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.

Not at all, says Palit, reached by phone in his Austin office. The fines are not determined based on timely response, but on the city's material violations of environmental policy. "There were many misquotes in that letter," he says, adding that $125,000 "is a maximum penalty if they don't negotiate." City officials did negotiate, and the fine was reduced to $45,000.

* The contract for the sewage plant was signed by a nonexistent corporation. On the face of it, the contract was signed by agents for three corporations in a joint venture -- R.W. Patrick & Associates, Inc.; Son-Ar Enterprises, Inc.; and Civil Concepts, Inc., on February 3, 1993. But Son-Ar was not incorporated until April of that year. Son-Ar is listed on the contract as the participating Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MBE/WBE), but Son-Ar did not receive that status until March of 1995. Patrick's lawyer explained to the Press that both the incorporation and the MBE status were pending at the time the contract was signed. However, records indicate that Son-Ar did not submit an application for MBE status until November 3, 1994.

Also suspicious is the fact that the signature of the South Houston mayor, Ralph Clark, is dated September 30, 1994. Yet all the names appear to have been typed in at the same time, or at least by the same typewriter. Back in 1993, when the corporations purportedly signed, Ralph Clark had not yet been elected. Furthermore, in a detailed review of the sewage plant project, auditor Mark Fifield was unable to determine when the city council had approved the contract.

"We didn't even know that they were borrowing that money until it was a done deal," says Eloise Smith.

* Fifield's examination of the project turned up thousands of dollars in "questioned costs." The Fifield report, which examined every invoice and payment related to the sewage plant up until 1995, found that Patrick had billed twice for surveying, costing the city an extra $15,000. "They tried to explain why the overpayment was valid, but they were not able to justify it," says Fifield. Though Patrick was forced to return the money, the council refused to discuss Fifield's report in a meeting. One night, Fifield says, he waited two hours to make his presentation before it was tabled by the council. "That's what got me most frustrated," he says. "They just didn't want to hear it."

Councilmen now complain that Fifield did not conduct a proper audit of the project. But Fifield's agreement letter, which was approved by the council, spells out exactly what he was to do, and Fifield explains that the work was far more detailed than an audit would have been. Council recently voted to hire another firm to audit the project.

* Patrick's son was an employee of Civil Concepts, which earned $156,000 on the plant, primarily for inspections the son performed. According to Patrick's report to city council, one wall of the plant is already cracked and leaking.

* Patrick made at least 50 -- some say 86 -- change orders to the project. None of them were approved by council or the mayor, but all put extra money into Patrick's pockets. The change orders include basic items such as a hot water heater and a sink for the dog pound, whose relocation was included in the original project.

* Patrick continued to bill the city for the project after it was closed out in June, and after it had been operational for two years. The most recent bills, dated September 1, total $31,230. Patrick's attorney, Rothenberg, explained that because the construction company, Belmont, took longer than expected to complete the project, the engineer had to do more work than originally anticipated. Belmont was penalized for taking so long, and the engineer waited for the penalty to be arranged before billing the city. But letters from Belmont assert that the project was substantially completed in early 1997, and was held open at Patrick's request because he wanted to add a new, costly piece of equipment called a "muffin monster" or grinder. One letter refers to "the request by your office to leave the contract open until the grinder change order was designed and built." Another says, "... to be eligible to perform the work [on the muffin monster change request] we were asked by you to keep our contract insurance and bonds open in order for the city to avoid bidding this work as a new project."

Former mayor Lynn Brasher, who never fails to plant himself in the front row of council meetings in his blue or orange work coveralls, insists that the new sewage plant benefited Patrick more than it did South Houston. "This guy has raped the town," Brasher says. "He's still doing it."

The letters from Belmont say something about the way the city conducts -- or doesn't conduct -- competitive bidding.

The latest of a string of allegations involving bidding practices centers on the city's attempts to purchase a new computer system for water billing and administrative record keeping. Patrick was responsible for writing the bid specifications and bidding out the project, and the mayor accused him of bid rigging.

Although Patrick told the Houston Chronicle that the mayor's allegations were "way off base," only two of the 16 companies that picked up bid specifications submitted bids, and only one, Incode, submitted bids according to the specifications. Concerned, Romero and the Smiths started calling around. Seven of the ten companies they reached felt that the bid specifications had been tailor-made for, or even written by, one company -- Incode. Two of the other companies said they had simply been too busy to bid.

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