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.

Attorney Michael Villalba, hired by the mayor to represent him, asked the council-as-court for a two-month delay to prepare a defense against the new allegations. Though the proceedings had dragged on since February, suddenly time was of the essence. The court granted only one month.

Both Fleming and another key witness, city engineer Ron Patrick, refused to be deposed by Villalba. But at the advice of the city's attorney, the councilmen ruled that Villalba had the right to conduct discovery, and they again reset the trial for November 13. Denise Villalba, Michael's wife and a paralegal, called Fleming to plan a suitable time for the deposition. "There is no good time," Fleming said, and hung up. Afterwards, the city secretary notified the Villalbas that Fleming had left the state for "seven to ten days."

Although the hearing was held with no sign of Fleming, the impeachment process moved forward without her. On October 19, the court met again because Patrick still refused to be deposed. His lawyer argued that any relevant information Patrick could provide was already a matter of public record. The court decided to allow Michael Villalba to ask questions in writing, which would then be vetted by the city attorney. The court also insisted it did not have the power to subpoena witnesses -- so there was no way to force Patrick to appear in court. Villalba says both decisions were designed solely to protect Patrick from being cross-examined under oath about his billing practices.

At the same hearing, Villalba asked that Fleming be required to make her sworn accusations, which are short on details such as when and where particular offenses occurred, more "specific and certain." The councilmen refused. Virtually every decision they made went against the mayor.

"The entire thing is absurd," Villalba says. "It's a distortion of the law in order to effectuate a political ouster."

Once again, Fleming did not attend the hearing. Councilman Al Thiel, a printer who wears amber-tinted glasses and moonlights as a karaoke singer, and who seems to be the only councilman who might vote in the mayor's favor, moved to dismiss the complaint. "How can we go on with a one-sided case?" he asked. "This thing's got to be fair." No one seconded his motion.

Meanwhile, apparently worried that Romero might somehow escape unimpeached, Tamayo took precautions. At the October 12 council meeting, he sponsored, and the council approved, a resolution to appoint a "special prosecutor" to investigate the mayor and -- regardless of said prosecutor's findings -- "prepare a proper complaint of impeachment to be properly served on Mayor Cipriano Romero."

Political turmoil is nothing new for South Houston. The fact that it's nothing new isn't even new. In the '60s, circus owner George Christy, the town's most colorful mayor, clocked a councilman in a fight over the city's dog pound. In 1982, Mayor LaNelle Chafin threw Councilman Hal Smith out of office because he slept in a Houston apartment during his divorce (he was reinstated). Since 1985, there have been eight attempted impeachments. Romero himself was appointed in 1996 to replace his predecessor, Don Gaylor, who resigned after losing a bruising legal battle over the right to put items on the council's agenda, saying, "I do not have deep pockets nor the desire to participate in this insanity."

Insanity is precisely what Romero was left to deal with. On Gaylor's last day in office, he granted City Secretary Barbara Bigham indefinite leave with pay due to stress. In the absence of the secretary, who also serves as the city's treasurer and tax assessor, Romero discovered that the city's bank statements had not been reconciled in over a year. A new city accountant, former Pasadena controller Jaime Valderama, found more than 600 mistakes on the books (which Bigham's defenders on council, who repeatedly refused to let Romero fire her, contend weren't her fault). The bank statements showed that the city's general fund had $685,000 less than the city's records indicated. And, Romero says, he and Valderama discovered missing checks, handwritten checks (including one for $67,608) and close to 40 separate bank accounts. Some of these accounts were supposed to have been closed years before, others were earning at the most $42 per month in interest, and one -- a Christmas party fund left untouched, the mayor says, for several years -- was being charged a maintenance fee. He began consolidating them into the city's general fund, planning, he says, to inform the council when the job was complete so they could invest the money. All in all, by the mayor's records, he transferred a total of $536,000.

But then Bigham returned after a month and a half's absence. Bigham, the daughter of close friends of some of the councilmen and a longtime enemy of Romero, discovered what the mayor was doing. She raised a stink, telling councilmen that Romero was removing money from interest-bearing accounts and placing them in the general fund, a non-interest-bearing account. The council removed the mayor's power to transfer funds and close accounts. The story became so exaggerated that by the 1997 election, both Sybert and Thiel were accusing the mayor of having transferred $2.5 million out of interest-bearing accounts. "This caused the loss of thousands of dollars in lost interest to our city," Sybert, a local manager for Entex, wrote.

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