Strange Currents

The bizarre saga of Dave B. Wilson and the Electrical Defense Fund cover-up

Two weeks ago, the Independent Electrical Contractors endorsed Bruce Tatro in the upcoming runoff for the District A seat on City Council. While the endorsement was unlikely to have much impact beyond the IEC's membership, it did open the door on one of the weirder tales to arise in this otherwise dull election season.

In making its endorsement, the nonunion trade association snubbed Tatro's opponent, Dave B. Wilson, who is making his third bid for municipal office by promising to end the cronyism that's flourished under outgoing Mayor Bob Lanier.

Wilson, who owns a company that installs electric signs, was president of the IEC board when Lanier clobbered him in the 1995 mayor's race. Wilson won a measure of redemption a year later, when a complaint he filed with the city's Ethics Commission led to the resignation of Councilman John Peavy, whose subcontract to sell yogurt at the airport was deemed a conflict of interest under the city charter. Wilson then launched a campaign for Peavy's at-large seat, but failed to make the runoff in a special election eventually won by Chris Bell.

But so far, Wilson's feisty portrayal of an angry white male has played well in District A, which is on the northwest side of town. As a loose cannon with name recognition, Wilson has a decent shot at beating the lesser-known Tatro on December 6. And the ever-colorful Wilson smells victory: After finishing a close second in the first-round election on November 4, he immediately pronounced his baby-faced opponent "dead meat."

But before he can satisfy his bloodlust, Wilson may have to revisit his role in a long-dormant scandal that involved the 1994 indictments of Bobby Love and Max Langham, the two highest-ranking officials in the electrical inspection division of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department.

In resurfacing just two weeks before an election, the Tale of the Missing Legal Defense Fund may smell like your garden-variety political dirty trick. And that may indeed explain why a chain of events that began five years ago is suddenly relevant to a Council race with limited appeal outside of Spring Branch and the rest of northwest Houston.

Fortunately for Wilson, it's not the kind of story that can be boiled down to a 30-second radio commercial, and there seems to be more than enough culpability to spread around among the cast of characters. And while not exactly the kind of thing you want to be associated with when running for office --especially while hammering the incumbent mayor for alleged ethical shortcomings --Dave Wilson carried out his duty with extreme loyalty to the cause and may, in fact, be the only person involved in the tale who has nothing to hide.

"I've taken a bad rap on this whole deal," Wilson says. "I worked my ass off to make that association grow. Those ungrateful bastards...."

It all began just before Christmas 1992, when an electrical contractor gave $50 checks as gifts to Love, the chief electrical inspector, and Langham, his second-in-command.

Other inspectors who also received checks turned them over to their superiors in the public works department, leading to an investigation by the Houston Police Department's Public Integrity Review Group. The PIRG findings were referred to the district attorney's office, and in April 1994, Love and Langham were indicted under a law that prohibits public servants from accepting gifts from city contractors. They were charged with a Class A misdemeanor and faced up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Three months later, the Independent Electrical Contractors, led by board president Dave Wilson and executive director Bob Wilkinson, hosted a fundraiser to help Love and Langham defray their legal expenses. The city's chief building official warned the inspectors that they would be violating city ethics rules if the funds donated by contractors whose work they checked were used to pay for their defense. Still, the Electrical Legal Defense Fund grew to $33,555.

Nearly two years later, on February 9, 1996, Love and Langham pleaded no contest and were fined $100. Minor traffic violations are punished more harshly, suggesting that the city employees enjoyed the benefit of some nifty legal counsel. Who paid for it was a question that wasn't asked, at least not beyond the confines of the public works department. When Love and Langham returned to work after a three-week suspension, that appeared to be the end of the matter.

It was not, however, the end of the Electrical Legal Defense Fund, which surfaced as a point of contention in a developing feud between Bob Wilkinson and Dave Wilson. According to Wilson, he resigned as IEC's president in late 1995 after board members refused to investigate his assertion that Wilkinson was mismanaging the IEC's operations. Wilkinson counters that Wilson deceived a five-member committee set up to manage the defense fund, made unauthorized expenditures and refused to offer an "adequate accounting" of how the fund's money was spent.

The mutual mistrust deepened until Wilkinson accused Wilson of absconding with the $33,555 fund. Wilson denied doing so, but at the same time he was reluctant to show that he'd paid Love and Langham's legal bills -- since the inspectors had been warned that use of the contractor-donated money for that purpose would be an ethics violation.

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