Under Siege

City Council took away South Houston Mayor Cipriano Romano's keys. They took away his secretary. They told the 27-year-old he can't use the fax or copy machine after hours. Now they're ready to impeach him.

Theoretically, the city approves and signs a contract with Patrick's firm for each project he undertakes. In reality, Patrick's opponents say, he sometimes bills the city for projects that have not been expressly approved. They also say that the city's lack of political stability and financial controls allow Patrick to bill the city again and again for the same work. Indeed, auditors have found that he has overcharged the city by thousands of dollars.

The mayor has tried several times to fire Patrick and hire a salaried city engineer. But councilmen like Tamayo and Jim Sybert say that South Houston can't afford an engineer's salary, although Patrick, by the mayor's calculations, has received $1.8 million in fees from South Houston over the past three years.

Tamayo defends the engineer's fees, explaining that they are regulated and approved by granting agencies, like the Harris County Community Development Agency, which gave the city its three current grants. "If you have grant funds, they also include fees to pay your engineer," he says. But Community Development Project Manager Elizabeth Rodriguez says none of her agency's grants cover engineering or design fees, and the city -- not the agency -- determines those fees.

Patrick is usually involved in several projects for the city at one time, and when the mayor has disputed his invoices, Patrick has threatened to walk off all the jobs at once unless he was paid. Romero points out that although the engineer is not salaried, he still has a fiduciary duty as a city officer, adding that if the engineer thinks he's owed money he should pursue it through normal debt-collection channels. "He's supposed to be protecting the city," Romero says.

Tracing the flow of money to and from a private company is not easy, but there is some evidence to suggest that Patrick might reinvest his earnings, so to speak. Although Patrick's name does not show up on campaign contribution reports for any of the current councilmen, three former office holders -- Hal Smith, Eloise Smith and Lynn Brasher -- say they were offered cash contributions from Patrick or his business partner, Alan Munz. Patrick, through his lawyer, told the Press he did not recall making any such payments.

Questioning the city engineer seems to provoke the ire of the council more than anything else the mayor does. "Any time I'd raise a stink, ask these questions, I'd get shut up," Romero says. "And now, these are charges of an impeachment. When I open my mouth questioning, in my mind, questionable costs, with reasonable evidence and audit reports sanctioned by the city council in my hand ... I think a prudent person, a reasonable person, would question that."

Back in February, 66-year-old Margaret Fleming filed a formal complaint of impeachment against Romero. Fleming, a retired apartment manager, had worked on the campaign of Romero's opponent in his first political race and was a longtime critic of the mayor. In her complaints, she accused him of refusing to sign checks and failing to enforce the council's decorum ordinance. But the city's attorney urged the council to dismiss the complaint, saying it contained no grounds for impeachment. Instead of following the attorney's advice, the councilmen set a trial date for July.

Already the deck was stacked against the mayor. By law, the city's five councilmen serve as judges in the court of impeachment. In such a court, judges do not have to enforce the normal rules of evidence (which bar, for example, hearsay testimony). The court's chief judge, Councilman Johnny Tamayo, is one of the targets of a police investigation instigated by the mayor, and all of the councilmen are Romero's enemies.

In July, the mayor circulated a lengthy communique in his own defense, calling Fleming "unstable."

"Again, because of city council, our city will have a black eye of negative publicity as councilmen aim to destroy me and your city," the mayor wrote. "The effort to remove me was started by a misled citizen, Margaret Fleming, who is these councilmen's biggest buddy. I understand that I'm not the first mayor they've hated. I'm just the first one they can't control or intimidate."

Fleming responded by asking that the trial be postponed, complaining that Romero's "scurrilous commentary" had exacerbated her weak stomach and chest pains. She sent along a doctor's note. "Mrs. Margaret Fleming has been advised to abstain and refrain from any type of political or legal activity ... regarding the impeachment of the Mayor," the note read.

A new trial was set for September 14, but on September 1, Fleming amended her complaint to include 13 new allegations. Fleming, who refuses to discuss the charges with the Press, said the mayor had, among other things, jeopardized the city's water supply, "refused to execute the laws simply because they were contrary to his wishes," used city vehicles to disseminate political materials, "converted" the city's Easter candy "to his own personal use and benefit," invoked "frivolous vetoes," removed official documents "for his personal use ... to the detriment of the citizens," and created "an atmosphere of distrust and low morale" with his "vile and and vulgar comments" and "vituperative epithets."

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