The Insider

In Like a Lion
In case you'd forgotten about it, the FBI investigation of alleged corruption at City Hall is still out there, but the seeds won't start poking up at the federal building until at least mid-March. Indications are the government's sting all-stars, as drafted by the grand jury sifting through a mountain of audio and video recordings and other evidence, will include two current councilmembers, two former councilmembers and at least two non-officials.

On the other hand, Councilwoman Gracie Saenz, who had only peripheral contact with the federal agents posing as Latin-American businessmen attempting to buy Council votes, reportedly has been examined and cut loose as a free agent.

Councilmen Jew Don Boney and Felix Fraga also appear to be off the starting squad and in line for hand slaps, rather than amputations, for infractions involving the acceptance of illegal campaign cash.

Meanwhile, the probe of wastewater giant PSG's web of contributions to councilmembers is moving along a separate track, in concert with a nationwide federal probe of PSG's political activities, and will have a later day before the grand jury.

A prime reason for the delay in producing the first round of indictments is the late surfacing of two individuals who claim they paid kickbacks to a then-councilmember in 1995 to obtain the inside track on municipal transactions. In one case, the deal allegedly involved payment of a bribe to get a land parcel controlled by the city freed up for sale to the buyer. The other allegation centers on an unspecified contract for which the seeker claims to have paid a kickback to the councilmember. Both witnesses are expected to appear before the grand jury at its next sitting on February 11.

Sting Sightem: Ross Allyn, a former aide and associate of Ben Reyes and a target of the FBI probe, was seen shopping for fruits and veggies recently at the Farmer's Market on Airline. Allyn, who's back in town after a Fundays in the Park assignment for Epic Productions in Charlotte, North Carolina, had little to say about the probe, other than to wonder aloud why the government is picking on poor Ben.

Well, you'd think he should know.

Nothing to Hide?
Assistant district attorney Chuck Noll won't say who filed the complaint, but he's investigating possible campaign violations by Adults for Legal Freedom, the not-for-profit arm of the sexually oriented business industry, in its contributions to the now-dashed City Council aspirations of gay activist Ray Hill. As with other political investigations launched by the D.A.'s office, Noll is barking up ALF's tree simply because someone complained.

"I don't know what went on, I'm just trying to find out what the hell did go on," says Noll, who was instructed by District Attorney Johnny Holmes to look into ALF's activities after a complaint was lodged. Under scrutiny are advertisements and billboards touting Hill's candidacy and labeled "paid for by ALF."

Noll says ALF apparently did not comply with state law requiring it to file a campaign report disclosing the pro-Hill expenditures, which could make the group subject to third-degree felony charges and a $20,000 fine. The D.A.'s office has subpoenaed advertising records from the Houston Press documenting one such ad on behalf of Hill, and is trying to determine whether similar ads in the Montrose Voice listed individual corporate contributors. Noll believes Hill himself has no liability in the matter.

Hill -- who finished fourth among the 16 candidates in the January 18 special election to replace John Peavy Jr. -- says he dropped about $500 in personal funds on his effort, but his campaign spent no money at all. He says he had no decision-making role in the ALF efforts on his behalf -- beyond suggesting that the word "courage" be included on the billboards.

Nelson Hensley, an attorney associated with ALF, claimed surprise upon learning the D.A. was reviewing ALF's expenditures on Hill's behalf. Hensley says ALF will file a campaign report "if ALF determines that is necessary." According to the attorney, the organization has nothing to hide, a quality ALF and the industry's dancers apparently share.

Since Noll is looking at corporate contributions to the Hill campaign, we asked him whether he had checked the latest campaign report for the Reverend James Dixon, who's in a February 18 runoff with lawyer Chris Bell for Peavy's seat. Dixon's disclosure lists a $1,000 contribution from the Bellaire Spine and Injury Center, a $50 gift from an entity called N&J Limited and $100 from HBC Travel Agency.

"You're just making work for me," cracked Noll. "See, I don't go over and read those things unless somebody tells me. But now that you've brought it to my attention, I'll have to go look at it."

While the D.A.'s folks are at it, maybe they should check Councilman Rob Todd's latest filing, wherein he reports paying $135 to "Gimme a Break" for "baby-sitting." You'd think a Council salary would be sufficient to cover childcare, wouldn't you?

Gracie's Blind Date
It looks as if Councilwoman Gracie Saenz will be the first of the flock of mayoral hopefuls to formally declare her candidacy, although ex-chief Lee Brown, Councilmembers Helen Huey and Joe Roach and independent oilman Rob Mosbacher are also considered cinches to make the race.

A source in the Saenz camp says the councilwoman believes she can angle her way into a runoff contest with Mosbacher, based on her probable standing as the only major Hispanic contender. In that Saenz scenario, Mosbacher would vacuum up the votes of west-side Republicans while the black vote would be splintered between Brown and possibly Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee or state Representative Sylvester Turner.

Campaign Strategies's Robert Jara discussed a possible bid for Commissioners Court with Saenz a year ago and gives her good odds to make a mayoral runoff. For starters, Saenz would likely corral most of the Hispanic vote, which Jara estimates at roughly 12 percent of the city electorate. Saenz would then need to add some other elements to that base.

"She's held citywide office, which hardly anybody else who is running, with the exception of Joe Roach, has done," says Jara. "And she's a woman. So when you get all those factors in, she could be a viable candidate."

At least one ostensible Saenz ally, however, is not encouraging her ambitions. Saenz went to the mat in the messy fight to get attorney Vidal Martinez appointed to fill Betti Maldonado's pumps on the Port Commission, but Martinez believes the councilwoman is headed for an unpleasant wake-up call.

"I think it's a suicide run," he says. "I've told her that directly, and so have a lot of us."

Saenz overestimates her name identification among voters, Martinez opines, and is banking on a Hispanic vote that hasn't been a meaningful bloc in any previous mayoral contest.

Martinez figures money also poses a serious obstacle for Saenz. He estimates $600,000 is the minimum a candidate would need to secure "a place at the table," with $1.5 million required to win a runoff. But Saenz, he notes, "hasn't ever raised more than $90,000 or so, and that was in her third try when she was an at-large incumbent."

Martinez adds that if Saenz does wade into the contest, he and other Hispanics will have to give her some money "to keep her from embarrassing herself."

Meanwhile, Martinez singles out state Senator John Whitmire as a potential mayoral wild card, noting that Whitmire could count on the support of fellow Democrats and law enforcement types, as well as close pals state Senator Mario Gallegos and Congressman Gene Green.

"There are a lot of people in this town who owe things to John Whitmire," reasons Martinez. "I wouldn't dismiss the likelihood of someone like him sailing in from the darkness into this race."

Rush to Charter, Part II
As it turns out, last week's item in this space revealing the intra-campus bickering over the University of Houston's new charter school barely scratched the surface of the acrimony.

In a letter since obtained by The Insider, Katy Greenwood, the distance learning coordinator at the university's College of Technology, let it all hang out to UH board chairman Eduardo Aguirre Jr., right down to a plea to remove the charter school from oversight by administrators on UH's main campus.

Greenwood accused campus administrators, particularly provost John Ivancevich, of undermining the charter school, which was proposed by College of Technology staff and was initially set to open in September with 200 students from kindergarten through the fourth grade.

"Due to negligence, non-responsiveness and political maneuvering by the University of Houston (president and provost)," wrote Greenwood, "the project is in dire danger of not being carried out or carried out in ways unintended by the proposers."

Greenwood indicated that UH administrators feared retaliation by Governor George Bush, who has made charter schools a centerpiece of his education agenda, should UH's charter plans never bear fruit. She cited a September 27 emergency meeting called by UH president Glenn Goerke with College of Technology administrators.

"Goerke was angry and upset," wrote Greenwood. "[He] said that funds would be taken away from the university (by the governor) if we did not carry through on the charter and if we did not start up by January 1997."

As the rush began to get the charter's doors opened by January, the original notion of the project as one that could serve as a blueprint for public schools gave way to a vision of "an elite, gifted and talented program, to showcase the university (and the provost office)," Greenwood told Aguirre.

Greenwood's final analysis of the politics behind the charter school effort was equally biting. Observing that interim administrators have created a decade of chaos on the main UH campus, she concluded, "These 'interims' are usually 'wannabes' and want to make a mark, an impression on higher authority, regardless of financial cost, or human cost."

In the Zone
In the January 2 Insider, we wrote that the two wealthy cronies of Mayor Bob Lanier who led the charge against zoning, Billy Burge and Holcombe Crosswell, live in "highly regulated and privately policed River Oaks." Burge is indeed domiciled in River Oaks, but during the 1993 battle over the proposed zoning ordinance, Crosswell actually resided in a posh, zoned Piney Point subdivision that may be more restrictive, if less expensive, than River Oaks.

But Crosswell -- who's been rumored to be considering running for mayor, along with several thousand others -- has now moved to a townhouse on Potomac Street in west Houston, right down the block from the original Z-man himself, former councilman Jim Greenwood.

Isn't it great the way Houston is growing?

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

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