The Insider

Desperately Seeking Scandal
Rob Mosbacher landed in his runoff with Lee Brown at a distinct disadvantage: Not only did Brown finish more than 13 points ahead of Mosbacher in the first-round of mayoral balloting on November 4, he also had a double-digit lead over Mosbacher in "voter approval" as measured in the pre-election poll conducted by independent pollsters Bob Stein and Richard Murray. Only half of the voters questioned rated Mosbacher favorably, while almost two-thirds approved of Brown.

For Mosbacher to overcome those margins and win, he and his operatives now must do what Bob Lanier's campaigners were able to accomplish in 1991 against surging State Rep Sylvester Turner: Pin some kind of muddy tale on the front-runner.

Lanier's 1991 team, led by manager Craig Varoga, now works for Brown and will have to prove it can play defense as well as it carried the offense against Turner six years ago.

Time is running out for Mosbacher, though, since most Houston news outlets observe an informal moratorium on running negative investigative stories on candidates within a week of the vote. That gives Mosbacher and his campaign little more than a week from now in which to complete a long bomb.

They aren't likely to wait around for the impartial news media to do the job. Both campaigns have well-paid opposition research teams adept at dropping tips on journalists. A veteran Houston investigative reporter estimates that the cyclical rash of election-time revelations about a candidate's background originates with opposition researchers for the combatants about 80 percent of the time.

Varoga says Brown will likely agree to at least a half-dozen televised or radio debates with Mosbacher. That exposure should help Mosbacher close the gap with Brown, since Mosbacher is a better speaker and is faster on his feet. But in previous debates, the towering Brown has managed to come across as solid, likable and unthreatening -- attributes that will likely get him through his encounters with Mosbacher without severe damage.

So the race will come down to whether Mosbacher can craft a missile to penetrate the Brown boilerplate. In the two weeks since the first election, Mosbacher's troops have tried the predictable, first airing television ads attacking Brown's credentials as a crime fighter during his stays as police chief in Atlanta, Houston and New York City.

Brown countered by using his own supporters from within the Houston Police Department to tout his accomplishments, though his campaign managed to embarrass the candidate with a television commercial featuring an HPD officer who had not actually served under Brown when he headed the department. The officer's choice of an ensemble closely resembling HPD apparel also triggered a police Internal Affairs Division investigation to determine whether she had violated the department's ban on the use of its uniforms and symbols in political ads.

Then came the unpredictable, with Mosbacher trying to capitalize on a Chronicle repackaging of an eight-year-old incident in which Brown received and later returned a wad of dollars and yen during a trip to Japan. Brown and his late wife, Yvonne, made the junket in his role as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Travel expenses were picked up by Agon-shu, a Buddhist sect with unlikely ties to a law-enforcement equipment manufacturer and an international police institute.

Maybe the wandering, barefooted Buddhist champion of law and order in the old TV series Kung Fu was their inspiration. In any case, someone with decidedly more materialistic tendencies decided to stuff the visitors' gift bags with more than $12,000 in cash. Brown claims he discovered the goodies after leaving Japan and returned the money to the Association of Police Chiefs, which sent it back to the happy Buddhists. Brown did not refund the $10,000 value of the trip, an ethics point emphasized both in the Chronicle article and at a news conference quickly called by Mosbacher's press secretary, Howard Opinsky.

Neither Brown nor the International Association of Police Chiefs elected to reimburse the Buddhists for the trip. Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford, one of Brown's successors and a member of the chiefs association, figures all the incident shows is Brown acting honestly by returning the cash. He doesn't believe the chief had any responsibility for repaying the cost of the trip.

"The original deal when the IACP sent [Brown] was that it was going to cover the expenses," says Bradford. While it would be improper for Brown to take his spouse on an expenses-paid trip on taxpayer funds, "an organization like IACP, they can decide what expenses they are going to cover when they want a representative of that organization to go and represent them," adds Bradford.

The portrayals of Brown as a softy on crime and an unethical junketeer failed to have anywhere near the impact of the barrage of personal revelations that brought Turner down in 1991. But then, no one really expected the FBI-vetted former drug czar to provide the fodder that Turner offered Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino, such as male hairdresser Dwight Thomas, who lived at the house that Turner rented for residency purposes and who uttered perhaps the most memorable line of the campaign: "Spain? I know nothing of Spain." It's also a safe bet that Brown has never been associated with a scamster such as Sylvester Clyde Foster, the male model and Turner legal client who faked his death to collect insurance money and later turned up alive in a Spanish prison.

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