovered, was alive and imprisoned in Spain.

In addition to the suggestion that Turner had been involved in something crooked, the Channel 13 report, by its references to a "male model" and "hairdresser" and its film of the man Turner supposedly was sharing a house with, left viewers with another impression: that Turner might be gay. The cumulative effect of Dolcefino's story was to plant the idea in the minds of many voters that there was a different and darker side to Sylvester Turner than the one on the sparkling resume he had proudly presented to the public: the poor boy from Acres Homes made good, the Harvard law school grad and chairman of the county's legislative caucus.

Turner angrily denied he was part of the scam (he also later denied he was gay and said that for most of the campaign he had actually lived with his wife, outside the city) and accused Lanier's campaign of handing the story to Channel 13 and Lanier himself of hiring a private detective to investigate his background. Lanier's camp denied planting the story; Channel 13 was subject to angry denunciations by black ministers and leaders, who claimed Dolcefino's story was an attempt to destroy Houston's first viable black mayoral candidate. Turner lost to Lanier by eight percentage points, black ministers called for a boycott of Channel 13, Turner's wife sued for divorce on the day Lanier was sworn in as mayor and Turner eventually filed a libel lawsuit against Dolcefino and Channel 13.

The story of Sylvester Foster's charade hasn't advanced much since then, though Keith Anderson, one of those on the boat when Foster staged his death, has said in a deposition for Turner's suit that Foster told him that Turner was involved in the scam. But recently, Turner's lawyers have opened a pre-trial line of inquiry on the story behind the story, renewing questions about the Lanier camp's connection to the Channel 13 report and casting one of the station's follow-up stories in an unflattering light. Likewise, material that Channel 13's lawyers have made part of the public record suggests that Turner's political troubles may have had their origin in his own home. Three years later, the murky tale, as Alice said shortly after going down the rabbit hole, has gotten curiouser and curiouser.

In outlining their new sub-plot, Turner's lawyers (including school trustee Ron Franklin) have introduced a new character, Peary Perry, a former Houston cop and private investigator who had a long business relationship with Lanier, performing security work at Lanier-owned apartments and installing alarms at Lanier-controlled banks and savings and loans. He also served on Lanier's election committee and did some volunteer campaign work. The Perry connection to Lanier continues: Perry, as he acknowledged in a deposition for Turner's suit, is the chief officer of Municipal Collections Inc., which has a contract with the city to collect delinquent parking tickets and, according to city records, has been paid $1.7 million on the contract since last year. Perry, who declined comment for this story, also acknowledged to Turner's lawyers that he has had past business associations -- "less than a dozen" -- with locally famous private eye Clyde Wilson, who in 1991 identified himself as the source of Dolcefino's story. That relationship also continues: Perry, in his deposition, said he uses Wilson as a "consultant" on the Municipal Collections contract.

Turner's lawyers have tried to peg Perry and the Lanier campaign as the ultimate, and confidential, source for Dolcefino's report, contending that Perry supplied the reporter with a summary of the background on Sylvester Foster and "critical" probate documents on the Foster case that would have been otherwise publicly unavailable to Dolcefino, given that he was researching his story over the Thanksgiving holiday prior to its broadcast. The lawyers are asking the judge presiding over Turner's suit to force Dolcefino to answer questions about Perry, which he has refused to do, citing a journalist's legal privilege to maintain the confidentiality of sources. Turner's lawyers argue that the identity of the source is important because of a follow-up story that Channel 13 did two days before the election. That report, delivered as outrage over Dolcefino's story was building in the black community, opened with reporter Christi Meyers saying: "Channel 13 has never revealed the source of its story, but today, in a surprise move, the real source of the story stepped forward. Clyde Wilson dropped a bombshell today by admitting he leaked the story to Channel 13." Later in the report, anchorwoman Shara Fryer intoned, "Sylvester Turner refused to apologize to Bob Lanier today, even though Turner had accused the Lanier campaign of providing the information contained in the Eyewitness News report."

At best, the presentation of something that Channel 13 had known for more than a week as a "bombshell" was a contorted bit of journalistic disingenuousness. But Turner's lawyers offer a darker spin, claiming the station was trying to "cover up" the true source of its story -- Perry -- and further damaged Turner by suggesting he should have apologized for making a statement that was true. They contend that Wilson "stepped forward" only after Tom Doerr, then Channel 13's news director, called and asked him to do so. (Doerr and Wilson did not return calls from the Press.)

In pre-trial questioning in March, anchorwoman Fryer, who had previously said she got the initial tip on the Foster scam in a phone call from Wilson, acknowledged that Wilson gave her Perry's name and said Perry had "paperwork" on Foster. She also acknowledged that she passed Perry's name on to Dolcefino. Perry has testified he doesn't recall meeting with Dolcefino before the story was broadcast and didn't get a full copy of the probate case until after the story aired; Dolcefino, according to Turner's lawyers, has admitted meeting with Perry before his story was aired.

Channel 13's lawyers (among them Chip Babcock, who does legal work for the Press), in arguing that Dolcefino shouldn't be forced to answer questions about Perry, deny that the scam story was "planned, suggested or instigated" by the Lanier camp or that it accused Turner of being part of a conspiracy to defraud insurers. They say the one source to whom Dolcefino promised confidentiality played only a minor role in the assembling of the story, and that there were other sources, pointing in particular to private investigator Bill Elliott, a former partner of Wilson's who had done work on the Foster disappearance and who, during the 1991 campaign, was sleuthing for Cheryl Turner in advance of the divorce suit she would file after the election.

Dolcefino, in parts of his deposition cited by his lawyers, says that while working on the scam story he met with Elliott in the parking lot of the Allen Park Inn, where he was shown a copy of a statement the investigator had taken from Cheryl Turner in which she professed to have recorded "graphic, sexually related phone conversations" between Turner and other men and identified "certain individuals with whom Mr. Turner was allegedly having homosexual relations...."

And so the story behind the story of the 1991 mayor's race continues to unfold. Turner, who along with Dolcefino declined to comment for this article, previously has vowed to seek his vindication in the courtroom. If his suit gets that far, it would go a long way toward answering the lingering questions about what Channel 13 did and who Sylvester Turner is. And it might just reverberate on a larger stage. The suit is now scheduled for trial in April of next year -- just about the time Lanier would be cranking his 1995 reelection bid into high gear.

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