By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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Normally, the news that a city department head was resigning would generate little interest beyond the City Hall press corps. But Harvard-educated lawyer Benjamin Hall III has not been your average city department head, and the crowd that showed up for his resignation announcement was a visible testament to that fact. Among those who packed Lanier's office to mark the former Vinson & Elkins lawyer's passage back to the private sector was a small group of men who constitute the foundation of African-American political power in Houston: state Representative Ron Wilson; Justice of the Peace Al Green, who heads the local NAACP; the Reverend Bill Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church; HISD Superintendent Rod Paige; businessman Howard Jefferson; and others.
Many of the city's black leaders were initially skeptical of Lanier after the wealthy white developer first won election, but in the ensuing three years he has won their grudging admiration by his willingness to listen -- and act -- on their concerns. One of their primary concerns of late has been the way the city of Houston has historically shortchanged minority contractors, and only a few days before Hall's announcement some of the same men had marched through downtown Houston to highlight that and other grievances.
Almost two years earlier, Wilson had confronted Lanier by threatening to have the Legislature hold up the city's pending $500 million bond package unless Lanier promised to dole the funded projects evenly between African-American, Hispanic and Anglo contractors -- a threat that was withdrawn when Lanier promised to work to increase minority participation in city business.
The presence of Wilson and the others at Hall's going-away ceremony spoke quietly to one of the more unusual roles that Hall had played during his City Hall tenure -- that of Lanier's conduit to African-American leaders, a job that has involved the head of the city's legal department to an extraordinary and unprecedented degree in the dispensing of city contracts. It was a role that, at least until recently, seemed to work to the political advantage of both Lanier and his confrontational city attorney, who, should he one day decide to act on his barely disguised ambition to succeed Lanier as mayor, will have plenty of chits to collect.
That role as both enforcer and facilitator of the city's effort to spread its business to minority vendors also has been one that has contributed to Hall's image of being, as he cheerfully admitted during his resignation announcement, "reliably controversial." Last spring a representative of First USA of Dallas, a credit-card collection company, testified before City Council that her firm was passed over for a city contract because it did not heed the city attorney's directive to hire a particular minority subcontractor. The allegation was reviewed by both the police department's Public Integrity Review Group, which cleared Hall of any wrongdoing, and a Harris County grand jury, which took no action.
Hall, in a recent interview with the Houston Press, suggested that First USA just didn't understand who was calling the shots when it came to deciding which companies got certain city business.
"What they didn't understand," he said, "was that if Ben Hall wanted to go out and just say , 'I want Timbuktu to collect this and I don't care if Timbuktu is unborn,' the law permits him to do that."
Not everyone agrees with that interpretation.
The Press has learned that in the weeks leading up to his resignation, an ongoing review by the city controller's office had raised questions about the propriety of Hall's award of a subcontract on a $1.5 million contract for the collection of delinquent traffic tickets. According to documents obtained by the Press, Hall inserted language in the contract that guaranteed the subcontractor, Bayou City Enterprises, 19 percent of city funds paid on the contract -- although it appears, according to the controller's review, that another company was doing Bayou City's work.
The review also has determined, according to the documents, that Bayou City, which is owned by three prominent African-American attorneys, has been de-certified from the city's Minority, Women or Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MWDBE) program, and is therefore ineligible to receive city business.
City Controller George Greanias declined comment on the review pending a response from Hall's office. But the Press has found that Hall may have tried to pressure another ticket-collection contractor into entering into a joint venture with a company owned by Robert Muhammad, a member of Lanier's ministers' advisory committee and the head of the local mosque of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
In June 1993 that contractor, San Diego-based West Capital Financial Services Corporation, won the right to pursue warrants on unpaid traffic tickets that were from 210 days to 450 days delinquent. Last month, Hall's office sent West Capital president Mike Joplin a letter threatening termination of the contract unless it agreed to, among other things, "immediately increase its local service presence." Publicly available records and interviews with sources familiar with the contract indicate West Capital was to do that by going into business with Delinquent Recovery Inc., whose president, Robert Muhammad, had sent an unsolicited business proposition to the mayor's office shortly after starting the company five months ago.