The Insider

Shadow Play
General admission seats were impossible to come by as the trial of state Representative Sylvester Turner's libel lawsuit against Wayne Dolcefino and Channel 13 got under way last week. Of the three rows of seating in Judge Elizabeth Ray's tiny courtroom, the first pew was reserved for the plaintiff and defendants and their entourages of lawyers and legal assistants. The second row was earmarked for the press and the camera from cable's Court TV, which is airing the trial daily. The definition of "press" proved quite flexible, however, with the attendees including several attorneys sporting press passes.

The last row was reserved for the public, but the meaning of "public" also seemed stretched by the quiet group of note-taking observers who curiously matched the demographics of the jury itself: six men and six women, including two black males. Although several of the note-takers denied it, they apparently are part of a shadow jury, a frequently used legal tactic through which a jury consultant tries to gauge the reactions of the real jurors. The shadows typically are paid a daily rate of $75 to $100 each and are debriefed by the consultant at the end of each day's testimony. Turner attorney Ron Franklin denied to the Press that he had hired the group, but Dolcefino attorney Chip Babcock ducked the question. If the shadows are working for Channel 13, presumably the consultant has suggested to Babcock that he should have Dolcefino refrain from constantly smirking at the opposition in court.

No word on what the shadows, or the real jury, made of the combative testimony of veteran private investigator Clyde Wilson, who wasted no time in declaring his belief that Turner is fit to be neither mayor nor state representative. Apparently not content to speak reprovingly of a past African-American mayoral candidate, Wilson used the occasion to trash a future one as well. After Franklin accused Wilson of receiving a ticket-collection contract from the Lanier administration as a payback for leaking damaging material on Turner to Dolcefino, Wilson retaliated by repeatedly naming Lee P. Brown as one of the recipients of a cut of that contract "for doing nothing at all." While the former HPD chief was initially listed as a partner in what was to become Bayou City Enterprises -- the minority contractor that did receive a cut of the contract -- there's no indication Brown received anything as a result of his early involvement, other than a few belated nicks from Wilson's verbal razor.

Only His Hairdresser Knew for Sure
If developer Ken Schnitzer had just listened to the advice of his barber and manicurist, he might not have needed the intercession of U.S. District Judge David Hittner to overturn his jury conviction on bank fraud charges. Schnitzer regularly patronizes Estevan's in Greenway Plaza, as does Trenton Torregrossa Jr., a former director of the failed Cornerstone Savings. Torregrossa was imprisoned for 15 months after being found guilty of bank fraud and illegal loan participation, but he and two other defendants had their convictions in Hittner's court overturned by judges from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last year. When Torregrossa dropped by the shop after his release, he gave manicurist Vinnette Grant and barber Jeanne Mar a newspaper clipping detailing the strategy his attorney, Bill King, had used for the appeal. When Schnitzer came in for a post-indictment trim, Grant and Mar urged him to read Torregrossa's story. "But he gave it back to me," Grant recalls, "and said, 'I already got my own lawyer. I don't need another one.' "

But Schnitzer returned to the shop in a distinctly different mood after his conviction and plaintively asked, "Can y'all believe all the jurors found me guilty?" Grant and Mar again pushed the clipping on him and insisted he call Torregrossa's lawyer. Schnitzer eventually did call King, who was added to his legal team for post-verdict maneuvers. A former officer for the failed Columbia Savings who knows banking regulations intimately, King says he discovered that federal prosecutors had based their argument against Schnitzer and his co-defendants on accounting standards for S&Ls that were not in effect during the time of the alleged violations. Hittner cited that fact as a key reason for overturning the jury's verdict.

Schnitzer dismisses the notion that his barber and manicurist played any role in his acquittal by Hittner, but King is more appreciative of the barber shop referral. "Maybe I ought to go get a haircut there to thank them," he says. A big tip might be in order as well.

Tip The Insider by calling 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mail at insider@houston-press.com.

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