The Insider

Creative Campaign Finance 101
Normally, the campaign finance reports for city officials make for pretty dry reading, which is why the cabinet drawer that housed them in City Secretary Anna Russell's office once bore the sarcastic label "graft and corruption file." Maybe Russell had some premonition of coming trouble, because a few months back, shortly before the FBI's City Hall sting became public, the label was sanitized to read "contribution and expense reports." Good thing, because the irony might be lost on the G-men who now are poring over copies of councilmembers' reports for last year's municipal election. No doubt the recent belated filings by Michael Yarbrough and Jew Don Boney are getting special attention from the feds. For some reason, both councilmen waited until June 10 to file their reports, which were due on January 15. That was nearly five months past the city deadline -- and a few days after a federal grand jury convened to begin hearing evidence from the FBI's investigation.

Yarbrough, who appears to be a target of the investigation (his Council aide, Richard Johnson, and his son and campaign treasurer, Rodney Yarbrough, have both appeared before the grand jury), laughed when asked why he waited so long to follow city law. "All my reports have been late," he said. "Shit, man, I can't tell you no reason why. That's no big thing." Not unless someone files a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, which has the power to impose penalties of up to $100 a day on late filers.

The councilman also has some unconventional methods of handling his campaign expenditures, judging by his latest report. He personally took $12,000 from his campaign account prior to the November election for what the report describes as "card pushers, flush teams, sound trucks and food." (Flush teams, Yarbrough says, are groups of block walkers who "flush" voters to the polls on Election Day. He didn't explain whether the allusion was to bird hunting or commodes.) In case it's interested, the FBI needn't bother trying to find receipts for those expenditures, because the councilman admits he doesn't have them. "Basically what you're dealing with is transient people," Yarbrough said of his block walkers. "I don't have too many receipts on a lot of that stuff."

Yarbrough also paid himself $600 on November 27 for what the report describes as "political networking." Again, on December 23, he tapped the campaign fund for $700 for "toys and political networking." By way of explanation for those post-election reimbursements, the councilman said that when he's traveling out of the city he doesn't generally take his checkbook along and he has no credit cards, so he takes campaign cash instead. "Sometimes" the trips are for city business, Yarbrough said, "but if I'm purchasing books, that's an extra expense that's not allowed when we're applying for money with the controller's office." If that's true, Yarbrough must be one of Council's most voracious readers.

The District B councilman also listed several payments of cash to individuals for "political goodwill." One such fortunate recipient, Berdie Wooten, is 100 years old, and the councilman said he just "felt like giving her some money."

Yarbrough's creative uses of his campaign funds, if accurately described, do not violate state ethics rules, and may not be in contravention of federal law. But without receipts, it's virtually impossible to determine whether those campaign dollars paid to the councilman are legitimate reimbursements.

On the contribution side of the ledger, Yarbrough's largest donors were the unlikely pair of soon-to-be state senator Jon Lindsay, who chipped in $1,000, and Art Lopez, the central figure in the push to privatize the Sharpstown and Brock Park golf courses, who anted up $2,000 after the election -- while the proposed privatization hung in the balance. Yarbrough interprets the Lopez contribution as intended not to buy his support, but rather to provide the golf entrepreneur with access to him. Likewise, he says Lindsay's contribution was on behalf of PSG, the corporation angling to manage the city's wastewater system. Still, Yarbrough insists, "I'd fight harder for a person that gave me $5 than someone who gave me $5,000." If only Lopez would have known ....

While Boney's latest report is considerably less entertaining than Yarbrough's, his campaign seems squarely in the sights of the federal investigators. FBI agents recently visited the offices of lawyer, city contractor and UH regent Zinetta Burney, whose daughter Sharon chaired Boney's campaign committee. The agents requested all materials relating to Boney's campaign for the District D seat, which ended with his runoff victory over Saundria Chase Gray.

Boney's latest report, covering the period from December 1 to January 15, lists nearly $30,000 in contributions and expenditures of just more than $35,000. Of interest are two $500 contributions from Lydia Rodriguez, the longtime office manager for Ben Reyes, the former councilman who had worked with the FBI agents posing as Latin-American investors in the downtown hotel project. Rodriguez has been interviewed by the FBI previously. Reyes himself chipped in a token contribution of $85. Unlike Yarbrough's report, Boney's does list itemized payments to campaign block walkers by name, indicating that his workers are somewhat less "transient" than his colleague's.

Meanwhile, the continuing public submergence of Reyes and former aide Ross Allyn, who also worked with the FBI-created Cayman Group early this year, is fueling intense speculation that one or both are cooperating with federal investigators. Neither Reyes' attorney Mike Ramsey nor Allyn returned phone calls from The Insider. But Reyes has told at least one person that he was paid $85,000 by the bogus agents before they revealed their true identities. If he emerges unscathed from the probe and does not have to return his consulting fees, perhaps the operation will go down in history as Ben Reyes' sting on the FBI.

The Insider is available by phone at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax) or by e-mail at insider@houston-press.com.

 
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