The Insider

Swinging for the Fence
A recent poll indicates that the interests campaigning for a new downtown baseball stadium have many minds to change between now and the November 5 referendum. Conducted by UH political science department chairman Kent Tedin, the mid-September sample of 400 county voters revealed that opposition to the proposal is solid. Nearly 70 percent of respondents were against the general idea of using public funds to build a new ballpark, and nearly 60 percent opposed the more specific idea of a downtown stadium.

So how big is the hurdle for Proposition 1? "Real big," answers Tedin associate Dr. Richard Murray, who figures the proposal backers must mount a savvy media effort that clears up voters' questions about the details of the stadium deals. Mark McKinnon, the Austin-based consultant crafting the TV advertisements in favor of Proposition 1, claims to be undisturbed by the survey and says he's already seeing signs of shifting public sentiment to a pro-stadium position. His first glossy effort, featuring former employer Bob Lanier, hit the airwaves this week.

Children, Behave!
Tent 34, that civil-war-racked local chapter of the Variety Club children's charity, staged its latest black-comedy production last week in ancillary court. The courtroom waiting room hosted Tent 34's current board chairman (or chief barker, in Variety Club parlance) and three former chairmen, but there was very little yapping between them. The three ex-barkers had banded together against the incumbent, Pace Motor Sports CEO Gary Becker, who along with other club officers had just made history by becoming the first chapter of the worldwide charity to sue its international governing body. "They may have the numbers, but I've got the ace up my sleeve," Becker muttered cryptically to his lawyer. Both sides repeatedly declared to anyone who would listen that they only had the best interests of the city's needy children at heart.

Pace and pals claim Variety Club International interfered in Tent 34's affairs and damaged its ability to pursue its charitable aims. Also named in the legal action is Tent 34's office manager, Charlotte Hayes, who allegedly locked current board officers out of the club's offices on Kirby on instructions from the International. The injunction request filed by Tent 34 seeks "to recover actual damages, including lost business and profits occasioned by Variety Club International's actions" and asked state District Judge William "Bill" Bell to issue a temporary restraining order allowing the current board to go about its business of raising money. Since Tent 34 is incorporated as a nonprofit under Texas law, Becker's attorney argued that the Iowa-based International has no legal right to interfere with the local chapter's board or its assets.

Tent 34 split into warring factions last summer over executive director Laura Rowe, whose flamboyant fundraising style crossed the line when she filed false expense reports. Rowe's alleged longtime relationship with former chief barker John Nau III had also created controversy, with some members feeling a liaison between two married people occupying key positions at the charity was unseemly. Rowe tendered a forced resignation, but her supporters, including Becker, had vowed to see her return as the charity's fundraiser. Last month, the pro-Laura board members staged a counterstrike by ousting chief barker Alan Markoff and replacing him with Becker.

The International notified the current board by letter on September 26 that it was suspended, according to International president Mike Reilly, "for conduct which the [International] deems prejudicial to its best interests." The International officers also notified Texas Commerce Bank to refuse a change of signatories on Tent 34's amply stocked account of several hundred thousand dollars. The International appointed an interim board to run the Houston chapter, and its members include previous chief barkers Markoff and Pat Fant, leaders in the effort to rid Tent 34 of Rowe.

Attorneys for both sides refused to discuss the particulars of the current legal engagement. "It's embarrassing to be going to court on behalf of a children's charity, but I have no choice," says Bennett Fisher, who represents Variety Club International. International president Reilly says one acceptable formula would be for the current club board to drop its Variety Club identity and operate under a new name.

Judge Bell decided to take a hands-off approach to the conflict, asking the factions to work out their own solution and report back to him. As of our deadline, the two sides had been unable to work out a compromise, reinforcing Tent 34's new image as the charity where the adults not only help children but also behave like them.

Help Wanted (Always)
The Congress-covering weekly Roll Call recently conducted a survey that found Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to be one of only four House Democrats with two D.C.-based staffers making more than $100,000 a year. According to the publication, the Lee payroll includes chief of staff/counsel Pauline Higgins, who pulls down $105,000, and deputy chief of staff Thomas McCloud, who takes home $103,133. Perhaps Roll Call should have heeded its earlier story reporting that Lee had the highest employee turnover rate in the House freshman class, because those well-compensated staffers have now joined the exodus.

Higgins departed in April, and McCloud's last workday was September 27. Lee's acting chief of staff, Kathi Wilkes, says neither she nor anyone else on staff will be making 100 grand "at least until after the election." Lee's Houston office director, Tom Combs, who also makes less than $100,000, cracks, "I just worked my way up from scheduling funerals," a reference to the congresswoman's penchant for popping up at local memorial services to deliver self-promoting speeches.

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