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By Craig Malisow
Up to His (Rear End) in (Excrement)
If there's one thing Houston Chronicle publisher Richard J.V. Johnson hates more than having one of his sacred cows butchered in the paper's pages, it's subjecting readers to scatological references and other profane turns of phrase.
Johnson bitterly complained to editor Jack Loftis last month after the word "shit," or "the s-word," as the publisher terms it, made its way unmolested into the bottom of the paper's glowing page-one Sunday profile of Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale. But that was nothing compared to Johnson's reaction to features writer Louis B. Park's December 14 piece on the film Sabrina. Parks' story included the following unexpurgated quote from star Harrison Ford, as he mused on what he looks for in a role: "Not a great part for me. A good movie. If the movie is not a good idea to start with, you're shit out of luck from the very get-go." If that weren't enough to redden the publisher's face, Parks threw in this other bit of filmic philosophizing from Ford about the importance of including emotional balance in an action film to ensure viewers care about the plot: "The audience may not even want that, but after they've seen the sixth goddamn thing blow up, they don't give a shit, because they don't care about any of the people being blown up."
"It's like Louis had an attack of Tourette's syndrome for two paragraphs," observed one of Parks' Chronicle colleagues.
Another Chron source says Johnson came down hard on Loftis, demanding that he fire either Parks or Melissa Aguilar, the assistant features editor who processed the Sabrina story. Loftis refused, and instead issued a "to our readers" apology the following day: "An article in Thursday's Houston section contained profanity and unnecessary expletives. The Chronicle is embarrassed by the way the story was written and edited and extends a sincere apology to the reader."
The same source offers the theory that Johnson is actually using the "s-word" controversy to undermine Loftis and expedite his replacement. The two have had serious disagreements in recent months, one being the formatting of the revamped Chron TV guide, with Johnson pushing a cheaper formula that Loftis thought looked like the s-word.
Whatever the case, the paper's management is apparently darn serious about excising those bad words. Consider sportswriter Neal Farmer's piece that appeared on the day of the Sabrina apology, with this sanitized observation from Bear Bryant Award winner Gary Barnett of Northwestern University: "When you are up to your (rear end) in alligators, you don't worry about draining the swamp." The quote doesn't quite convey the flavor of what Barnett said, but at least no one bit Farmer's ass over it.
Let Me Consult My Son the Consultant
Methodist Hospital has sustained its share of black eyes over the past decade, particularly that 60 Minutes hit on the institution's lavish spending and the infinitesimal amount of resources it devoted to charity health care. More recently, questions have been raised about the private nonprofit's consulting contract with McKinsey and Company. An Insider tipster points out that there's a blood connection between McKinsey and Methodist, namely John Bookout Sr., the retired CEO of Shell Oil who chairs the hospital's 50-member board, and his son, John Bookout Jr., a McKinsey partner and director of one of the firm's California offices. McKinsey is a billion-dollar national operation not particularly known for consultations on health care in Texas, at least according to several health care consultants in the state whom we consulted for diagnoses on the contract.
Both Bookout Sr. and Methodist CEO Larry Mathis insist there was nothing improper about the no-bid contract, since the Bookout family's connection to the firm was disclosed to the board at the time the hospital's deal with McKinsey was signed and again when it was extended last February. Both Bookouts also deny influencing the award of the pact.
"Everybody is related to somebody" on a board the size of Methodist's, Mathis said in dismissing the notion there was anything wrong with the award of the contract. But isn't the chairman in a more sensitive position than any of the 49 other trustees? "No," replied Mathis. "Why would that be?"
Mathis refused to disclose what work the consulting giant is actually doing or how much it is being paid. "This is a highly competitive marketplace and I sure don't want to be having to read what McKinsey and Company is doing for us," he explained. The elder Bookout also declined to provide a figure on McKinsey's contract.
While Mathis claimed Bookout Sr. had nothing to do with the McKinsey contract, Bookout Jr. indicated there was at least some father-son discussion about it. "I believe our health care practice is the finest in the world, and to the extent my father needs help or support at all in that environment, I'm entirely comfortable with him reaching out for the very best talent, and I think in this case it's clearly McKinsey," he said. Both Bookouts said the Methodist contract has no effect on the younger Bookout's yearly income, but the son acknowledged that McKinsey is a partnership, with a board of managing partners that sets the annual earnings of each partner. The fact that one partner might receive credit for bringing in a large Texas contract couldn't hurt his case when salaries are apportioned, now could it?
A lawyer with expertise in charitable trusts who once worked for the Texas attorney general's office says nonprofits have a variety of ways of dealing with special-interest ties between board members and contractors. "Some organizations just have a flat-out prohibition, like 'We're just not going to let this happen.' Methodist obviously does not." The key question about the contract's propriety, opines our expert, is whether the hospital is "getting fair market value" on the contract. Since neither Mathis nor Bookout would disclose the dollar figures, that remains an open question.
Reach out and touch The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax).
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