The Insider

City Council Fire Sale
With two Houston City Council members among the Hotel Six defendants currently in federal court facing bribery charges, what better time could there be for special interests to curry favor with them? After all, in politics, perhaps even more than in real life, a friend in need can be a friend indeed.

That's certainly the impression one gets from looking at the composition of the committee supporting the John Castillo Legal Defense Fund. A solicitation letter to raise money for the District 1 incumbent is signed by Kenny Friedman, a lawyer close to mayors Lanier and Brown and the representative for the victorious CA One group in the just-concluded "food fight" for the Bush Intercontinental Airport restaurant concessions that just happened to get Castillo's vote.

Another signatory is Chris Pappas, the restaurateur who led the losing Four Families bid against CA One. Rounding out the co-signers are Ed Wulfe, a shopping center mega-developer and major supporter of Mayor Lee Brown, and Leroy Hermes, an architect who does business with the city and contributes heavily to the campaigns of city officials.

"Some people have bought a piece of John's ass for a long time," chortles consultant Marc Campos about the members of the Castillo fundraising team. "Most of the people on that committee have an interest in a vote on City Council."

Campos, who formerly worked for Castillo in his campaign, also observed the irony that "[the feds] are going after Castillo for bribery and selling his vote while the people that need his vote on a regular basis are giving him money for his legal defense."

The letter begins with a quick summary of the legal woes faced by "our good friend John Castillo." The missive then explains that the councilman's lawyer has thoroughly investigated the charges and predicts that Castillo will be vindicated and retain his Council seat. But in the meantime, Castillo needs money.

"You know John, his character and reputation," declares the letter. "His supporters and you know that he has been selfless in his commitment in helping others. Now, John needs us to help him."

Thanks to the unusual circumstances, the pals of Castillo can give unlimited greenbacks. Under state law, there are no limits on the amounts a donor can contribute to the fund. Defense Committee chairman Jorge Casimiro says the goal of the committee is to raise $250,000 to pay Castillo's attorney, Bob Bennett Sr.

Unlike City Council campaigns, where donors are limited to $5,000 per individual and businesses cannot contribute except through political action committees, Castillo's legal defense fund can accept personal, PAC, partnership, corporate and sole-proprietorship checks. The only stricture is the one that got Castillo crosswise with the feds to start with, namely accepting cash contributions in amounts over $100. (Castillo was indicted for allegedly accepting envelopes of cash in exchange for his vote on the downtown hotel project.)

Former city attorney Gene Locke issued an opinion last year that Castillo could form a committee to raise funds for his defense, but Locke likely never envisioned the flock of prospective city vendors that landed in Castillo's corner. They include former Metro chair Billy Burge, Yellow Cab's George Kamins, Hermann Park golf concession operator Andy Schatte of BSL Golf Corporation, Mayor Lanier's former housing adviser Michael Stevens and even Bill Miller, the owner of MEM-Hubble Communications who launched the unsuccessful media blitz on behalf of Four Families.

Miller recalls that Castillo contacted him several months back, when the food fight was just starting to heat up, and asked the consultant to help raise money for his defense fund. Miller gave permission for his name to be listed on the defense committee, but declined to contribute money, reasoning that it would have been "inappropriate" to fork over cash while he had a matter of interest pending before City Council.

Miller did contact his client Chris Pappas on behalf of Castillo. Pappas agreed to be a signatory on the fundraising letter, and also recruited other restaurant owners to participate. Pappas did not return a phone inquiry from The Insider to explain whether he contributed money to the fund while the food fight was in progress.

Councilman Castillo sees nothing wrong with asking his pals at City Hall to help pay his legal bills. And it seems almost all his friends do business with the city. "It's hard to know somebody that at some point or another does not," declares the official. "At some point, you have to ask the people that you've dealt with for years and years and years to give you a hand, and this is what this is."

Since Castillo approached principals in the food fight for help while his vote was at stake, at minimum, didn't that constitute pressure to get them to participate in the defense fund? "I can't get into their heads," replies Castillo, "but I wouldn't imagine why."

City Council Ethics Commission chair Chris Bell had already seen the fundraising letter when The Insider contacted him and says he wasn't happy with the spectacle of City Hall insiders lining up to give the councilman money. But Bell does understand why Castillo is accepting the help. "Obviously, he's in a tough predicament with a very expensive case lying in front of him and he's going to have to find a way to pay his lawyers," says the ethics chief.

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