Trivial Pursuit

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

When Wendt was a teenager, it didn't take him long to learn how to cross the color line. He recalls that he and black friends who played on a baseball team together conspired to wrap Wendt in a coat and scarf and smuggle him into the blacks-only balcony of the town theater. It worked, he recalls, and "we all thought it was cool."

When Wendt returned to the family home after two years of military service at an Army base in Missouri, he said it seemed only logical to attend nearby Prairie View A&M, even though at that time very few whites had enrolled at the overwhelmingly black university.

While at Prairie View, Wendt met Varee Shields, then editor of Forward Times. According to Wendt, Shields "started showing me the ropes, how to go in and kick in the doors. At that time, it was hard for black reporters to go in and get stuff, and I was in a unique position. I was the white guy working for these black papers, and I'd go in and get stuff. And when they wouldn't give it to me, I'd raise hell."

Wendt pauses. "I guess I was still raising hell the day they arrested me at City Hall."

Much of the mainstream reporting corps back then and now detested Wendt for his occasional bully-boy tactics in intimidating news sources and threatening them with negative stories if they did not accord him what he felt was proper respect. Wendt's bluster wasn't reserved for newsmakers. When he had trouble getting access to a downtown pressroom, he berated a woman reporter and later skewered her in his Forward Times column.

Wendt now says journalists for more established news outlets often looked down on him, an attitude he returned with gusto.

"They didn't want to let any kind of new blood in," recalls Wendt of fellow reporters. "Some were lazy and didn't want to get off of their asses and do investigative reporting. They don't like maverick journalists who don't like the Hearst family line -- or whichever family happens to be running things at the time."

In his current post-diagnosis mood, Wendt has a more conciliatory outlook. "I've got to the point where I don't want to cast stones at the Chronicle anymore," says the reporter. "I understand that a lot of the reporters at the Chronicle are very good. They want to do their jobs but have limitations put on them. I used to think the whole barrel stunk, and I know better now."

Over the years, the few reporters who became friends with Ed found a man with a knack for getting in places where journalists rarely go, and ferreting out facts that other reporters don't think of as news, or know their bosses would never allow to be published or aired. Rarely will Wendt be lacking a tantalizing rumor or story tip to share, generally about something going on in minority political or journalistic circles in Houston.

The first time I can remember Wendt turning me on to a story was sometime in the summer of 1981, when Phil Warner, then editor of the Houston Chronicle, had been charged with driving while intoxicated after an early-morning arrest by police on Memorial Drive.

At the time, Ed had settled in as a courthouse reporter for Metro News Service, a local news wire that fed print and electronic media with stories and audiotape before its demise in the late eighties.

"Tim, they're going to get a judge to wash the case out, just you wait and see," declared Wendt, who happened to know a helpful assistant D.A. on the case. Sure enough, after the prosecutor had presented what appeared to be substantial evidence, the judge, who had been endorsed by the Chronicle, halted the proceeding and threw out the case for lack of evidence.

Fast-forward 18 years to last May, and Ed's on the phone again to me, touting a tape recording he had managed to purchase at a New Orleans conference. It featured some particularly inappropriate remarks by Lenoria Walker, the city affirmative-action director whom Wendt had roasted in his news columns when she resisted his efforts to get the files of companies approved as minority vendors by her program. This time Wendt made sure the tape got into the hands not only of fellow reporters but of City Councilman Joe Roach, whom Walker had described as a "Republican midget."

In the ensuing hubbub, Walker eventually resigned her post. But Wendt still faced that trespassing charge and a prosecution he believes is motivated out of anger by city officials at his affirmative-action stories.

Whether politics figures into the reporter's arrest is unproven conjecture at this point.

Wendt says he went to the February 3 Council meeting to question Councilman Boney about a $12,000 payment for consulting services the official received from a political action committee pushing the city bond issue last fall. Municipal channel videotape of the meeting shows the reporter, dressed in a suit and wearing a prominently displayed media credential, taking flash photos from a bench area customarily reserved for news media. As the reporter moved about the Council chambers photographing Mayor Brown and Boney from several angles with a flash camera, witnesses say the mayor and the councilman seemed irritated and motioned to security guards. At one point, Brown called for order.

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