BOSS Hall

As Ben Hall prepares to leave City Hall, questions are again being raised about his involvement in the doling out of city business. But Hall says the law allows him to do pretty much as he pleases.

In exchange for the financial equivalent of a celestial body, Muhammad offered to collect 22 percent of West Capital's monthly assignment. He also said he was willing to pay West Capital 40 percent of whatever 450-day plus tickets he managed to collect -- tickets that would normally be returned to the city because they are considered nearly impossible to catch up with.

Muhammad also made the rather curious offer to provide West Capital with "ongoing consultation as it relates to city, county and state political developments." When asked to explain that offer, Muhammad at first said he was going to do "some marketing." When pressed further, the minister was unusually frank.

"Look, if they were all purely business developments, you and I wouldn't be on the phone. If there wasn't an element of politics, meaning what's coming up, what's available, who knows who and who knows what and how can we get in the business... Okay? Who can we introduce to whom, that kind of thing, you know."

And in those terms, Muhammad indeed has some contacts: the articles of incorporation for his company were drawn up by lawyer John Davis, a principal in Bayou City Enterprises -- which, according to the controller's ongoing review, was guaranteed a chunk of the city's other ticket-collection contract by Hall.

West Capital officials were exposed to more political clout when they agreed to meet with Muhammad and Wilson three days after receiving Delinquent Recovery's joint-venture proposal. Wilson confirmed that he took part in the discussions as Muhammad's attorney, but he declined to discuss details of the meeting.

Though no agreement was reached that evening on Muhammad's proposal, West Capital officials appear to have left the meeting with the understanding that their contract was in jeopardy if they didn't make some kind of deal with Muhammad. On November 28, West Capital sent the minister a counterproposal, making reference to the city's "interest in implementation of a grassroots collection effort." West Capital proposed that Muhammad set up shop with Burney & Foreman, a law firm that is one of West Capital's minority subcontractors, which would then "employ additional collectors under Robert Muhammad and DRI."

West Capital proposed that, as a subcontractor, Muhammad would receive 30 percent of the company's 40 percent fee for every ticket collected from violators with confirmed addresses and 35 percent of those tickets with unconfirmed addresses. Once Muhammad approved the contract, he was to schedule a conference with West Capital president Joplin.

That meeting never took place. On December 8, Joplin sent Muhammad another letter breaking off negotiations. "It is unfortunate that our counterproposal did not meet your needs at this time," he wrote. Muhammad insists that he never had the chance to respond to West Capital's offer. "To me, everything is still on the table," he says.

But apparently Muhammad was not happy with the offer to be a subcontractor to a subcontractor. He says that when he sent his unsolicited proposal to the mayor's office, he was looking "to get up and do something for myself."

"The philosophy that I operate under, my religious philosophy, is that we don't consider ourselves no minority to anybody," he says. "We want an equal opportunity with everyone. So I did not go in there proposing to be a minority or a joint venture with anyone."

Despite West Capital's final letter to Muhammad conveying the company's "unending appreciation" to Hall and Wilson for "negotiating" Muhammad's proposal, Hall says he didn't "directly negotiate" with anyone.

"Apparently, when they got together, that didn't work out," he says. "There were references [by West Capital] to Louis Farrakhan and the Muslim faith and Robert Muhammad came back and said, 'City, I'm going to be concerned about you all if you are discriminating against my religion.'"

"So West Capital was in a situation where they're still not performing as represented, and I was informed to give notice that we were going to cancel the contract."

That has yet to happen, though Hall acknowledged two weeks ago that he had already drafted a termination letter to West Capital. Sources say it was never sent because on November 30 -- two days before Hall's resignation and while West Capital and Muhammad were still trying to come to terms -- Larry Miller took a phone call in his municipal courts office.

"Joplin called Miller," one source says, "and basically gave him the ultimatum, 'Look, we don't do business the way you want us to do business. If you don't let this contract run out in June, when it's supposed to, I'm afraid I'm going to have to go down to the courthouse steps and hold a press conference.'"

That source says Miller told Joplin he would have to contact Lanier's office and get back to him.

Both Hall and Miller confirm that West Capital is now in no imminent danger of having its contract canceled. Miller says he has "reassigned some cases" back to the company for collection, with the promise from West Capital that it would increase revenue to the city. Lanier did not respond to requests from the Press for an interview.

The collection contract will no doubt be canceled in June, when a new "request for proposal" will be issued by the city, Hall and Miller said.

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