The Insider

The Billy Burge Fan Club Meets Here
As Bob Lanier's handpicked Metro board chairman, office tower broker Billy Burge is Hizzoner's chief engineer in charge of reprogramming transit dollars from buses and trains to city road projects. The process is vital to Lanier's funding of beefed-up law enforcement and the inner-city spruce-up of which the mayor burbles ad nauseam. So, naturally, the mayor would prefer to keep Burge's hands squeezing the teats of that MTA cash cow until Lanier departs office 22 months hence, despite the inconvenient fact that state law limits Metro appointees to eight years' service. Burge is already nine months beyond his natural life span as one of two Commissioners Court appointees to the Metro board, but he's kept his seat because state statutes prohibit a vacancy on an appointive body. Until a replacement is named, Burge stays.

So put yourself in Billy's little black patents for a moment. How do you hang on to your Metro chairmanship in the face of County Judge Robert Eckels' determination to follow the letter of the state law and replace you with his own choice, oilman and former state GOP chair George Strake? Well, you could make like Burge, and just start throwing some more of that Metro gold around, targeting projects in the precincts of commissioners whose inaction in naming a new Metro appointee could keep you on the board until the term-limited end of the Lanier era.

"A couple of precincts are scheduled this month to get some sizable Metro money," explains Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who now has an enhanced appreciation of the qualities of Lanier's little big crony. "As far as I'm concerned, Billy has done an excellent job. I have no problem leaving him on that board till December 31, 1997." Moreover, in a startling affirmation of the power of Metro dollars to negate term limits, Radack vows, "I'm for keeping Billy there as long as we are getting money from Metro."

Likewise, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole is willing to play ball with Billy into the uncharted future as long as Burge maintains his newfound "openness to listening to, reviewing and even approving some of the projects we've been requesting for quite awhile." Until recently, Eversole explains, a number of county projects had been languishing on the Metro back burner beyond the year 2000. Suddenly, says the commissioner, "they are getting back on the radar screen."

Eversole says he's talked with Lanier, who clearly wants Burge to remain chairman till the end of his stint at City Hall, but the commissioner isn't willing to commit that far ahead. "If we continue the relationship we've had the last few months with Mr. Burge, I would not mind considering through the end of this year, and then take it from there." Adds Radack: "There's no secret that the mayor likes Billy on that board. The mayor has told me he's very supportive of Billy."

The third pillar of the majority block on the five-member court that wants to keep Burge a while longer is Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee. Lee's inner-city precinct, as well as his engineering company, ESPA, have benefited under the Lanier administration. ESPA, in fact, has gotten some of that nice recycled Metro funding that went into sidewalk construction contracts inside the Loop.

Lee says Burge has contacts in the federal government that he is exploiting to get more funding for Metro, and that effort might be wasted if Eckels replaces him too soon. "I don't know what reason there would be to be in a big hurry on it," comments Lee. "I'm real flexible on it E. And there'd be no reason to just drop him in the grease, you know." Lee does add the proviso that it would be unseemly for Burge to hang around for nearly two more years, so he'd like to see a new appointee before Lanier goes into involuntary retirement.

A county source claims Eckels is under pressure to fulfill commitments to area legislators during their last session to replace Burge, a promise that supposedly forestalled legislation by Senator Rodney Ellis and others to spell out terms and conditions of service for Metro board members. "This isn't about Billy Burge," insists Eckels. "This is about what the law is, and the commitments I made during my campaign and the last session of the Legislature. The law says he is limited to eight years in office." Eckels says he is prepared to proceed in replacing Burge with Strake and insists he has the votes on the Commissioners Court to do it.

It seems unlikely that the strange bedfellows' coalition of Radack, Eversole and Lee will last much beyond the temporary retention of Burge. In fact, Radack's suggestion that Burge's eventual replacement come from the unincorporated areas of Harris County drew some pungent guffaws from Lee. "That's a crock of shit," exclaims the commissioner. "He's talking about some representation in the far yonder that isn't paying for the system."

If this is a political roadblock, it may have the durability of a chunk of ice on a summer Houston sidewalk.

Stop the Presses!
We're happy to report that nearly a year after the Press filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Justice for details of its investigation of the Chronicle's purchase of the Post, a heavily redacted product has finally trickled down to us. Those thorough DOJ censors blacked out most of the good stuff in a riot of marker ink that might make you think we had requested CIA documents on Iran-Contra. Still, a few tidbits survived.

The documents confirm that Post publisher Dean Singleton told the truth last May when he informed a Houston business club that he and the Hearst Corporation had signed a $120 million agreement-in-principle for the sale of the Post's assets eight months before he actually shuttered the paper. The DOJ papers prove that Hearst's explanation of the purchase (i.e., the Post closed, and we just happened along and bought what was left) was less than candid, and they may explain why Hearst and Chronicle executives refused to hold a news conference the day of the closing/sale. Had they opened themselves up to questions beyond the limits of their pro forma news release, questions about prior purchase agreements with Singleton would have been unavoidable.

The documents also include an interview with an unnamed person who had made a $70 million offer for the Post "with several contingencies." Since by that time Singleton had already inked a tentative agreement with Hearst for a sale price $50 million higher, is it too surprising that Singleton's folks supplied financial figures to the prospect indicating "problems that were much larger or much worse than he first expected"? That buyer, naturally, backed off.

The DOJ investigators concluded that Singleton could successfully mount a failing firm defense against charges of anti-competitive collusion with Hearst, and closed its investigation shortly before the publisher pulled the plug on the Post. Still, it strains The Insider's credulity to believe that once Singleton had the Chronicle offer in the bag, he would search in good faith for a buyer who would pay $50 million less. But maybe we're just a bunch of hard-boiled cynics.

The Insider is hungry! Force-feed him at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax).

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