The Insider

Bad Sports
It usually takes a heroic effort to get fired from the Houston Chronicle, especially if you happen to be a high-profile columnist with a substantial following, like longtime sports scribe Ed Fowler. Nevertheless, the unthinkable happened to Fowler last week, apparently because his personal and journalistic style ran afoul of sports editor Dan Cunningham.

Unlike Latrell Sprewell, Fowler didn't try to choke his boss or threaten to kill him. He simply refused to write for Cunningham and demanded he be traded to the news department. A sports columnist at the paper for 17 years, Fowler had not appeared in print for nearly a month before his firing.

Neither party would discuss their dispute with The Insider, though Fowler told friends he was suspended with pay late last month after a run-in with his editor over the content of his final columns. The two tangled in an angry phone conversation, with some blue invective from Cunningham's end leading Fowler to reportedly declare "This is boring" before hanging up on his boss.

By Fowler's account to associates, Cunningham objected to some of the columnist's writing techniques. Fowler's final "Dear Bud" installment on November 17 employed a mock-letter gimmick to skewer the Oilers owner (the subject of Fowler's recently published book, Loser Takes All: Bud Adams, Bad Football, and Big Business), while his whimsical "tomorrow's news today" pieces eschewed reporting in favor of imagination and cutting satire -- two qualities that have never been highly valued at the drowsy daily. With Cunningham considered on the fast track to a top management position at the Chronicle (following in the ruts of managing editor Tony Pederson, who ascended from the paper's sports department), Fowler was not likely to prevail in a collision with his boss.

Fowler was the best-paid writer at the Chronicle, with a salary reportedly in the range of $110,000. After the phone clash with Cunningham and his subsequent suspension, the columnist negotiated with his bosses for several weeks, seeking a transfer to the news side of the paper as a feature writer. But a news column for the often-acerbic Fowler apparently was out of the question, since the paper gravitates toward warm, fuzzy, noncontroversial types like Thom "Wake Me When It's Over" Marshall and Leon Hale. Onetime "minority affairs" columnist Lori Rodriguez proved too spicy for her bosses' tastes and was returned to the reporting ranks. Fowler told associates his effort to move from sports to news was nixed by management, even though he offered to take a pay cut to make the transition. Then the ax fell.

Fowler's last column in the paper, on November 21, was a "tomorrow's news today" satire in which Astros free-agent pitcher Darryl Kile signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters for "one hundred thousand zillion yen." The columnist wasn't far off, since Kile eventually inked with the Colorado Rockies for a similarly outrageous figure. In the same column, Fowler also rehabilitated another sharp-toothed sports type, Marv Albert, who returned to an undisclosed network after intensive rehabilitation on the talk-show circuit. Fowler quoted the new Albert as advising men to "slip into a garter belt now and then. I prefer black, because I find it naughtier than red." Not your typical fare in Houston's leading family newspaper.

A line from Fowler's last letter to Bud was quoted in the upstate New York Buffalo News two weeks ago as an indication of how much Houston misses the Oilers: "It was apparent," wrote Fowler, that "the vast majority would rather read of cockfights in Quintana Roo than the team you operated here for 37 years."

Chronicle management may be hoping the same public sentiment applies to Fowler and his tenure as a columnist.

And You Ask Why We Call Him Weaselboy?
Wouldn't you know it: There was even more damaging dirt out there on City Controller Lloyd Kelley than was revealed before he was ousted from City Hall by Sylvia Garcia in the November 4 election. In addition to trying legal cases while employed by the city, visiting an amusement park with an employee during work hours, publicly calling his opponent gay and hiring a former campaign treasurer for a city contract, it turns out that Kelley had some undisclosed property-tax problems as well.

In late August, Jim Robinson, the chief appraiser of the Harris County Appraisal District, forwarded allegations to the district attorney's office that Kelley and his wife made false entries on applications for homestead exemptions for the house they have rehabilitated in the Woodland Heights neighborhood.

The allegation dates to January 30 of this year, when Lloyd and Theresa Kelley attempted to secure homestead exemptions for their house for the years 1995 and 1996. But according to documents supplied by HCAD, Kelley didn't even purchase the house until October 10, 1996. To qualify for a homestead exemption in a given year, a property owner must own and occupy a dwelling as his or her principal residence on January 1 of the year in question.

HCAD officials denied Kelley's request for the '95 and '96 exemptions before forwarding the forms to the district attorney for possible action. Had the exemptions been granted, Kelley would have received refunds equal to 20 percent of the taxes paid on the property in those years.

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