By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Now it can be told: One Houston, the political action committee that funded the defense of the city's affirmative action policies for last November's referendum, received gifts from two unlikely and highly questionable sources -- the Houston Chronicle and Rebuild Houston, the PAC that promoted the city bond election while taking plenty of money from opponents of affirmative action.
The final campaign report for One Houston, filed earlier this month, reveals that the Chronicle donated $31,476 in free advertising space to the PAC at the same time it was editorializing against Proposition One, the ballot initiative to do away with affirmative action in city contracting. That's the price of a full-page advertisement in Houston's Leading Information Source. (One Houston reported that it purchased another full-page ad from the paper at the same rate.)
Prop One organizer Edward Blum believes the Chronicle had no business providing aid to one side in the election.
"My sense of fair play is violated," Blum avers. "It seems to me that the city's only daily newspaper has every right to editorialize about a topic, but not to fund that topic. To fund the referendum issue violates the Chronicle's commitment to impartiality."
When The Insider asked Chronicle editor Jack Loftis whether a supposedly impartial newspaper should donate advertising space to one side of a political campaign, Loftis basically pleaded impotence.
"I have no control over how the advertising department operates at the Chronicle," said Loftis. "We write stories and they sell ads, and that's well established."
Loftis acknowledged, however, that it "probably wouldn't be a bad idea" for the Chronicle to tell its readers about the paper's political donations, since Chronicle reporters often write stories about other contributors to campaigns.
So why didn't the paper disclose its gift to One Houston when it was made -- before the election?
"I wasn't even aware of it," said Loftis, who went on to predict that in the future the Chronicle's editorial hierarchy will consider disclosing the paper's political gifts in timely fashion.
Loftis's professed ignorance of the Chronicle's hands-on involvement in the campaign is hard to figure, considering that the paper donated $137,526 worth of free advertising to the PAC pushing the new downtown ballpark while keeping up a steady drumbeat of pro-stadium editorials. The 1996 gift to the ballpark PAC was reported at the time by The Insider, but not by the Chronicle. But perhaps Loftis doesn't read the Press. (Loftis, who's a member of the daily's editorial board, joined local business leaders on a trip to Austin to lobby state lawmakers when it appeared stadium legislation was in doubt --a highly unusual move that the Chronicle did report, although in a very inconspicuous place.)
Two days after The Insider's conversation with Loftis and nearly a week after the One Houston report was filed at City Hall, the paper's contribution was finally disclosed in the Chronicle at the end of a column by political writer Alan Bernstein. "A Chronicle editorial had already come out in favor of preserving affirmative action," wrote Bernstein. "But the role as a financial donor was not obvious until now."
When The Insider contacted representatives of the nation's biggest and best daily newspapers, they initially had trouble comprehending the notion of a journalistic operation giving free advertising to one side in a campaign. After getting a thorough explanation of the Chronicle's maneuver, the New York Times's vice president of communications, Nancy Nielsen, was emphatic that her paper would not donate ad space to a candidate or campaign it had editorially supported.
"Definitively no, and double no," said Nielsen. "We don't and wouldn't do that."
"The Washington Post certainly contributes to charitable causes, along the lines of the United Way," said Kurtz, "but I believe that any advocacy group or political campaign is considered to be totally out of bounds."
The Chronicle contribution isn't the only gift to One Houston that's stirring controversy. One Houston's campaign filing also revealed that it had received $65,000 in two contributions from Rebuild Houston, the PAC whose primary purpose was to raise money for the far less controversial city bond issue. The affirmative action PAC also borrowed $35,000 from the bond issue group and repaid it later.
The commingling of the two pools of money angers D'Ann Marro, the executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, which opposes affirmative action programs and supported Prop One. Marro says that during a pre-election meeting last fall with the members of the contractors association, then-mayor Bob Lanier, mayoral aide Dave Walden and city public works czar Jimmie Schindewolf all promised that Rebuild Houston would not be used to fund the pro-affirmative action effort.
"The mayor assured our members that none of the funds that go to the bond election would go to One Houston," says Marro.
Walden, she adds, explained that One Houston was created as a dual-purpose PAC simply to avoid illegalities if some of its efforts also benefited the campaign to retain affirmative action. According to Marro, Walden told the contractors, "I'm not prepared to go to jail for anybody in this room, including the mayor."