By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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The candidate could already savor the rich prospects awaiting him in the runoff election only six days away. Ascending to the chief executive's office of the nation's fourth-largest city would be heady enough. But this victory would be historic: He'd be the first black mayor of Houston.
Eight years ago, state Representative Sylvester Turner, an alumnus of both Harvard and Acres Homes, reasonably saw that as his future. He'd secured the endorsement of incumbent Kathy Whitmire, who'd been knocked out in the savage primary election. Polls showed that he was leading his remaining opponent, developer Bob Lanier. And the Houston Chronicle, after checking with Turner to make sure there would be no surprises lurking ahead, gave him another boost: an endorsement usually worth at least a couple of percentage points on Election Day.
But one surprise did remain. That Sunday evening, in 420 seconds of TV airtime, reporter Wayne Dolcefino reshaped Turner's destiny -- and Houston's.
"We begin tonight with word of what may be one of the biggest attempted insurance swindles in recent Houston history," anchor Bob Boudreaux announced at the top of KTRK's 5:30 p.m. news.
"What role did Houston mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner play in this tale of multimilllion-dollar fraud?" asked investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino. He then bounced breathlessly from character to character, location to location.
The gist of the story was this. In 1986 Turner had a client named Sylvester Foster, a debonair former model. Their mutual friend was Dwight Thomas, a delivery driver who shared the house Turner had leased to establish residency for the mayoral race.
Turner drew up Foster's will and apparently didn't know that Foster was about to be jailed for bank fraud and credit-card fraud. A few days after the will was completed, Foster was reported to have fallen overboard and drowned in Galveston Bay. His life insurance policies were worth a few million dollars.
Dolcefino reported that Turner became probate attorney in the case and filed papers to have Thomas oversee the estate. The story described Turner as "deeply involved" in the case and said that "despite signs of something fishy," he aggressively pursued insurance payments. He also shielded Foster's former girlfriend from investigators, said the story.
In 1987 Turner was removed from the case because he was a potential witness to Foster's will. In 1990 Foster surfaced under an alias in a Spanish prison where he was serving time for cocaine smuggling. The story included stock denials from Turner and Thomas.
When replayed in agonizing detail, the story shows Dolcefino doing no more than questioning whether the candidate could have been involved in insurance fraud. But the impact was far more direct. According to pollster Dick Murray, director of the University of Houston's Public Policy Center, Turner's support immediately dropped ten percentage points.
Turner, desperate to salvage the election, blamed the story on dirty tricks by the Lanier camp. The station replied with what it called a "bombshell": Private investigator Clyde Wilson, not outwardly aligned with the Lanier campaign, went on the air to take credit as the source of the story. A KTRK announcer, in a tone of "Take that!" added, "Sylvester Turner refused to apologize to Bob Lanier today."
Turner, humiliated, lost the election.
Just as Foster hadn't died, neither did the story. Turner's allies in the black community created the Christian Coalition for Change and picketed the station. And a year later, Turner sued. His attorney: the highly motivated Ron Franklin, a trustee for the Houston Independent School District -- a favorite target of Dolcefino's probes.
Franklin attacked the station's pat answer about its source, igniting a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Appellate courts upheld state District Judge Elizabeth Ray's order that Dolcefino should answer limited questions about his source, to verify the credibility of private investigator Wilson's claim.
It turned out that, though Wilson did tip the station, more detailed information came from a member of Lanier's finance team: private investigator Peary Perry, who later gained a lucrative ticket-collection contract from the city. (Lanier said the contract was a coincidence, that he knew nothing of the allegations until the Dolcefino story aired.)
Turner argued repeatedly with station attorney Chip Babcock. The plaintiff sounded whiny at times, pleading near tears for the return of his good name. But he came off as marvelously composed compared to Dolcefino. Sleep-deprived, two days after his mother's funeral, the reporter shouted wildly at Franklin, who fired back with his own invective. Dolcefino dared the attorney to accompany him to the district attorney's office so they could take a "truth test."
As Dolcefino calmed in later days, he told of facts that bolstered his story -- facts he had discovered long after it had aired. He tracked down one of Foster's sailing companions, who later said he believed Turner was linked to the scheme. Dolcefino also got federal agents to investigate, although then-U.S. attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones declined to prosecute the aging case.