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For just a moment, it seemed as if there might be at least one good man laboring at Congressman Steve Stockman's political sweatshop-cum-residence when I dropped in last week for an unannounced visit. Several raps on the front door had summoned a lanky young African-American volunteer named Booker T. Stallworth. Despite being confronted by a stranger with a press I.D. card clipped to his shirt pocket and a bulky Sony tape recorder and microphone slung over his shoulder, Stallworth flashed an all-American smile and graciously motioned me in. Judging by the fallout generated by those two or three steps forward, I might just as well have landed on the front lawn of Stockman's Friendswood home in a black helicopter.
Once inside, my rather limited tour of the Stockman compound lasted about two minutes before I was ordered out by an officious young Stockmanite who refused to identify himself and displayed a distinct aversion to cameras. No physical contact, shouting or foul language occurred during the brief encounter. Yet within two hours of my visit, Stockman's Capitol Hill office began spewing press releases at taxpayers' expense that accused me of trespassing and forcing my way into the congressman's residence and physically assaulting his campaign workers.
"This is outrageous!" Stockman was quoted as huffing in one "updated" release (headlined "Stockman Stalked by Trespassing Reporter"). "I have called the Harris County Sheriff's Department, the Capitol Hill police and the [U.S. House] Sergeant-at-Arms' office. I am pressing charges for trespass and assault and battery."
Stockman's office even suggested that I had terrorized the congressman's wife, Patti Bullock Stockman, assuring the world that she "was unharmed" after my visit. That insinuation was especially outlandish, given that I never laid eyes on Patti Stockman (who, incidentally, has a $58,000-a-year job at the Johnson Space Center that presumably would have required her presence on that weekday afternoon).
Stockman himself hastily caught a plane back from D.C. "to address the emergency," according to his congressional flack Cory Birenbaum, and while in flight called a talk-radio station in Beaumont to beat the drums about the alleged home invasion. Birenbaum told another reporter that Stockman already had complained to Friendswood police, one of whom, the spokesman related, declared that he "would have shot the son of a bitch dead." But the chief of the Friendswood force told another local reporter that his department hadn't heard from Stockman.
The Stockman press releases alerted area media outlets, whose reporters were soon sorting through the lies produced by the Stockman propaganda machine and writing their own stories about the incident. Birenbaum tried to peddle one whopper that I had crashed the Stockman-Newt Gingrich rally at a Galleria-area hotel last month by falsely claiming to be a reporter with the Associated Press. The only problem with that was that the A.P. reporter and I had both bantered with Birenbaum at the event, and clearly identified ourselves to him. I had received a press credential to the rally after displaying my Houston police press I.D., which bears the name Houston Press in large, hard-to-miss letters.
The lies continued later, when volunteer Stallworth filed a complaint with the Harris County Sheriff's Department falsely claiming that I had pushed him and shouted and screamed during my visit. (The recording I made of the incident shows the conversation never broke a sonic sweat.) The sheriff's department punted the complaint to the district attorney's office, where Johnny Holmes' top assistant, Don Stricklin, was investigating at press time.
In retrospect, Stallworth's dissembling probably explains what a seemingly nice guy like him was doing hanging with the Stockman gang. By inviting me into Stockman's political nest, though, Stallworth did prove that he hadn't absorbed a central tenet of the congressman's bag of far-right beliefs: that the three major evils in America today are Bill Clinton, Big Government and the Liberal Media. Who knows? If the affable Stallworth would open the door to a reporter, he might have ushered in Slick Willie and Hillary as well. As would soon become apparent, Stallworth is a touch of normalcy -- if not total truthfulness -- in the highly overheated realm of Stockmania.
The congressman's home is nestled on Whitman Way in the Heritage Park subdivision behind Baybrook Mall. A sign posted at the entrance to the subdivision bears the stern warning that "deed restrictions will be enforced," but the restrictions have either lapsed along with the phone number on the sign, or they don't apply to a thriving for-profit political consulting business.
Photographer Nicole Fruge and I drove to Friendswood to do some on-the-scene investigation of Political Won Stop, a business registered in Brazoria County that operates out of Stockman's residence and has received $126,000 in payments from the congressman's campaign since January. One of the listed principals of the firm, Chris Cupit, just happens to be the Republican nominee for tax assessor-collector of Jefferson County, a position that has been vacated by Democrat Nick Lampson, who is now running for Congress against Stockman.
Cupit apparently has no official campaign office of his own in Jefferson County, raising questions about whether resources from his and Stockman's campaigns are being commingled in the rather cozy spaces of the Whitman Way residence. That would be a violation of federal election law. And The Hill, a D.C.-based weekly that covers Congress and first reported on the Political Won Stop operation, has questioned whether Stockman's campaign keeps the appropriately legal "arms-length" distance from the consultants, whose phone number is the same as Stockman's and who presumably use the facilities available to others in the Stockman household.