The Channel 13 Exclusive

Sylvester Turner, Wayne Dolcefino and the story that changed everything

Trial drama built as Mary Ellen Conway, a 22-year KTRK reporter, testified against Dolcefino. She said he refused to run pro-Turner press conference videos along with the 10 p.m. news broadcast of the exclusive. Dolcefino and news executives called it an innocent "goof-up," saying Conway never told the reporter of the additional footage.

Jurors returned with a $5.5-million libel verdict, including $500,000 against Dolcefino personally. Judge Ray trimmed the total to $3.25 million. Many jurors said Conway convinced them of the required malice finding -- that the report aired with reckless disregard for the truth.

"Management never had a leash on Wayne, and they still haven't," presiding juror Michael Ross said after the verdict. "He was out of control."

After the verdict, a triumphant Turner descended the spiral marble staircase of the courthouse as a reborn politician, even fielding questions about a possible mayoral candidacy in 1997.

But his victory was far from complete. KTRK attorney Chip Babcock filed an appeal, and on December 30, 1998, the 14th Court of Appeals reversed the verdict and ordered the case thrown out. A strongly worded opinion by Justice John Anderson said the trial evidence failed to show legal malice -- that is, that Dolcefino or the station ran the story either knowing it was untrue or seriously doubting its accuracy.

The justices noted that, no matter what impression the story left with viewers, in Texas a person cannot be libeled by implications. Dolcefino had posed most references to Turner in the form of questions rather than charges. Despite discrepancies and minor errors, the opinion said, the report had been substantially true.

Turner, who declined to be interviewed, is expected to appeal the verdict to the Texas Supreme Court.

But what if the story had never aired? What would the city be like if Turner, not Lanier, had been elected?

Political consultant Marc Campos notes that low-key Turner likes to build consensus -- a style far different from the way Bob Lanier dealt with City Council. "Lanier could overwhelm Council on every key vote," says Campos. "I don't know that Sylvester would have been that strong."

And strangely, Turner might not have been able to do as much for the city's affirmative action program as the white Lanier. Dick Murray, of the University of Houston, and political consultant Dan McClung explain that Turner enjoyed black support during the election; Lanier had strong backing in white and Hispanic areas, and he moved quickly to bolster his standing in the black community. Perhaps Turner could have built such a multiracial coalition; perhaps not. But it proved vital for Lanier's fight to save the city's affirmative action program, McClung says. "It took everything Lanier could do, every inch of goodwill and confidence he had built up to save that vote. I'm not sure that would have been possible under Sylvester Turner."

It's possible, though, that City Council might not have grown as corrupt under Turner. Ben Reyes, the chief figure in the Hotel Six federal sting, backed Turner in the election, and Campos believes that Reyes likely would have been a major force in the Turner administration. Under Turner, there might not have been a convention center hotel deal, and consequently, no bribery sting. Reyes might be a free man, rather than a convicted felon.

But back to the real world. In the Texas Legislature, Turner has risen to vice chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee. He has taken the lead on many key minority and progressive measures, and is known as an especially persuasive speaker.

Murray suspects that won't be the end of the political road for Turner, who's still only 44. "At his age," notes Murray, "he has the potential to make another comeback."

As for the people at KTRK: Mary Ellen Conway, the ostracized reporter, left TV news and is now an attorney for a major law firm. She specializes in medical malpractice and media law.

Wayne Dolcefino has gone on to win more awards and continues to report for Channel 13, though with a bit more apparent caution. His hardest-hitting report in recent years was a hidden-camera look at then-controller Lloyd Kelley's long absences from the office during regular working hours. Those reports contained much longer denials and responses than the Turner story did, but Kelley and two associates sued for libel anyway. They even sued the KTRK attorney overseeing the story; a judge threw out that portion of the suit.

Despite his misery in the courtroom, Dolcefino says he is as proud as ever of his Turner report. "If the story impacted the [mayoral] vote, so be it. People are pretty smart about that." The station could have been roundly criticized for withholding the information until after the election, he said earlier. "We did the right thing for the right reasons."

Naturally, those in Turner's camp disagree. "Whatever happens on appeal, Sylvester Turner got pretty much what he wanted," Franklin says. "A jury heard the evidence, vindicated him and found the story was false. No appeals court can take that away from him.

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