By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Stop the Music
Though he denies it, at-large City Councilman Orlando Sanchez is conducting a behind-the-scenes crusade to prevent artists from Castro's Cuba from performing in Houston. Two weeks after jousting with Houston International Festival organizers over their booking of the band Cubanismo, Sanchez and several fellow Cuban-Americans have successfully pressured the Da Camera Society into withdrawing its sponsorship of a concert next month by the recently formed American jazz band Crisol, which includes four top Cuban musicians, including two who reside on the island.
In a May 1 letter to Da Camera executive director Mary Lou Aleskie, Sanchez cited a curious precedent to justify keeping Houstonians from hearing Cuban artists perform live: "Remember that during the period of apartheid in South Africa, many U.S. institutions refused any relationships with South Africans. In addition, I should remind you that Wagner is still forbidden to be played in many parts of Israel."
Asked by The Insider last week whether he thought it was right to ban the playing of Wagner just because Adolf Hitler grooved on the 19th-century German composer six decades ago, Sanchez expanded on his point: "If you think that it's good to be sensitive to people's trials and tribulations, then I guess it's good. And if you're of the position that 'I don't give a crap what happened to them and the sensitivities of that community,' then fine. You play [Wagner]."
Likewise, the councilman said the feelings of Cuban-Americans who suffered or had relatives who suffered under Castro should be considered when Cuban artists are booked to play in Houston.
In his letter to Aleskie, Sanchez indicated that he prefers that organizations receiving taxpayer dollars (as Da Camera does through the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, which is funded through a share of the city's hotel-motel tax) not support any cultural or business exchanges with Cuba. He went on to acknowledge that U.S. policy allows cultural exchanges with Cuba, and requested that Da Camera follow the letter of the Helms-Burton Act prohibiting Cuban artists from being paid for their U.S. performances. Under the law, visiting Cuban artists may be paid only on a per diem basis to cover expenses for travel, lodging and food.
Curiously, when we spoke with him, Sanchez seemed far more tolerant than in his private communications with Da Camera and said he had no problem with Cuban artists who receive only travel expenses.
"I try not to get involved or pass judgment on any sporting groups or musicians who come here," said Sanchez, ignoring the fact that he had just intervened to question appearances by two groups of Cuban musicians. "If you're going to use taxpayer dollars simply to provide a per diem or room or board .... I mean, you got to feed the people, you got to give them shelter. I'm not troubled by that."
Had Sanchez bothered to check with Crisol before pressuring Da Camera, he would have found that the group's management is well aware of the Helms-Burton strictures and is following them with the approval of the U.S. State Department.
Sanchez ended his letter to Aleskie by telling her that he was confident her decision on Crisol would be made "with the full knowledge of the concerns of the Cuban community."
Perhaps by coincidence, several days after Sanchez sent his letter, a delegation of anti-Castro types came calling on Aleskie to denounce Da Camera's sponsorship of the Crisol concert.
As Aleskie later described the meeting in an apologetic note to Crisol manager Larry Clothier, she was visited by "a group of Cuban businessmen ... to deliver the attached speech, during which one of them threw his American passport on my desk (to demonstrate what, I'm not sure) and followed up this act with their declaration to continue their war against censorship. Confused? Yeah, me too."
(The text of a speech left behind by one of Aleskie's visitors, Peter Angel Garcia, suggests why she might have been confused: "The Cuban-American community is told: Don't rain on our parade! Let the Cubans play on. They sound so good .... [But] the propaganda is too seductive .... Whatever happened to the steadfast American holding the light of Democracy?")
Aleskie explained to Clothier that had the band been booked as part of Da Camera's regular season, Sanchez and company's interference would have been ig-nored. "My board (at least most of them) are incensed at this attempt to direct our programming," she wrote, "but without the subscriber base to fall back on and financial risk at this late date, we just don't think we can overcome this negativity."
"Larry, what can I say? I remain disappointed for us and for Houston," Aleskie concluded.
When contacted by The Insider, Aleskie tried to play down the political factors in Da Camera's decision to withdraw support for the Crisol concert and claimed the financial risk was decisive. She also expressed dismay that her letter to Clothier had been leaked to the media.
The characterization of Crisol as a tool of the Castro government is far-fetched, to put it mildly. The band takes its name from the Spanish word for "melting pot" and is headed by an American, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and also includes a Houstonian, Frank Lacy. Hargrove's previous band performed here last year to a packed house under the sponsorship of Da Camera.
After taking in a jazz festival in Havana and meeting a number of Cuban musicians last year, Hargrove decided to incorporate some of them into a new band under the name Crisol. The group played European cities this winter, and is launching its first U.S. tour this month along with the release of a CD entitled Habana. The band members who reside in Cuba are pianist "Chucho" Valdez and Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana, renowned as one of the world's best timbal players.
Jim Austin, the director of the Houston International Festival, refused to cancel Cubanismo's performance after criticism from Sanchez. Austin says if the U.S. has approved the right of Cuban artists to perform here, Sanchez and friends should take up their complaint with federal authorities rather than local arts groups.
"Where do we stop?" asks Austin. "What if another faction doesn't like the fact we're bringing Jamaicans next year, because of something that happened in its history?"
While Sanchez denies he threatened groups who support the visits of Cuban artists, he recently told the Press that "some questions will be asked" when Austin goes before Council next year to secure funding for the International Festival. But Austin, unlike Da Camera, thus far has not been intimidated. "I just do not see how a city councilman or an arts organization can start determining foreign policy for this country," he says. "It baffles me."
Even more baffled is Crisol manager Clothier, who says there have been no complaints about the band's other scheduled U.S. performances. While Sanchez says Cuban expatriates suspect that the Castro regime is using musicians to make money, Clothier counters that the opportunity to play with the best in the world is what drives the Cuban musicians of Crisol. "It's something they dream of," says Clothier, "and they all dream of the time when all this bullshit is hopefully behind us and they are able to go and play where they want."
Clothier vows that Crisol will be in Houston on June 19 -- with or without Da Camera's support and despite Councilman Sanchez and his pals.
"We're set to come," he says, "and I can't imagine any eventuality that's going to keep us away from Houston -- even if we have to play in the street."
Clubhouse Stink, Part 2
A few weeks back we told you all about the botched concession at the Memorial Park Tennis Center that resulted in the Loopers snack bar being abandoned months ago, with expensive refrigerating equipment still plugged in at the center and soaking up city-paid electricity [The Insider, "Stinking up the Clubhouse," May 1]. Now, documents we obtained from the city's Parks and Recreation Department reveal that the concessionaire, Trensidea System's Burke McConn, was 14 months behind in paying the city its 10 percent share of the concession income when he was signed to a new six-month contract late last year.
Is that any way to run a city? Not according to Mayor Bob Lanier. He concedes the handling of the concession was a "poor process, poorly administered .... I don't think we did this one well."
McConn, the nephew of the late former mayor Jim McConn, had been paying the city roughly $1,200 a month before he stopped sending the checks. Using that figure as a baseline estimate, Trensidea owed the city some $16,800 at the time McConn inked a new contract with Roy Witham, the parks department's director of golf, tennis and fitness. The contract was signed on December 11 -- when Sarah Culbreth, the department's deputy director of administration, was already investigating complaints of shoddy performance by McConn's outfit.
Culbreth, who is now reviewing all of the parks department's vendor contracts, says she did not know that McConn and Witham had renewed the deal until after the fact. McConn abandoned the concession after signing the pact, but Culbreth says he never showed up to sign a termination agreement with the city.
McConn disputes Culbreth's scenario, but would not clarify for us what he contends actually took place. Witham did not return a call from The Insider.
Culbreth says she felt bound to leave the Trensidea equipment plugged in at the center until May 11, when the agreement expired. Although there's been no effort by the city to collect on McConn's delinquent account, Culbreth promises one will be forthcoming now that she's on the case. Meanwhile, Nick Bibas, the operator of One's A Meal, is under consideration to take over the tennis center concession.
McConn admits owing back payments to the city, but claims he put approximately $85,000 into upgrading the tennis center building and making outdoor improvements. He's angry that while he was trying to make a go of it with Loopers on short-term contracts, the parks board awarded a multiyear deal to Becks Prime to run the food concession for the Memorial Park Golf Course.
"There's no way a guy can operate on a short-term con-tract in there," fumes McConn, who contends the city actually owes him money.
However, the city isn't the only government body billing McConn for revenue from the park concession: HISD is dunning Trensidea for two years of back taxes on the operation totaling $227.
Meanwhile, McConn suggests there are much deeper, darker scandals at Memorial than the mismanagement of a food-and-drink bar. "I tell you one thing," says the disgruntled former vendor, "I know a lot that went on at Memorial. If you want the Big Mamou, I've got the Big Mamou. And it jeopardizes the entire city of Houston. That thing you did in the Press [about his concession] -- it's a joke compared to what the whole thing's about." And with that, McConn told us he had to run.
Get This Judge a Spellchecker
State District Judge Mark Davidson recently raised the hackles of 14th Court of Appeals Justice Maurice Amidei by describing the jurist as "Maurice 'Alzeimer's' Amidei" in an e-mail message to fellow civil district judges [The Insider, "Can You Spell Alzheimer's?" April 10]. In addition to insulting Amidei, Davidson managed to misspell the mind-fogging disease. Davidson's e-mail was copied by a court reporter for Judge John Devine and faxed to Amidei, who hasn't forgotten it for a month and counting.
Now, in a follow-up apology sent to Amidei, Davidson seems less mindful of his colleague's bruised ego and more regretful over the exposure of his e-mail. And this time, he managed to misspell Amidei's real name. Here's the text, with our annotations added in boldface to enhance your comprehension:
"Dear Justice Amedei: Last week, after I received notice of a ruling of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, I sent what I had assumed was a private message by e-mail to the civil judges of Harris County informing them of the ruling. In it, I used intemperate language in making a feeble attempt at humor that could be construed to be at your expense." [Yep, nicknaming someone with a mentally incapacitating disease could be construed that way, couldn't it?]
"I understand that one of my colleagues saw fit to send you the private communication, and that it has been leaked to the press. I want to assure you that it was not my intention to publicly embarrass you. I had nothing to do with, and deeply regret, the public distribution and dissemination of the letter." [Of course, I intended to ridicule you privately, and I'm only sorry I got caught.]
"I suppose that, just as lawyers have a right to complain about judges, and appellate judges, in private communications, have the right to give their frank opinions of the abilities of various trial judges, trial judges have the right to privately complain about appellate judges. It is unfortunate when those communications are made public, as it demeans us all." [And also exposes us to possible censure from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for lowering the public's opinion of the Texas judiciary.]
"I regret this entire incident and apologize for any embarrassment it may cause you." [But I'm not going to get Judge Devine to rehire that poor woman he fired for sending you my e-mail.]
"Sincerely Yours, Mark Davidson"
We'll let you readers pass judgment on the sincerity of that apology.
Long-Term Hand Job
A tipster in the city's Public Works and Engineering Department just had to share an office joke with us last week. It seems a crew of hapless maintenance workers has been toiling away at the department's office building/warehouse at 319 St. Emanuel for the last two weeks, scrubbing the off-white anodized-metal exterior of the structure by hand with rags and cleaner -- just like you'd do with your own bathtub.
A visit by The Insider to the scene of the cleaning found the workers perched on a cherry picker and scrubbing away with their rags in the mid-afternoon sun, with no end of their toil in sight. Asked why the city doesn't use high-pressure water cleaning equipment or simply contract the work to professionals who could do it in days, city spokesman Dan Jones claimed the city's mechanized equipment just couldn't cut the grease and dirt on the building. He then confided his own cleaning philosophy.
"Not all jobs can be done mechanically," said Jones. "Sometimes there's no substitute for elbow grease. A power washer is sometimes not as good as a human being."
Jones challenges any professional building cleaner to demonstrate that they can scrub down the St. Emanuel building better than manual laborers. If they can, Jones offers to talk contract.
After an anonymous note and an advertisement for a weight-reduction method were left on the desk of a secretary in assistant district attorney Bert Graham's office several weeks ago, Graham, the chief of the D.A.'s special crimes division, knew just what to do: He ordered his investigators to find out who had insulted the woman by implying she needed a trip to the fat farm.
According to one source, D.A.'s employees were interviewed by investigators, the advertisement was dusted for fingerprints and several ancient typewriters in the office were checked to see whether they matched the typed note left on the secretary's desk.
With all the crimes -- special and otherwise -- out there to investigate, one would think an in-house prank hardly merits that level of attention. Graham disagrees.
"If it had been done in a manner where no one's feelings were to be hurt," the prosecutor explains, "I wouldn't have been concerned, but it seemed it was done with the purpose of hurting someone's feelings."
Despite the probe, the cold-blooded culprit is still at large somewhere in the D.A.'s office building. Innocent people's feelings remain at risk.
Now you know: When it comes time to file those felony heartbreak charges or misdemeanor ego batterings, just call special crimes.
... Or call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or reach him by e-mail at Insider@houston-press.com.