The Insider

Sucker for a Bet
Question: What do accused River Oaks wife murderer Robert Angleton, tennis great Jimmy Connors, two professional baseball stars and the chairman of Houston Endowment have in common?

Answer: They're all players in the messy divorce of admitted compulsive gambler Eddy Scurlock Blanton from his wife, Roberta. The litigation, now taking place in Judge Annette Galik's Harris County courtroom, opens yet another vista onto the seamy gaming habits of Houston's rich, powerful and famous.

In the divorce papers, Roberta accuses her husband of having gambled away their community property; her accountant claims that Eddy racked up $3.1 million in losing bets. Responding to lawyers' questions, Eddy admits to playing at 18 casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Louisiana. He also admits to gambling with at least 29 persons. Blanton bet with Connors, Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell, and former Astros pitching ace Darryl Kile over tennis and golf matches played at River Oaks, Lochinvar and other area country clubs.

Eddy and "Robbie" Blanton were used to mingling with the high and mighty. Eddy, a private investor and former executive in Key Oil, inherited part of the fortune accrued by his grandfather, legendary wildcatter Eddy Scurlock. The grandson met and married Roberta while both were students at the University of Texas at Austin. The couple later became well known on Houston's society circuit. Eddy has been a board member of the Parks People and once chaired the Houston Zoological Society. Robbie, a veteran charity-ball organizer, has been named to the Houston Chronicle Best Dressed Hall of Fame -- the Valhalla to which the city's society women pray to ascend.

At UT, Eddy was a standout tennis player. He's also an avid golfer, "though he thinks he's a lot better than he is," according to an acquaintance. Attorney Tom Alexander, who represented Mrs. Blanton in the case until last month, says he's been aware for years that Blanton was a gambling joke around town. "He's been the victim of a number of Houston hustlers at golf, tennis, sports betting," says the lawyer, who chuckled when asked if Blanton was known as an easy mark. "Worse," replied Alexander. "Sucker."

In court papers, Blanton admits that he placed bets with Robert Angleton, the River Oaks bookie accused of hiring his own brother, Roger, to murder his wife, Doris McGown Angleton; Robert allegedly acted after Doris simultaneously initiated divorce proceedings and took legal action to freeze nearly $3 million he'd secreted in a half-dozen bank safety deposit boxes.

One legal source pegs the total bets Blanton placed with Angleton at over $300,000. For that reason, the jailed Angleton has been subpoenaed to testify in the Blantons' divorce trial, currently scheduled for early March. The subpoena requested that Angleton produce records detailing "illegal bets by Eddy Blanton and losses," as well as records of "illegal lists of other bookmakers received [by Angleton]" and lists of other bookmakers who took bets from Eddy.

Potentially, Angleton's involvement in the Blanton divorce could embarrass a number of parties. Besides associating Blanton with an accused murderer, Angleton's testimony could expose the groundwork of a big-money sports gambling scene in River Oaks. Angleton's subpoena could be seen as a ploy to compel Blanton to reach a settlement with his wife.

According to lawyer Alexander, Roberta changed counsel to speed the litigation toward a settlement. Her new divorce lawyer is Tom Conner -- the lawyer who represented Doris Angleton in the divorce case that ended with her murder, and who is said to possess extensive knowledge of Robert Angleton's finances. Conner says an effort is under way to settle the divorce suit.

Eddy Blanton's attorney, J.D. "Bucky" Allshouse, had little to say about the cast of characters in the suit, other than to contend that Eddy Blanton's situation "is private, and shouldn't be part of the article." Asked about the possibility that Angleton might testify if the case goes to trial, Allshouse replied, "I think there are a lot of things in dispute, and I really don't want to go into the evidence. I don't see where Mr. Angleton would add anything to this case."

Of course, divorces have a way of dragging private matters into the public arena -- often in humiliating ways. Last August, for example, Judge Galik drafted an order directing Eddy Blanton to stop gambling and enroll in counseling. The judge also ordered the creation of something similar to a wanted poster: "I want a letter attached with a photograph of Mr. Blanton sent to any and all gambling establishments or friends that he may gamble with, [stating] that he's under order with this court that he may not gamble or get any credit or anything else extended to him until further order of the court...." Even Blanton's golf partners were to be so notified.

"That was a very unusual, highly original order," understates Conner. After the divorce suit took a turn toward settlement talks, Galik's order was shelved and the notices were not sent out. Conner now says it's uncertain whether the notices will ever be used. Both sides now seem inclined to try to settle the case -- and minimize the extensive media coverage that would likely follow Angleton into the courtroom.

So why hasn't the suit already been settled? Apparently, that's because the Blanton purse strings are controlled not by Eddy but by his parents, Houston Endowment chairman Jack Blanton and wife Laura Lee. Eddy's grandmother, Elizabeth Scurlock, set up a multimillion-dollar trust fund for him -- but she didn't make it easy for him to get to the money. Without the trust fund, Eddy Blanton does not have the resources to fund a payout to Roberta.

"The trust is a spendthrift trust," explains an attorney familiar with the case. "That means third parties cannot levy execution on the trust for debts of the beneficiary. Mother and father absolutely control the trust. As long as they are alive, the question of paying a judgment by Eddy depends on whether his parents fund it."

Eddy Blanton may be a 42-year-old with two children, but it appears mom and dad will have to come to the rescue if he's to avoid a potentially explosive divorce trial.

With Friends Like These, Part 2
The Friends of Hermann Park are still smarting from a public relations disaster over a favorite contractor's plans to cut trees in the park -- but that embarrassment apparently hasn't stopped many board members from snuggling up to one of the contractor's favorite political allies.

New mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney is the councilman who championed BSL Golf Corporation's successful bid to operate Hermann Park Golf Course for a whopping 15 years -- never mind that BSL planned sharp increases in greens fees. Like Boney, the Friends of Hermann Park also supported the deal, which City Council approved.

Now, apparently, the Friends and BSL are showing their gratitude. Former Friends president and board member Kenny Friedman and board member Barbara Hurwitz serve as co-chairs for a January 29 political fundraiser Boney is holding at the Warwick Towers; 15 other board members are also listed as "hosts." And BSL principals Andy Schatte and Richard Bischoff are also on the host committee.

Friends golf committee chair Bill Coats, one of the fundraiser's hosts, sees nothing untoward in the group's mass show of support for Boney, whose district includes Hermann Park. Coats also calls the recent flap over BSL's plan to remove 111 trees much ado about nothing, and says that no matter what BSL proposed, the company would never have gained approval to cut any significant number of healthy trees. (Somewhat belatedly, Coats now insists that no more than a dozen trees will have to be removed.)

Attorney Friedman explains the evolution of the Boney fundraiser this way: Barbara Hurwitz called him and suggested that since Jew Don Boney had been "such a great advocate of the park," the two of them should do something nice for him. Friedman agreed, and the pair used their considerable clout to draw others onto the host committee. Friedman sees nothing inappropriate in the committee's makeup, explaining that "the Friends of Hermann Park as an institution doesn't have anything to do with it."

Maybe the same people will form a second group: "The Friends of Jew Don Boney."

Lee Brown's Late Train
All you downtown contributors who helped Rob Mosbacher set a spending record in last year's mayoral election now have the opportunity to buy your way back into the good graces of Mayor Lee P. Brown. Brown's fundraiser Sue Walden is circulating an invitation asking underwriters to purchase ten-person tables at a February 3 dinner for the mayor at the Westin Galleria. The price? A cool $20,000.

Brown's troops are aiming not to pay off campaign debts (Walden says the red ink on the recent election will likely be minimal), but to amass a million-dollar war chest toward the mayor's re-election.

"Why so soon?" you might ask. After all, that contest isn't until 1999. But the first few months of the new Brown administration are a particularly sweet time for fundraisers. City law restricts individual donations to $5,000 per election cycle -- and this particular cycle closes in March. If you missed your opportunity to curry favor with Brown before his election, now's your second chance. Ostensibly, of course, the money doesn't buy you special consideration at City Hall. But Houston mayors have been known to keep track of their friends.

The Case That Just Won't Go Away
First KTRK-Channel 13 lost a highly publicized libel suit filed by state Representative Sylvester Turner -- a 1996 case that was dissected in unflattering detail two weeks ago on Dateline NBC. Now, ABC and KTRK are appealing that jury verdict. And in the meantime, the station is engaged in an angst-ridden effort to sever its ties to a reporter whose testimony in that trial was damning to the station.

At KTRK, the case has long made former medical reporter Mary Ellen Conway an untouchable -- in both senses of the word. During the 1996 jury trial, she testified that five years before, in the closing days of the mayoral election, she'd overheard a conversation between fellow reporter Wayne Dolcefino and anchor Melanie Lawson. According to Conway, Dolcefino told Lawson that he would not air comments from a news conference favorable to the former mayoral candidate. Dolcefino, claimed Conway, was angry because the Turner supporters at the conference had not returned his calls earlier. Turner lawyer Ron Franklin argued that the omission of the news conference footage showed Dolcefino was biased in his reporting.

On the Dateline broadcast, reporter Dennis Murphy singled out Conway as "one of the most damaging and embarrassing witnesses" to KTRK's defense. The broadcast quoted several jurors who cited Conway's testimony as establishing Dolcefino's "reckless disregard for the truth."

Fueling the station management's anger was the belief that Conway had changed her story as the Turner case moved along. But management felt it could do nothing, since any action taken against the reporter could be interpreted as retaliation against a whistle blower.

Now, apparently, the station's management no longer feels that constraint. Conway cleaned out her desk and departed the station shortly before New Year's after a mediation effort conducted by former Judge David West failed to produce an agreement between her and the station. A KTRK source says the station offered Conway a new contract but refused to let her return to her former niche as medical reporter. (Reporter Christi Myers now prowls the medical beat.) Conway rejected the offer, and as of now, there is no litigation or settlement between the parties. Technically, she remains on the station's staff, though her body has moved on.

West declined comment, citing the confidentiality of mediation efforts. Conway's former attorney, Janet Hansen of the Jamail & Kolius firm, also refused to discuss the mediation. "This is a sticky, emotionally charged situation with hurt feelings all around," she said. Asked whether litigation could result, Hansen replied only that "litigation in these cases is always a possibility." She also declined to explain why she no longer represents the reporter.

Contacted through an intermediary, Conway said she appreciates the interest in her situation but has nothing to say at this time. She did, however, emphasize she has not resigned from the KTRK staff. ABC's attorney in the mediation, New York-based Tanya Menton, was unavailable for comment -- as was KTRK's general manager, Henry Florsheim.

"The station just wants this to go away," says one staffer of the legal radiation lingering from the Turner stories. But with ABC's legal appeal moving forward and Conway's status unresolved, that prospect seems years in the future.

Remember to turn your dial to The Insider when you have news to report. Contact him at (713) 624-1483; (713) 624-1496 (fax); or by e-mail at Insider@houstonpress.com.

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