The Insider

The Poop's on You
Executing a political smear isn't as simple as it sounds. There's a large risk factor involved: If the foul poop doesn't adhere to your opponent on first application, it might just stick to you for the rest of the campaign.

A textbook example of this occurred last week after mayoral candidate Rob Mosbacher, trailing in the polls behind former police chief Lee Brown, tried to stuff some language offensive to women into Brown's mouth. By the time the exercise had played out, however, most of the lingering questions concerned the conduct of Mosbacher's campaign rather than Brown's supposed insensitivity to sexual harassment.

Mosbacher himself was nowhere to be seen when his campaign hirelings staged a news conference to introduce a smarmy radio advertisement pitched to white female voters who are leaning toward Brown or may be undecided about their choice in the December 6 runoff. In the ad, Brown is quoted as saying that three women who sued the Houston Area Urban League and ex-director Victor James for sexual harassment had "welcomed and invited" James's attentions. Brown was a member of the Urban League's board at the time and had recommended James for the job.

To make the point visually at its news conference, the Mosbacher campaign assembled a phalanx of grim-faced white businesswomen behind mouthpiece Howard Opinsky, who took care of the dirty work for the absent candidate. The expressions on the women's faces said they did not welcome and invite Lee Brown to be mayor.

The radio-ad tag line is equally blunt. "Vote against bad judgment," a solemn female voice intones. "Vote against sexual harassment. Vote against Lee Brown for mayor." The ad was not widely disseminated on commercial radio (although it has aired on The Planet/102.9 FM, a station that has a large number of youngish professional females among its listenership), and Mosbacher apparently hoped to reap plenty of free publicity from coverage of the news conference.

The attack had been in the works for a while. Several weeks prior to the news conference, a Mosbacher supporter had alerted The Insider that Brown had been deposed in a sexual-harassment lawsuit and had said something to the effect that the female accuser had asked for it. A quick check of records in the federal lawsuit failed to find any such inflammatory remarks by the candidate. We then contacted Brown campaign officials, who dismissed the idea that their candidate, normally as careful with his words as a Brink's Security guard with the day's receipts, would say anything so insulting to women. As it turns out, they were right.

Brown never said the words attributed to him in the Mosbacher ad. They actually were drawn from court pleadings filed in May 1991 by an attorney who was defending Brown and 22 other members of the Urban League's board and staff. They had been included as defendants in the lawsuit filed by the three former employees of the nonprofit who accused James of sexual harassment before he was fired in 1990. Urban League attorney Martin Wickliff says the phrase "welcomed and invited" is standard legal jargon inserted into any defense pleading against claims of sexual harassment, and any lawyer who did not employ that language would be remiss in defending a client.

"The lawyer's got to make those affirmative defenses in the answers before you can put on any proof at trial," says Wickliff. "Everybody needs to understand that, and it's very unfair for the Mosbacher campaign to have said what they said."

The same boilerplate language is included in responses to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Urban League board members Bill Lawson, the pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Joy Fitzgerald, the director of the Houston Housing Authority, and Vince Ryan, the former city councilman. Fitzgerald and Lawson did not return phone inquiries to determine whether Mosbacher and his women supporters should be equally outraged at them, but Ryan was willing to talk and was not amused by the Mosbacher tactic.

"It's very sad," says Ryan, now an attorney for the firm of Calame, Linebarger Graham & Pena, which collects delinquent taxes for the city. "I have always had a high regard for Rob Mosbacher. He has a lot of talent, and he certainly has done many things for which he should be patted on the back. This is something for which he should be kicked in the rear end."

After apparent reflection on his legal future should Mosbacher win, Ryan called back to reduce his criticism of Mosbacher to a misdemeanor. "He should be slapped on the wrist," Ryan boldly declared.

Joan Ehrlich, the director of the Houston office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calls the Mosbacher maneuver "a gross distortion" of what really transpired in the suit against James and the Urban League.

"Lawyers are paid to defend their clients," says Ehrlich, whose EEOC attorneys represent victims of sexual harassment. "Although board members are technically responsible, they don't control what their lawyers say. It's a huge stretch to point fingers at individuals and blame them for something that they didn't do at all."

Attorney Larry Doherty represented James in the suit and also specializes in suing other lawyers for malpractice. The words in a court filing are not the actual remarks of a defendant, Doherty notes, and Mosbacher --who has a law degree but has boasted of never actually practicing law --is way off-base in pretending that they are.

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