Show 'Em Your Money!

There's a purported moment chronicled in the City Hall indictment that, when considered in a larger context, seems more pitiable than scandalous.

It came sometime around December 13, 1995, the day that Ben Reyes allegedly rang up his buddy Dan Morales and asked the attorney general to get on the stick and produce a legal opinion, one that would allow Reyes to vote on the taxpayer-subsidized downtown hotel before he relinquished his seat on City Council a few weeks later. After that phone conversation, according to the first count of the indictment, Reyes described his "intervention" with Morales by boasting to an FBI operative, "That's raw power, man."

Ah, Ben, if you only knew.
To grasp how truly pathetic Reyes's alleged profession of clout was -- and to fully comprehend what a nickel-and-diming guy from the neighborhood he is -- go to the city secretary's office and pull the July 15 campaign finance disclosure report for the Rob Mosbacher for mayor campaign.

You're advised to bring along a handkerchief to mop up your sweat, because the Mosbacher report is a prime piece of political pornography, nearly obscene in its engorgement, with a list of contributors running to 235 pages. It reveals that Mosbacher had raised almost twice as much as the four other name candidates for mayor -- a group that includes two three-term councilwomen, a former police chief, and a former councilman and city controller. By June 30, his campaign already had spent almost $1 million, most of it on consultants, direct mail and television commercials, and had a good start toward eclipsing the $3 million record set by Bob Lanier in 1991, when there were no limits on contributions.

Much of the total $1.3 million Mosbacher raised came from the usual local sources -- Mr. and Mrs. Ned Holmes, Walter Mischer and son, Mr. and Mrs. Ken Lay, Mr. and Mrs. Robert McNair, Mr. and Mrs. Randall Onstead, the James Elkinses Jr. and III, Corbin Robertson, etc. and so on, ad infinitum -- but a not-inconsequential share came from the plusher precincts far outside the 713 and 281 area codes.

From the Dallas area alone, the Mosbacher campaign took in almost as much as the total amassed by one of his opponents, Councilwoman Gracie Saenz. All told, at least 155 individuals contributed the maximum $5,000 to Mosbacher now allowed by city law, with the political action committees of two law firms -- Vinson & Elkins and Baker & Botts -- each kicking in the maximum $10,000 that PACs can give.

Now that's raw power, man.
It's the kind of power that Ben Reyes -- a man of such modest means that he's alleged to have hit up the FBI for $1,000 so he could take a trip to Mexico -- probably never imagined in his most fervid bouts of megalomania.

Admittedly, not just anyone can get the attorney general of Texas on the phone, much less get the attorney general to do his bidding, if that's indeed what Ben Reyes was able to do.

But I doubt Reyes has the direct number of David Rockefeller of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, who contributed $2,500 to Mosbacher, nor, I suspect, has Reyes ever discussed tax breaks with Nicholas F. Brady of the Bullitt House in Easton, Maryland, who gave $1,000. It's unlikely, too, that Reyes has had occasion to muse on the foreign policy failings of the Clinton administration with James A. Baker of Houston and Washington, D.C. ($5,000 to Mosbacher) or with Henry Kissinger of Park Avenue in Manhattan, who, for some reason, could only spare $250 for Mosbacher. And while we know that the former councilman took a keen interest in the operation of at least one municipal golf course, Reyes has probably never had the chance to tee it up with Gerald Ford of Rancho Mirage, California, who sent along $500 to fund the Mosbacher effort.

Like their candidate of choice, all of those contributors surely are honorable men who would never be so gauche as to pass bribes of $1,500 and $2,500 to city councilmen in the men's room of a restaurant, as Reyes is alleged to have done, nor would a hidden camera ever catch them taking a satchel stuffed with $50,000 worth of $50 bills, as the then-councilman is accused of doing two weeks prior to his conversation with Morales.

By managing to get themselves indicted so close to the mayoral election, though, Reyes and the other Hispanic and black politicians made their own contribution of sorts to Mosbacher, providing him with an opportunity to publicly display his own virtue. Former controller George Greanias, who emerged from 14 years of municipal government service with his reputation for integrity intact, refrained from capitalizing on the sorry mess. But barely had the indictment been lodged when Mosbacher trotted out a package of ethics reforms, which he promised would not only give Houston the "most open, honest government in the country" but would, as he told one television station, help elected officials discern right from wrong.

Moral instruction from one's betters is always appreciated, of course, and the public servants who aren't accused of taking cash from Ben Reyes in a restroom should be grateful to Mosbacher for his expert direction. After all, he did set forth a few sound initiatives, including requiring the registration of City Hall lobbyists (although man of action Lee Brown was a few weeks ahead of him on that score) and giving the city's flaccid Ethics Committee the power of subpoena.

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