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By Sean Pendergast
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By Jeff Balke
The Unstoppable O'Quinn
Houston super-lawyer John O'Quinn has built a reputation as a plaintiff's attorney on the edge in recent years, provoking investigations in South Carolina and Texas for allegedly hiring case runners to bring him business -- which is illegal. At the same time, he was drinking heavily enough to earn a D.W.I. conviction. Last month, O'Quinn took a drive on the wild side by trying to outrun the law in his vintage green Chevy Impala.
In the latest incident, O'Quinn apparently decided to do his own running, but thanks to an unusually considerate Houston policeman, the lawyer was spared a Breathalyzer session and a trip to jail. O'Quinn still faces a misdemeanor charge of evading arrest that carries a $4,000 fine and a year in jail.
Patrol officer Stephen Augustine reported spotting O'Quinn making an illegal turn off Main onto Prairie on the afternoon of February 14 and pulled up behind him with lights flashing. According to the officer, John O'Quinn put the pedal to the metal and took off, running through a red light at Travis with the officer in pursuit, his lights still flashing and siren wailing. O'Quinn then drove to the gated Lyric Center garage, waved his pass card and ducked into the garage. The gate then came down, shutting out the frustrated patrolman.
By the time the officer got into the garage, O'Quinn had disappeared, but a witness directed the policeman to an elevator where the lawyer was waiting for a lift to the security of his law office.
Augustine, apparently uncertain he had cornered the right man, asked O'Quinn what type of vehicle he was driving. O'Quinn answered that he drove a Ford Explorer. The confused officer examined O'Quinn's license, and let him go on up to his office.
Not too many people suspected of evading arrest by fleeing a Houston police officer get that kind of kid-glove treatment. In fact, O'Quinn's lawyer, the legendary Houston trial attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, jokes that a Hispanic suspect would likely have been greeted by Augustine with "Hands up ... Policia!"
After he returned to his patrol car, Augustine ran a computer check on O'Quinn, and discovered that the vehicle he had chased to the Lyric Center was indeed registered to the lawyer. Still, rather than going back up to O'Quinn's office to arrest the lawyer, the officer went on to other calls, and waited six hours before seeking permission from the district attorney's office to file charges.
Assistant District Attorney Terese Buess approved an evading arrest charge, a Class A misdemeanor, and the issuance of a warrant to be served later for O'Quinn. (The lawyer voluntarily came to the county jail last Friday, was booked and immediately bonded out.)
Augustine was not available for comment, but Buess says she's puzzled why the officer let O'Quinn go after confronting him in the garage. "Do I know why he didn't arrest him?" asks Buess rhetorically. "I have not got a clue."
Buess's boss, District Attorney Johnny Holmes, says the officer didn't do anything improper, but his failure to arrest or even ticket O'Quinn at the scene "suggests some kind of differential treatment depending on who you are."
O'Quinn did not return an Insider inquiry, but Haynes indicated it won't take a legal genius to spring his client from his latest brush with the law. O'Quinn did not know the officer was following him and did not hear his siren, contends Haynes, because "John is hard of hearing."
Holmes even has a bit of advice for O'Quinn's defense. Concerning the officer's failure to arrest the lawyer, Holmes says he'd have a tough question for the cop: "If you were so sure it was O'Quinn driving that car, why didn't you put him in jail?"
The other question arising from the incident is why a multimillionaire like O'Quinn favors a funky Chevy Impala as his joy ride of choice. "Well," drawls Haynes, who collects vintage Corvette Stingrays himself, "it's a good car. Good warranty, and they don't give them away, y'know?"
Dealing with the Devil
A consultant with ties to conservative Republican kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze claims he was paid $25,000 by Democrats in 1996 to craft political attacks on a moderate GOP candidate. The charge bolsters accusations by Republican critics of Hotze that the religious-right leader has subordinated his convictions to a pursuit of power and money.
Mark Smith, owner of the Washington, D.C.-based DaVinci Group, says Dan McClung, a Democratic campaign strategist for Congressman Ken Bentsen, paid him the money for a last-minute campaign against Dolly Madison McKenna, a moderate Republican running against Bentsen in the December 1996 District 25 congressional runoff.
McClung admits he forked over the payment from a Bentsen supporter to Smith, but says he had intended it only for issue-related education efforts among conservatives. That claim draws a laugh from Smith, who claims he explained to McClung in detail at the time that he planned to use the money to generate automated phone calls and leaflets targeting McKenna.
Smith claims Hotze asked him to solicit the money, which was funneled to the Texas Family Association and other conservative groups to produce literature accusing McKenna of being pro-abortion and pro-gay.
Consultant Smith has supplied documents under subpoena to the Harris County district attorney for an investigation probing whether Hotze's political activities violate Texas election laws. Smith alerted Assistant D.A. Chuck Noll last fall that he had proof that Hotze had failed to properly report contributions from local candidates.
"You know why I did this?" asked Smith of his role as a whistle blower on his former employer. "To get [District Attorney] Johnny Holmes and his boys to move their asses and get something done. This guy broke the law."
Moderate Republicans have long charged that Hotze uses his election-time endorsements to extort money from political candidates to further his own extremist political agenda. In a press conference last Friday at GOP headquarters, former Hotze associate Clymer Wright accused the doctor of abandoning conservative principles and charged that he was endorsing candidates simply to get their money. GOP activist Mickey Lawrence says documents provided by Smith will prove that a number of local officials illegally gave campaign money to Hotze's organizations.
According to Smith, Hotze runs a network of PACs and companies that route money to candidates and causes while evading federal and state laws requiring the reporting of such expenditures. The consultant says he was paid $5,000 by Hotze's America 2000 company to work for particular candidates, but the expenditure was never legally divulged on state-mandated campaign reports.
Smith came to Houston in 1996 to work for Republican candidates endorsed by Hotze. Hotze supported Christian conservative Judge John Devine in the District 25 congressional race, but Devine failed to make the runoff pitting McKenna against Bentsen. Hotze, according to Smith, detested McKenna for her moderate stance on abortion and other lifestyle issues dear to the religious-right agenda.
After Devine lost, Smith says Hotze asked him to raise money to undermine McKenna. Smith then called Bentsen political consultant McClung, and asked if he were interested in getting money to conservatives who opposed McKenna. McClung gave a $25,000 check to Smith, who says the money was routed to Life Advocates and other anti-abortion and pro-family Christian groups, who then produced ads and other campaign material attacking McKenna as being soft on abortion and other conservative lifestyle issues.
Smith also claims Hotze earlier took $15,000 from David Dewhurst, now a GOP candidate for Texas land commissioner, for generic Republican get-out-the-vote efforts, and illegally routed much of it to phone advertising supporting the candidacy of Judge Devine for Congress.
Democrat McClung says his payment to the DaVinci Group was reported as so-called "soft money" designed to get out the vote on general issues rather than a gift to the Bentsen campaign. Federal campaign regulations allow unlimited contributions by donors on an issue rather than specific-candidate basis.
McClung says he now regrets ever having talked to Smith. "It was the last five days of the campaign," recalls the consultant. "My client had wanted for a couple of weeks or more to have an impact on that race. I couldn't find a good way. I don't think I ever did find a good way. I think probably the worst way was Mark Smith."
McClung describes Smith as a "nut" whose testimony is unreliable. A Houston Republican activist counters that McClung denied last fall he had ever paid Smith to work against McKenna. Smith later faxed the activist McClung's canceled check to prove who was telling the truth.
McClung says he suspects Smith of pocketing the money without producing any campaign materials. In response, Smith faxed The Insider copies of fliers he says McClung's money generated, including a broadside entitled "The Liberal Agenda of Dolly Madison McKenna." The text accuses the candidate of being pro-homosexual, pro-abortion and anti-Christian.
Congressman Bentsen denies having any knowledge of the arrangement between McClung and Smith. He claims none of his campaign funds were involved and neither he nor campaign officials directed any funds to the religious right. "It is ludicrous in the extreme," says the congressman, "to suggest that conservative activist Steven Hotze would support my campaign or that I would ever seek his support."
Smith says that after he got $25,000 from McClung, Hotze pressed him to get another $100,000 from the Democrats to fuel the campaign efforts against McKenna and other GOP moderates. In one phone call, Smith says, Hotze even suggested he might keep some of the Democrats' money to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding. Smith has produced a document he says Hotze approved that would have the DaVinci Group coordinating a campaign against McKenna for $120,000.
Hotze consultant Allen Blakemore denies the doctor had anything to do with Smith's arrangement with McClung.
McKenna says Smith told her a year ago that Democratic money had been funneled to conservative Republicans to help defeat her.
"I'm not surprised," says the former candidate. "It shows neither side cares as much about their convictions as about beating people and making money. Having principles doesn't necessarily help you win, and here I am."
The Narc Endorsement
Dr. Steven Hotze isn't the most unusual endorser of candidates in the upcoming judicial races. That distinction belongs to a group of Houston narcotics officers who also happen to be lawyers in their spare time, and have banded together in a for-profit group called P.O.L.I.C.E., Inc.
The group recently held a reception at the home of GOP lawyer-activist Holly Williamson to hand out trophies to its favorite judges. Williamson says she was under the impression that P.O.L.I.C.E., Inc. was a political action committee. Consultant Mary Jane Smith, who works with the group, says the boys are just your average group of civic-minded narco-lawyers.
"They appear in court all the time as police officers on drug deals," explains Smith. "They were concerned about some of the goings-on in courtrooms and decided they wanted to support certain judges and recognize real good guys and maybe help challengers." John Harlan Spjut, P.O.L.I.C.E., Inc.'s vice president, did not return an Insider inquiry. Perhaps he was too busy juggling that dual career busting druggies and trying court cases.
A cynical courthouse observer suggests the counselor cops actually use the judicial awards and their group endorsements as a way to influence judges while picking up the odd civil court appointment or two.
Campaign Low Blow
Incumbent criminal county judge Jim Barkley won recognition several years back as the judge who sold golf duds out of his courtroom chambers. Last year Barkley announced his retirement, but later reversed himself and declared for re-election. In his current bid, Barkley seems to be borrowing a cover-page idea from Newsweek magazine, which darkened an image of O.J. Simpson for dramatic effect.
Barkley's opponent in the upcoming GOP primary is Mike Fields, a former assistant district attorney and a very rare bird -- an African-American running for a Republican judicial nomination.
In a campaign brochure, Barkley went out of his way to make sure everybody knows Fields is black. Blacker in fact than he actually is. The Barkley mail-out takes a photo of Fields and his wife that the candidate used in his own campaign material. After cutting out Mrs. Fields's photo, Barkley's campaigners printed Fields's mug, but it came out several shades darker than the original. Next to Fields's tinted photo is the caption "Lifelong Liberal, Yellow Dog Democrat masquerading as a Republican."
Fields says the judge is obviously playing the race card, since very few judicial candidates include pictures of their opponents in their campaign fliers.
Barkley's consultant Heidi Lang explains away the darkening of Fields's face on the campaign brochure as accidental and having nothing to do with race. Besides, retorts Lang, Fields told the Chronicle editorial board one of his qualifications for judge was being an African-American candidate for an almost all-white judiciary, so he's in no position to accuse others of playing race cards.
Warning: Uncontrolled Ego on the Loose
Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Susan Christian hasn't been shy about broadcasting her ambition to succeed lame duck director Bill Smith. She'd like to be taken seriously, but instead she's getting guffaws from City Hall insiders after issuing an 11-page, self-promoting analysis of her department. In the document, Christian claims credit for everything from the Houston Industries Power of Houston laser and fireworks display to the visits of Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush to former Mayor Bob Lanier's much hyped Parks to Standards program.
According to Christian's missive, in 1994, Mayor Lanier entrusted her with his "blueprint of a new dimension in spectacular family entertainment impacting every neighborhood in Houston." The deputy director says she set out to implement Lanier's vision by reorganizing her department "into a marketing arm of the city of Houston and the mayor's office."
Not content to build herself up, Christian takes some not-so-subtle jabs at her boss, director Smith. She points out that nonprofit agencies dealing with the department feel disenfranchised and that record keeping of soccer and golf programs is inconsistent. The city has no way to determine accurately the number of youths participating in those programs, notes Christian, and, most damning, "there must be a strict and adherent accountability for all decisions made in the Parks and Recreation Department."
By the end of the document, Christian likely comes dangerously near exhausting available City Hall stocks of the personal pronoun "I." If all her claims are true, parks and recreation director is far too humble a title for Christian. Parks czarina or empress might be more fitting.
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