Between Friends

A federal audit suggests the Lanier administration gave a sweetheart deal to one of the mayor's buddies -- then failed to ensure that taxpayers' money was properly spent.

"Some mistakes were made on the project, we're not going to deny that," Loftin acknowledged, while grousing that the "tone" of the audit was overly critical. "But we would like to see a more balanced treatment of the program."

That's not likely to be forthcoming, at least not from HUD. The agency has asked the city to give a complete accounting of construction costs, or pay back the $450,000 in expenses that is so far unsupported. When asked to what end the city had gone to find the money, Loftin replied, "That's under review."

Meanwhile, Wayne Duddlesten is moving forward with plans to develop the taxpayer-subsidized hotel next to the Brown Center. That project has not exactly been beyond reproach, either: The Justice Department is expected to hand down indictments any day now as a result of a sting that used Duddlesten's hotel project as a vehicle. The operation allegedly snared past and current councilmembers accepting bribes offered by federal agents posing as investors in Duddlesten's project. The developer has not been implicated.

In the wake of the HUD audit, two questions are worth asking about the city's contracting policies: First, will the city adhere to federal laws governing the use of millions in taxpayer subsidies earmarked for Duddlesten's hotel? And, who's minding the vault that's been opened for a half-dozen other publicly funded projects launched by the Lanier administration, such as the renovation of the Rice Hotel, the redevelopment of the Fourth Ward by the nonprofit Houston Renaissance and the makeover of the Midtown area?

Lanier's influence on which organizations were chosen to carry out those projects is indisputable, and there exists the appearance of at least two conflicts of interest. Until recently, Julio Laguarta, the founder of Houston Renaissance, served under Lanier on the Planning Commission. Laguarta was removed from the commission after it was learned that he lived outside the city limits. But it could have been argued that he was in violation of the city charter by drawing pay from a city-supported project while sitting on a city board.

The Lanier-appointed chairman of the board for the Midtown Redevelopment Authority is Doug Williams, the $112,000-a-year assistant to the mayor's housing adviser, Michael Stevens. Stevens heads the Houston Housing Finance Corporation, which simultaneously is paying Williams's salary while providing the financial backing for the Midtown project.

Some time back, while Lanier was taking heat over Peary Perry and Municipal Collections, the mayor asked this question of his detractors: "So, am I supposed to do business with my enemies?"

Perhaps not. But shouldn't his friends have to follow the rules?

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