Trivial Pursuit

Should taxpayer dollars help prosecute a reporter with a big mouth and inoperable cancer?

Forward Times reporter/editor Ed Wendt, who had just been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer at M.D. Anderson Hospital while awaiting trial on a City Hall trespassing charge, called my house two weeks ago. No one was home, but on the answering-machine tape, Ed's voice was dragging, and he sounded like he never had before: scared to death.

Wendt, an Army veteran and former heavy drinker, had hepatitis C for a number of years and was receiving interferon treatments at the Veteran's Administration hospital when the massive tumor on his liver was discovered. In his message, Wendt explained that the local staff of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee had cut the red tape so he could be admitted quickly as a patient at M.D. Anderson, a cancer-treatment facility.

Lee and Wendt were on opposite sides in the affirmative-action fight last fall, but the reporter credited Lee chief of staff Gerald Womack as the person who came to his assistance. The fact that Wendt previously claimed Womack had slapped him during a confrontation last year at the attorney's legal office somehow seemed fitting. Historically, most of Wendt's Houston journalistic relationships have contained elements of affection and loathing on both sides, and the targets of his inky ire often changed radically depending on whom he currently judged a friend or foe.

Now the 48-year-old Bellville native is facing his own mortality, and journalistic and political feuds of the past seem inconsequential, and the continuing court case against him just a draining nuisance.

"The way I'm feeling now," said Wendt when I called him back at home later, "I just want to concentrate fully on getting well. Who knew that ten days before I went to court I'd get diagnosed with liver cancer; that M.D. is now saying the liver tumor is too big to operate on." Over the objections of the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the trial has now been postponed until the middle of September.

In the past 12 months, Wendt's prospects have taken some wild gyrations. After laboring in journalistic obscurity here in recent decades, he became the darling of local conservatives and the named hero in Wall Street Journal editorials for his reports on supposed minority insider profiteering in the city program that sets goals for contracting with businesses owned by minorities and women. After the attempt to repeal affirmative action failed, a WSJ editorialist lamented, "If only Houston had listened to the Forward Times and Ed Wendt."

The Houston Press Club, whose awards were judged by an out-of-state panel, named Wendt small newspaper reporter of the year. (To be sure, if local journalists had conducted the vote, he likely wouldn't have been named small dogcatcher of the year, for reasons to be discussed shortly.)

Wendt then spent a night in jail in early February after his highly questionable arrest by Mayor Lee Brown's security detail outside City Council chambers. The cast of characters involved on both sides of the case is as unlikely as the arrest itself.

Wendt's new conservative friends rallied to his defense. Anti-affirmative-action leader Ed Blum and his wife, Lark, helped bail Wendt out of the hoosegow, and county GOP chairman Gary Polland stepped in as his pro bono attorney.

The city paid top criminal defense attorney Rusty Hardin $5,000 to advise Brown and mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney concerning their potential legal liabilities, a move Polland finds ludicrous. "I couldn't believe that when we showed up to interview Brown and Boney and [Hardin] was there," says Polland. "I said, I hope they're paying you, and he said, 'Yeah, we're getting paid.' I said good for you."

The case is being prosecuted by Chuck Noll, the former public integrity prosecutor who now heads the misdemeanor section of the D.A.'s office. Noll seems determined to pursue the class B misdemeanor charge against Wendt despite contradictory accounts of witnesses to the arrest and the reporter's medical condition.

In another odd twist, the county court judge hearing the case, Sherman Ross, is a former part-owner of Metro News Service, which Wendt worked for after Ross divested his interest when he was elected to the bench.

At worst, even accepting the police account as gospel, Wendt's transgression amounts to little more than mouthing off loudly at City Hall, a crime that could probably be pinned on many of our elected representatives every time they get together. Maybe Court TV, which got such great mileage out of the KTRK-TV/Channel 13 Sylvester Turner libel trial, should consider televising Wendt's alleged trespassing in the great house of the people if the case ever gets to trial.

If that happens, viewers around the nation could take a gander at a real show trial of the absurd. They'd also meet one of the most unique -- and cantankerous -- denizens of Houston's media scene.

Ed Wendt has been an enigma -- and an irritation -- to fellow journalists since he arrived in the mid-seventies. He came to town already rooted in black politics, a curious circumstance for a white guy raised in the then largely segregated town of Hempstead.

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