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.

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.

After Wendt left the chambers, he says plainclothes Sergeant Rob Jackson, a newly installed head of the mayor's security detail, refused to let him re-enter the meeting. When he tried to open the door to the Council chambers, Wendt says Jackson and officer L. Gonzalez, a Council guard, slammed him against a wall and handcuffed him. He was jailed and bailed out early the next morning.

In his offense report, Jackson claimed that Wendt had "disrupted" the Council meeting. According to the officer's account, Wendt began shouting in the hallway and was arrested when he refused to quiet down.

"I really believe, and it will come out at trial," contends Wendt's attorney Polland, "that there's really something sinister at work here about silencing and intimidating the media, and I don't think there's any place for it in Houston or Texas or America.

"My position is, he didn't criminal trespass, he didn't disrupt, and there was no basis to do anything to him," says Polland. "I find it stupefying that this thing is continuing."

Prosecutor Noll is equally adamant that testimony will prove that while Wendt did not disturb the Council meeting, he was out of control in the lobby when the officers asked him to be quiet. "I asked Gary Polland to present to me one shred of evidence that this was a politically motivated case," says the prosecutor, "and I'd dump this case like a hot potato." Noll says there's no evidence that Brown or Boney had anything to do with the arrest. Although there are security cameras mounted in the hallway, the prosecutor says he's "unfortunately" received no videotape of the actual arrest.

"The facts that have been reported are not accurate," insists Noll of Wendt's account that he was targeted by the security guards for taking pictures of Brown and Boney. "Mr. Wendt is not being charged with disrupting a City Council meeting. He was not arrested in the City Council chambers. He was not arrested while performing any duties as a reporter."At least two witnesses, Allen Parkway Village activist Lenwood Johnson, whom Wendt was interviewing in the hallway, and a softball team manager, Don Roventini, say Wendt did not begin shouting in the hall until the officers arrested him. If the case goes to trial, Noll concedes that the contradictory testimony will make it difficult to get a conviction.

Noll, a cancer survivor himself, was quoted in a Chronicle story as saying Wendt's cancer did not justify a delay of the trial. Now, with Wendt's medical situation worsening, Noll has softened his position.

"I've been in a situation where the word around the courthouse was, I was dead," says Noll. "For gosh sake, I don't want people to write Ed off as a dead man just because of his diagnosis." According to Noll, if he is convinced Wendt is seriously ill, the case might be dismissed on humanitarian grounds.

Polland, however, shows no inclination to pursue that outcome.
"I think I've already presented adequate evidence of the factual nature of the case that calls for a dismissal," says the attorney. "I'm not going to go out of my way to ask them to dismiss it on medical grounds... My intention is to try the case, assuming Ed's in a condition to do so."

District Attorney Johnny Holmes, while noting that he would not interfere if Noll decides to dismiss the case, offers a cautionary example of what happens when one gets too sympathetic to cancer victims charged with a crime. Holmes prosecuted a schoolteacher who was charged with selling marijuana to students and who also had testicular cancer.

"I asked for confinement for life, in good faith, because I believed that's what the guy should have gotten," says Holmes. "The jury saw it completely differently and gave the guy probation because of some sympathetic concern about his testicular cancer.

"I happened to run into his lawyer just the other day and asked him whatever happened to that guy, and he said, 'Oh, he's doing fine.' " The moral of the tale: If you cut a criminal some slack because he has cancer, remission just might let him off the hook.

To the observation that Wendt's "crime" is hardly comparable to dealing dope to children, Holmes replies: "Depends on your perspective." Returning to the particulars of Wendt's case, the D.A. figures that "Ed wants his day in court. If he truly takes the position that he's been imposed upon like all of his followers think, then he'll prevail."

" I don't know whether they call it humanitarian grounds or whatever, I just want the case to go away so I can get well," responds Wendt. "It sure would help me fight this if I didn't have that two-bit little class B misdemeanor hanging over me."

It seems all that's lacking to close out this pathetic little legal episode is someone in the criminal justice system with a cup of common sense and a teaspoon of compassion. Any volunteers out there?

Know something The Insider ought to know? Call him at (713) 280-2483, fax him at (713) 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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