Out of the Soup

Yes, the city's settlement of a lawsuit was a good deal -- for Helen Huey

Each week the Houston City Council considers thousands of dollars in settlement payments to plaintiffs who have sued the city over a variety of complaints. But the roll call that opens each Council meeting usually generates more discussion than councilmembers' "consideration" of the settlements. Nothing more than the basic details of the cases are ever disclosed to Council, and each settlement is approved in the time it takes Mayor Bob Lanier to mumble his customary, "Favoring? Opposed? Carried."

And so it went on November 8, when the Council quickly and unanimously passed a resolution to settle a lawsuit filed by a California couple. According to City Attorney Benjamin Hall III, the basic facts of the case were these:

Leonard and Betty Leath purchased a rundown Spring Branch apartment complex in September 1990. They had spent $260,000 repairing it when the city revoked their building permits and, later, demolished the complex. The Leaths sued in federal court, claiming it would cost $1.6 million to rebuild. Councilwoman Helen Huey, who was named in the suit, was "exonerated of all wrongdoing." City attorneys decided to resolve the issue by paying the Leaths $150,000 and releasing a $60,000 demolition lien the city had placed against their property.

It seemed, under those circumstances, a pretty good deal for the city. "There was a potential for a much larger settlement," explains Councilwoman Martha Wong. "We needed to move swiftly in order to take advantage of the good settlement and save the taxpayer some money. That's my understanding."

But Wong's understanding was based on Hall's version of the story, which, as it turns out, is incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, particularly when it comes to Huey's role in the case and the circumstances behind her dismissal as a defendant in the suit. In fact, some of Huey's critics say Hall's unsuccessful attempt to settle the case without council approval -- for which he was roundly criticized -- appears to have been part of an ongoing effort to keep the extent of Huey's questionable involvement in the city's demolition of the Leaths' property from coming to light.

Hall has tried to fob responsibility for what he terms the "confidentiality" of the settlement off on a federal judge: the city attorney wrongly claimed that U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner ordered the city and the Leaths to settle, making Council approval of the agreement unnecessary. When the settlement ended up before Council, the resolution stated that Hittner "determined that $150,000 and removal of the demolition lien would adequately compensate" the Leaths.

But Andy Vickery, one of the Leaths' attorneys in their suit, says Hittner had no say in what his clients were awarded. Vickery says he offered the settlement to assistant city attorney Robert Cambrice after meeting with a local housing activist who gave the lawyer several documents, including one suggesting that Huey had injected herself into the permit-approval process usually handled by city building inspectors -- a possible violation of the City Charter.

Vickery recalls telling Cambrice, "Robert, $150,000 and the release of the lien is the best deal you're going to get out of this, and you have until 2 p.m. to take it. If I don't hear from you by 2 p.m., I've come into some documents that are of grave concern to me and ought to be of grave concern to you. And I'll get Helen Huey back on the stand to explain some things."

Cambrice agreed to the settlement. Indeed, the case file -- which city attorneys tried unsuccessfully to have sealed from public scrutiny -- shows that there was other evidence of Huey's unusually vigorous efforts to rid Spring Branch of the Leaths' project, even before Vickery received the additional documents.

For example, complaints about the Leaths' apartment building originated with a group of Huey's constituents who trespassed onto the couple's property to take photographs and conduct an ad-hoc inspection of the premises. Their findings, many of which were misleading, were relayed to city inspectors through Huey's office. Among the group were at least two members of the Spring Branch Redevelopment Association, a pro-development organization spearheading a surge in upscale housing construction in Spring Branch. Huey is a charter member of the SBRA.

Inter-office memos, as well as Huey's testimony, show that the councilwoman relied on her constituents' faulty information, even when it was dismissed by the city's chief building inspector. Shortly after taking office in January 1992, Huey asked for and began receiving weekly reports on the Leaths' project from the building official. The reports indicated that there were no problems with the work being done on the apartments.

One report, dated January 29, 1992, deemed the work site "as secure as any other construction site in the city."

But the case file also includes a memo Huey wrote nine days later to Al Haines, then the city's chief administrative officer. "I am very concerned that this property is being repaired and will be occupied again," Huey wrote. "The property was condemned and I feel should have been demolished."

In August, Huey explained the memo to the Press this way: "If you read this, it says, '...will be occupied again.' 'Will be occupied again' means that I am believing, when this memo is being written, that it will be a successful rehabilitation. That is how it should be read."

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