The Insider

Turning to Gold
If you've been up nights worrying about the financial security of Larry Mathis, the departing president and CEO of the nonprofit Methodist Health Care System, rest easy. Rampant speculation in Medical Center circles has the 53-year-old Mathis wafting away on a multimillion-dollar golden parachute next year. While Methodist promises somewhat less for Larry, don't expect to see him propped up against a street sign with a "homeless Med Center vet" sign around his neck anytime soon.

In a response to an Open Records request from The Insider, Methodist vice chairman Randy Smith said that while Mathis' deal has not been finalized, he is expected to receive a "fair and reasonable" sum "three times his annual compensation." Methodist declined to produce any documentation for Mathis' future nest egg, citing the fact that he remains with the system and contending that its internal communications are privileged.

In 1995, the system pegged Mathis' annual salary at $581,345, promising him a very cool going-away check of at least $1,744,035 when he departs next summer. Mathis told one reporter he always wanted to restructure his life by age 55, and it looks like he'll have adequate funding for the renovation work. Methodist may have been sued by the Texas attorney general for not providing enough free care for indigent patients a few years back, but its charity care program for retiring executives seems quite healthy.

Firm Support
Speaking of charity, Republican judicial candidate Caroline Baker certainly can't gripe about the level of support she's receiving from her colleagues at the law firm of McFall, Sherwood and Sheehy, but the Texas Ethics Commission may have some questions. Baker, the niece of former Secretary of State James Baker and a candidate for the bench of the 151st District Court, hauled in two contributions of $20,000 each from her firm, the first during her GOP primary campaign and the most recent on September 10. Baker, who's trying to unseat Democrat incumbent Carolyn Garcia, also received an in-kind gift of $5,444.17 from the firm at the end of June to pay for campaign personnel, equipment and supplies. Likewise, the firm had gifted her with $1,687 worth of services for the primary.

The only hitch in all this is that the state's Judicial Campaign Fairness Act prohibits a single law firm from contributing more than $5,000 during an election cycle to a district judge candidate in counties more than one million in population. The law allows members of a firm to contribute an aggregate of up to $30,000 per election cycle, or six times the law firm's allotted total. Baker's campaign filings simply list the law firm, a violation that could make her liable for penalties equal to three times the contributions accepted in violation of the law.

Baker consultant Allen Blakemore initially denied that her campaign report violated ethics rules, and insisted that firms could contribute up to a cap of $30,000. After an Ethics Commission attorney opined that the two $20,000 contributions in the firm's name appeared to violate the election code, Blakemore changed his tune. The money, he explained, actually came from McFall, Sherwood and Sheehy's nine partners as individual contributions, even though the firm had issued single $20,000 checks. Blakemore says his employees made the filing mistake, which will be corrected at the Ethics Commission ASAP. The Insider's calls to Baker and firm partners Don McFall and Rick Sheehy were not returned, so we didn't get to question them about the firm's heartfelt underwriting of Baker's judicial ambitions.

More Tales of Cupit (Rhymes with Dupe Hit)
Those who wondered why Congressman Steve Stockman's house consultant Chris Cupit was conducting a largely invisible campaign for Jefferson County tax assessor now have an answer: Cupit burst from the underbrush this week with a radio ad attacking not his opponent, incumbent Tax Assessor Miriam Johnson, but rather Nick Lampson, Stockman's Democratic rival, who stepped down as tax assessor to run for Congress. The Cupit ad paints Lampson as an embarrassment to Jefferson County who ran a corrupt and incompetent office. Cupit works out of Stockman's Friendswood home as one of the principals of Political Won Stop, a firm that has received more than $200,000 in Stockman campaign cash over the past year. Cupit paid three Beaumont stations nearly $24,000 by personal check from his Gulf Employee Credit Union account to run the ad. The gambit is just one more indication that the coins dropped by Stockman on Political Won Stop have not rolled very far from their source.

Shell(ey) Game
You'd hardly expect former Republican state senator and lobbyist Dan Shelley to lift a finger to help Democratic Senator John Whitmire in his District 15 fight against GOP challenger Tom Kelly, but a letter Shelley sent out recently to elected officials indicates otherwise. Shelley focuses on Kelly's rather dusty criminal record -- two armed robberies committed 36 years ago -- and two stints in the state pen, the second after Kelly violated parole. "Republicans cannot claim an electoral victory by sending a convicted criminal to the Texas Senate," wrote Shelley. "As our party grows, we must become more educated about the candidates. I hope you will keep this in mind when making a decision on your vote for Texas State Senate in November."

Kelly, who was 17 at the time of the robberies, claims he was wrongfully convicted. No one was hurt in the crimes, which netted less than $200, a fraction of the amount Whitmire received for supposed legal work for the Harris County Adult Probation Department. Kelly told a Chronicle reporter last May that "only people with vindictive and small minds will not give a person a second chance." Republican Governor Bill Clements apparently thought so, and cleared Kelly's felon status with a pardon in 1979.

Kelly is given virtually no chance of beating Whitmire in his heavily Democratic district, and Shelley's letter came some five months after the Republican challenger's long-ago criminal exploits were publicly disclosed. Shelley did not return an Insider phone inquiry, but a consultant who knows the lobbyist figures he's just trying to get on the senator's good side for future legislative battles.

Rodney, the Movie
Once you see the upcming PBS documentary featuring ramblin' Rodney Ellis loose on the state Senate floor with a hidden microphone, the more incomprehensible is the senator's explanation that he was unaware other folks were being taped. Ellis flounces around, cracking jokes and looking for all the world like a performer vamping for the camera while sopping up compliments on his mastery of the process from the likes of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. Off the floor, Ellis is hardly more humble, observing in a sit-down interview that probably more than half his colleagues have lower IQs than he does, a statement that cuts directly against his claim that he was stupidly unaware of the power of a hidden mike.

"We failed to ask PBS questions [about the mike's range], and they're not to blame," says Ellis aide William Paul Thomas. "Sometimes experience is the test before the lesson, and we've learned."

No less an authority than former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby has told associates that he believes Ellis' effectivness as a lawmaker has been permanently damaged by the escapade. On the bright side, compulsive weight-watcher Ellis shouldn't have much of a problem fighting the pounds over the next year. They say crow eaten in large amounts is a very low-calorie diet.

The Insider can be reached at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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