By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Port of Desire
With the profusion of poison pens jabbing over the upcoming appointment to fill the city's slot on the Port Authority Commission, not all the stings being inflicted at City Hall these days are of the FBI variety. Two weeks ago, Port Commissioner Betti Maldonado, who unwittingly assisted undercover agents in dropping an envelope of tainted cash on at least one councilmember, wrote to state Senator Mario Gallegos skewering him for daring to back a prospective replacement for her on the commission. Maldonado has since announced her intention to resign effective August 1 and declared her support of lawyer Vidal Martinez, a former UH regent, as her successor. Martinez reportedly already has the votes of a majority of councilmembers to replace Maldonado, including sting targets John Castillo and Felix Fraga.
That development provoked an admonitory missive to Castillo from consultant Marc Campos, who worked for the new councilman in last fall's election. Campos claims that money-raising for Castillo's legal defense is being coordinated from Martinez's law offices, calling into question Castillo's role boosting the Hughes & Luce lawyer's appointment. "John, you are a central figure in the most potentially damaging political scandal in the history of the Houston Hispanic community," wrote Campos, who is backing Gallegos' candidate for appointment to the commission, South Texas College of Law professor Olga Moya. "By voting for one of your key legal defense fundraisers for the Port Commission, you will once again be discrediting yourself. Your vote will most likely be construed as selling your vote to the highest bidder to stay out of jail." Campos then warned Castillo that denying Martinez is involved in the fundraising for his defense "will only hurt you down the road."
Castillo -- who according to Maldonado accepted an envelope bearing $3,000 from the FBI -- does indeed deny that his support for Martinez has any connection to his predicament as an (as yet unindicted) recipient of undercover cash. The councilman says he presently is not collecting contributions for a criminal defense, since it's not clear if he can legally do so. The city's campaign finance laws, he notes, don't distinguish between money-raising for election purposes and for a legal fund, and ban any contributions at all until 270 days before the next municipal election, which is in 1997. But Castillo has asked the Texas Ethics Commission to clarify whether campaign law restricts fundraising for a legal defense. City Attorney Gene Locke, who has not issued an opinion on the subject, says he will be guided by the state commission's word, if any is forthcoming.
Martinez also rejects any implication that he is helping Castillo prepare his defense, legally or financially. "I haven't done a thing for John because there's nothing to do," the lawyer insists.
Campos and his allies were further nonplused by Maldonado's presence when Councilmember Gracie Saenz convened interested parties at the Four Seasons Hotel last week to chat with the Port Authority aspirants. Gallegos, clearly biting his tongue, would say only that he and candidate Moya "were very surprised to see [Maldonado] there."
Gallegos, state Representative Gerard Torres and state Senator John Whitmire then met with Mayor Bob Lanier the following day to protest Martinez's apparent lock on the Port appointment. According to one participant, the meeting grew heated, with Gallegos bluntly warning Lanier that the senator's cooperation in the Legislature on issues such as the new sports stadia could be jeopardized if Moya were not given fair consideration for the non-salaried job. The same source says that Lanier told his visitors he was concerned that the FBI sting might result in the loss of three Hispanic councilmembers, a remark that left the legislators puzzling over who he might be talking about. (So far, only Castillo, Fraga and John Peavy, an African-American, have been publicly identified as having received FBI cash. Saenz and freshman Orlando Sanchez are the only other Hispanics on the Council.)
Gallegos' complaints to Lanier apparently fell on deaf ears, because at press time Martinez's nomination looked to be in the bag, if not the envelope.
Penning contentious correspondence seems to be a popular activity this month on the Republican side of the aisle as well. Harris County GOP Chairman Gary Polland ruffled some Republican judges recently with a letter informing them that a new committee will be recommending standards for the party's executive committee to adopt for future judicial candidates. Although it's unclear what or how binding the new standards would be, some courthouse types greeted the news with apprehension, given the county party's swing even further to the right since the departure of Betsy Lake, Polland's more moderate predecessor.
Probate Judge Mike Wood, a Lake ally who organized an informal screening of GOP judicial hopefuls for the 1994 election, argues that Polland is stepping into an activity best left to the Legislature. By imposing standards that could restrict the party's pool of would-be judges, Wood fears Polland will be playing into the hands of organizations, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, that want to change the way judges are picked in Texas. But Polland's brainchild, Wood says, is already stillborn. "They've met once," he says, "and decided there was nothing for them to do."