The Insider

MTA Going to Potts?
Brown backers attempt to jump on the political HOV lane

For the past two Houston mayors, driving the Metropolitan Transit Authority has proven a test of political agility and administrative foresight upon which their careers have floundered or flourished. Lee Brown has been in office less than a year, but there are indications that his long-term mayoral future may also depend on how well he masters the complicated mass-transit game.

Since Brown took office last January and abruptly flushed out predecessor Bob Lanier's five Metro board appointees and replaced them with his own team, dissidents remaining on the board and in the agency structure have made no secret of their view that Metro is careening toward ethical problems in the awarding of contracts because of undue influence from the mayor's inner circle.

A case currently under the microscope is the impending selection of a new Metro general manager to replace the retiring Robert MacLennon. According to Metro sources, the odds-on favorite to get the job is Louisianan John Potts, despite his track record as a mediocre or worse transit chief who left Detroit and New Orleans under barrages of criticism from his former employers. What the Harvard-educated Potts has going for him, say these critics, is a connection to a key mayoral adviser who in turn is a pal of the new board vice chairman. If Potts is hired, highly regarded deputy general manager Fred Gilliam, who has been groomed for the last two years to succeed MacLennon, would almost certainly resign.

"In my opinion, it's dirty, unethical, immoral," says one board member of the drive to hire Potts.

While Lanier and former Metro chair Billy Burge praise Gilliam's credentials, Potts's media clips are downright radioactive. Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young blamed Potts for leaving the Detroit agency "in a damn shambles" in the early '80s. More recently, he was forced out as general manager of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority last year. An unnamed board member told the New Orleans Times Picayune: "You know when you're a misfit.... You submit your resignation and you move on." Potts, currently a transit consultant living in New Orleans, was unavailable for comment.

Metro, with a $630 million annual budget, is a rich hunting ground for contracts for everything from bus purchases to road construction, and recent efforts by board members to get involved in the purchasing process had already raised concerns that transit politics and business may be getting too mixed. Agency insiders figure Potts is a front-runner primarily because he is an old friend of Danny Lawson, a key fundraiser and adviser to Mayor Brown who until recently worked for bus companies that sought and won sales contracts with transit agencies, including one headed by Potts. Lawson, in turn, is close to the new vice chair of the Metro Board, Ira Scott Jr.

Potts was included in a group of candidates selected for the board by search firm Spencer Stuart, the same firm that recruited Lee Brown for police chief of Houston in the early '80s. Several Metro sources claimed that the firm was asked to look at Potts's credentials by Lawson, a claim he denies. Spencer Stuart executive Lou Riegle did not return an Insider inquiry.

A Metro source suggests that the real play is more subtle than the above chain of connections might suggest. "Lawson and Scott don't intend to do business with Metro themselves because the mayor wouldn't allow it. The real plan is to get a tool in as general manager and then get their friends from around the country business with Metro, and those friends then provide business opportunities for them elsewhere."

"I don't know where that's coming from," retorts Lawson sarcastically. "That's too sophisticated for me. I certainly haven't gotten to that level, and I don't know who has."

The board selection committee is expected to submit a final list of candidates to the full board this week. Potts and Gilliam made presentations to the committee several weeks ago. At least one other candidate may be included, but according to several Metro sources on and off the board, Potts "is a done deal" -- at least for now. Of course, that was before the dissidents began ringing media phones with complaints that the search selection has been rigged to hire Potts.

The mayor's ties to Lawson have been cited since the beginning of his administration as a potential source of trouble, because of Lawson's vested interests in the transit biz. Brown seems oblivious to the appearance of impropriety.

When Lawson was interviewed by the New York Times in 1986 about his success in the bus business, he was asked why his biggest contracts had come from cities with black mayors, including New Orleans. "The political environment," replied Lawson succinctly, "is one that we have used as a plus."

"I've known him for years," the mayor said of Lawson, in a recent interview with the Press. "He's one of my advisers as well. Danny's more interested in transportation issues, and so he's been advising me on transportation issues.... Danny sells buses, that's what he wants to do."

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