Suing Her Pants Off

An activist with an attitude discovers the cost of speaking out

When Brenda Flores read the line on the subpoena that said, "You Have Been Sued," she was reminded of the old expression Ya la quiere mi calciones.

Roughly translated, that means "he wants my underwear." And to Flores, a Spring Branch housing activist and advocate for the immigrant community, it would be just like Stan Stearns to try and sue the pants off her.

Stearns is a wealthy manufacturer of scientific instruments and one of Spring Branch's biggest landowners. He is also a close friend and political supporter of City Councilwoman Helen Huey, who is the subject of a complaint Flores filed in February with the city's Ethics Committee.

Among the questions Flores raised in her complaint was whether Huey helped expedite the city's demolition of a Spring Branch apartment complex in 1992 as a favor to Stearns, whose business headquarters, as well as much of his real-estate holdings, are within a few blocks of where the complex once stood.

Stearns (who didn't respond to our request for an interview) thinks the very suggestion that he influenced a councilmember for private gain has sullied his good name. He's also convinced it has held him up to the contempt of everyone he knows and many he doesn't. At least, that's what Stearns said when he sued Flores for libel on March 20, claiming he had suffered "shame, embarrassment, humiliation and mental pain and anguish" resulting from the activist's single-page complaint to the city.

Such whining makes Flores, who is coordinator of the immigrants' advocacy group Auto Defense Y Participation Ciudadana, figure she's been right all along about what's happening in Spring Branch.

"The money people in this area have an agenda and it doesn't include the little guy having his say," Flores says. "And it doesn't include minorities and multifamily dwellings."

Whether or not the demolition of the complex, known as the Timber Cove, helped Stearns, it has certainly provided its share of headaches for Huey.

The Timber Cove shared a property line with Huey's campaign headquarters, which was in a house owned by Stearns and provided to the candidate rent-free as a campaign contribution. After the demolition, the complex's owners sued Huey and the city. They claimed the councilwoman had ordered that their repair permits be revoked, leading to the building's destruction.

The house was just one of a number of parcels of property owned or once owned by Stearns, who financed what has become the symbol of Spring Branch's revival, a red-brick bell tower at the corner of Wirt Road and Westview. The revival itself owes much to Stearns, who told the Houston Press last fall that rundown apartment complexes were the bane of Spring Branch. He said he made a vow to rid Spring Branch of the onerous structures or move his business, Valco Scientific Instruments, to Austin.

Stearns is still here, and about 600 apartment units have bit the dust. Stearns bought the complexes, tore them down and sold most of the land to developers, who replaced the apartment complexes with single-family homes priced from $170,000 to $300,000.

Flores' lawyer, Andrew McStay, says he plans to respond "vigorously" to Stearns' libel action for two reasons. First, he says, Stearns is flexing his muscle in an attempt to deter Flores and other activists.

"Mr. Stearns is a millionaire," McStay says. "Brenda has nothing, but she does have a conscience. And she's exercising her right to ask hard questions about the conduct of public officials. If we let people like Brenda be silenced by these kinds of lawsuits, we're all in a hell of a lot of trouble."

But McStay says the best reason for fighting Stearns is that he and Flores believe the questions raised in the ethics complaint are valid.

"We welcome the opportunity to reopen the questions about the Timber Cove and Helen Huey's actions in that demolition," McStay says.

But first, Flores will have to overcome another obstacle to her complaint -- one erected by the Ethics Committee itself.

Flores mailed her complaint and a one-and-a-half-inch thick pile of supporting documentation to committee chairman Walter Schroeder on February 21. A few days later, Schroeder wrote back and told her to make another copy of the documentation and send it to Huey.

A short, saucy mother of ten who is married to a small-appliance repairman, Flores wrote Schroeder back and told him in no uncertain terms that if he wanted Huey to have copies, he could Xerox them off and mail them to her himself, at his expense.

"As taxpayers, we feel [Huey] has already cost us enough," wrote Flores, who says neither she nor Auto Defensa could afford to pay for more copies.

In response, Schroeder packed up Flores' documentation and shipped it back to her, along with a terse letter informing her that the committee wouldn't consider her complaint until she exhibited a "willingness to comply with committee procedures."

The only thing is, the committee's procedural rules say nothing about a person filing an ethics complaint having to provide copies to the subject of the complaint. Schroeder acknowledges it is not a written procedure. Rather, he calls it an "established policy" that has existed for two years.

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