By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Craig Hlavaty
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.
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.
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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