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In his first trial on federal bribery-conspiracy charges last year that ended in a hung jury, Houston City Councilman Michael Yarbrough called upon a former elementary school teacher, now blind and infirm, to vouch for his good character.
As the 48-year-old Yarbrough prepares for a second trial, a widow tells the Insider the Councilman hoodwinked her out of more than $10,000 during a ill-starred romance in the early nineties. It ended when he dumped her and another girlfriend for his current wife. Some women who worked for Yarbrough say their insight into Yarbrough's public and private conduct convinces them that Brenda Delaney Smith is telling the truth.
If so, one could conclude that it would indeed take someone who could neither see -- nor hear -- evil to give the Councilman a glowing character reference.
Since getting elected to City Council, Yarbrough has used his campaign account for everything from dining to pet supplies to large cash withdrawals with no documentation for how the money was spent. Federal Bureau of Investigation cameras also documented him accepting thousands of dollars more from undercover agents during a sting operation. Those tapes will air again in the retrial, tentatively set for April, of Yarbrough, colleague John Castillo and former councilman John Peavy.
Yarbrough did not return calls for comment about the claims of Smith, 49. A petite, round-faced beautician now living with her parents and a son, she says the experience with Yarbrough convinced her that he is in politics strictly for the money. But before he got elected to an office he could use to reap financial benefits, he pressured her for loans which he never repaid.
When she demanded the money back, Smith claims, Yarbrough struck her with his fist during one incident and pushed her down in another. A neighbor filed a police report after one incident, but officers took no action. Yarbrough has never been formally accused of civil or criminal wrongdoing in connection with the allegations.
Smith grew up in the same northeast Houston neighborhood as Yarbrough and knew him from sight since they were children. Until she received a substantial insurance settlement from the death of her husband, Raymond, in 1990, she had never spoken to the then-unemployed Yarbrough. He lived in his parents' house and helped manage the care of his mother, an Alzheimer's victim residing in a nearby nursing home.
Yarbrough had had several unsuccessful runs for state representative by that time and was in the early planning stages of a City Council campaign. He had also spent a large settlement from his late father's estate and, according to Smith, needed money in the worst way.
After Smith's husband died, she became more involved in Miles Chapel Methodist Church activities. "My nephew was in the choir, and I would take him to choir rehearsal," Smith says in an interview in the living room of her home on Sparta Street. She remembers becoming aware that Yarbrough had an interest in her when he started asking other church members for information about her.
On Christmas Day, 1990, Smith says Yarbrough called her house and initially refused to give his name. "I didn't know who it was on the phone because I had never spoken to him. When I threatened to hang up, he introduced himself, and we talked for a while."
For much of the following year, Smith says, Yarbrough repeatedly phoned her and kept suggesting they go out, but she refused because she was still in mourning for her husband.
"I wasn't ready," she recalls. "I had just lost a husband I had been with for 23 years, and my husband was only my second boyfriend. I wasn't used to dating or anything like that."
When 1992 rolled around and Yarbrough continued to call, Smith decided she needed to come out of her shell. They started a relationship that lasted until May 1993. According to the widow, Yarbrough immediately initiated a pattern of demands for cash, in chunks ranging from $500 to $1,800.
"He was getting a feel of me, and I didn't know it because I had never dated before," says Smith. "He was asking me questions about things, finances, and I would answer, naive as I am. I didn't know how to play the game. I'm not a game player, I'm a serious person."
When Yarbrough first asked Smith for $1,000 to attend a wedding in St. Louis, the widow was stunned. "That blew me away," she remembers. "I thought that when you asked for a loan you asked for $10 or $15." Still, Smith says her infatuation with the six-foot-two Councilman and his smooth style overruled her common sense.
"Well, I cared for Michael," she explains. "I was reluctant but gave it to him. But then he needed $800 for this, $500 for that. He needed $300, then $200. This is the way he got money from me. It was never $10, $50, $100."
Smith says she wrote down the loans as they were made, and Yarbrough convinced her he would repay them after his political career blossomed. "I had a list of the dates and amounts," she says ruefully. "Dumb fool that I was, we were at Luby's one day," says Smith, "and he got mad and said if I cared for him, why would I keep a tally of all the money that he owed?" Smith says she gave in and agreed to destroy the list, but she insists she had given Yarbrough more than $10,000.