By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Brenda Flynn Flores, 46, sometimes goes by the Spanish nickname Juera, or Blondie. The short, spunky Spring Branch activist and divorced mother of ten is well known at City Hall, particularly in the offices of Councilman Bruce Tatro. She has been both a paid and volunteer worker on his campaign and staff.
Flores prefers to operate in the background of political campaigns, though she did make a brief foray onto the ballot in an unsuccessful run for City Council District A. She supported Tatro when he won that seat in a 1997 runoff. Now the Arkansas native with an Irish heritage and a syrupy Southern drawl is gaining attention for a completely different political activity: publishing a Web page that promises to collect the dirty laundry of elected officials and public employees and hang it on their computer doorsteps for all to see.
Flores views herself as a crusader for clean government. Critics counter that the Web site is spewing erroneous accusations, smearing innocent people and serving Flores's and others' narrow political interests.
The initial HOUSNITCH.com material has drawn decidedly mixed reviews, even from Flores's friends. The postings include accusations that an unnamed member of Mayor Lee Brown's staff capitalized on his political influence in the purchase of a new home, and revelations of an unfavorable internal job evaluation of a city Public Works supervisor. The site also displays documents purporting to prove that Council District A candidate Toni Lawrence, a political foe of Flores's and Tatro's, uses a Democratic operative in her campaign who received a probated sentence 16 years ago for forging a county payroll document.
It's hardly the stuff that wins Pulitzer Prizes or catapults Web muckrakers like Matt Drudge to national prominence, but Flores says her whistle-blowers have barely begun to toot. She claims these are just the first of a barrage of complaints to emanate from the "Silent Voice," a secret collection of about 100 disgruntled government employees in the Houston area. By her account, they've been meeting for years in the backroom of an area Bennigan's, stewing in their dissatisfaction with the governmental status quo.
While some City Hall sources question whether Silent Voice is merely an invention of Flores's to cover up the real Web-page backers, Councilman Tatro says the existence of a group of whistle-blowers in the city Public Works department is no secret. "I don't think there's a secret handshake society out there," he says with a chuckle. "That voice of people pointing out problems in Public Works has been labeled the Silent Voice, and it's probably taken on different faces for some time."
"We are many," states the HOUSNITCH "Page O'Politics" declaration. "We are tired of watching as our tax $$s are spent to enrich a few greedy people and nothing is done about it.WE will not be just a 'Silent Voice' any longer.Please send us your comments & suggestions and may the FORCE BE WITH YOU."
Flores recalls that when Mayor Lee P. Brown established the Office of Inspector General to root out corruption and unethical dealings in the city bureaucracy, members of the group took a stack of documents to Inspector General Tim Oettmeier. Nothing happened. Then two of the Public Works officials targeted by the group's complaints got promotions.
"They had such hopes when the office was established and just had fits that it's not working," Flores says of the Silent Voice cadre. "They tried all the normal go-through-the-system measures, and nothing's being done about the things that they report on."
Oettmeier confirms that he has received information from Public Works employees but would not discuss whether they had resulted in investigations or disciplinary actions. He says his office pursues all valid leads and complaints it receives concerning wrongdoing in the city bureaucracy.
Two months ago, Flores says, the frustrated Silent Voice members brainstormed for ways to bring their beefs to the public. They settled on cyberspace as the most promising medium. Flores opened an America Online account and established a Web page with the help of a young computer designer, Mark Palmer, who is based in Arkansas. She then began bombarding hundreds of government office e-mail addresses with messages promoting HOUSNITCH. Most public offices were easily accessed, with the exception of the Harris County District Attorney's office. "[District Attorney] Johnny Holmes set up a firewall," laments Flores, "and nothing from AOL gets through it."
She says the mail-out response has been mostly positive, containing plenty of new grist for the Web page.
"Overwhelmingly, the majority of the stuff says, 'keep it up,' " she claims. "People are sending us documents we're having to verify. There's so much stuff that's coming to us."
When Flores registered the page as a domain, she inadvertently outed herself as the HOUSNITCH Webmeister, a development she does not welcome.
"I'm not worried about me personally," she explains. "But I am worried about protecting the people who trust me and who came and said, 'All right, we need to do this.' " Flores claims Silent Voice members who tried to follow internal procedures to complain about supervisors have been harassed on the job, including vandalism of their vehicles on city parking lots. She did not provide evidence of the alleged incidents.