Get The Goods On All The Bads

We Snitch on HOUSNITCH! What's really behind City Hall's whistle-blower Web page?

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.

Flores says her Web page is trial and error.
Phillippe Diederich
Flores says her Web page is trial and error.

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 itŠ.WE will not be just a 'Silent Voice' any longerŠ.Please — send us your comments & suggestions Š 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.

Targets of HOUSNITCH counter that it's Flores and the people she is fronting who are harassing innocent people with unsubstantiated charges. Take, for example, this exposé reported on the Web site:

"WHICH Mayoral Staff member just paid CASH for a lot in the bedroom community of Bellaire and is now building a $200,000 home on it with a large cash advance going to the developers?"

The staffer in question claims HOUSNITCH is just plain wrong in implying that he bought the house without conventional financing and through the help of a city contractor. He asked that his name not be used, fearing it would further spread slanderous claims. He says the home was in Houston rather than Bellaire and that he has bank financing for the purchase and received no preferential treatment whatsoever.

Flores's response does little to bolster the Web-page's credibility.

"We did apologize for saying that his home is in Bellaire," admits Flores. "When we get other things out of [the county courthouse], if we're wrong, we'll say we're wrong."

To the suggestion that she should have nailed down that information before airing the allegation, Flores answered, "Maybe. But this is trial and error."

Councilman Chris Bell, a former radio news reporter, warned Flores against making unfounded allegations on the Web page. "When you're accusing people of being on the take," explains Bell, "I think that is extremely damaging to them. And once you plant something like that out there, it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle."

The display of the Public Works official's job evaluation also raises questions about whose interests HOUSNITCH is serving. According to previous Houston Press investigations of Public Works, that critical work evaluation was in part retaliation against the official for refusing to lower city standards for the replacement of a west Houston bridge. Rather than expose wrongdoers, HOUSNITCH effectively embarrassed a city bureaucrat who had already been punished for doing the right thing. Flores counters that the evaluation shows the person is not qualified for the job.

Flores's ally Tatro denies having any role in launching HOUSNITCH and says he regrets that Flores chose to target opponent Lawrence with charges about her campaign worker.

"I was surprised and dismayed to see that was the first issue that they chose to put out, because it directly reflects back to the possibility my campaign is involved, and that's not the case at all," says the councilman. "But you can't derive any other conclusion than that, if you go to it and all of a sudden you see my opponent as the first thing highlighted."

Tatro also says he will not use the material Flores published because he does not consider it to be a valid campaign issue.

Despite Tatro's denials, opponent Lawrence remains unconvinced that Flores isn't acting as an agent of Tatro's.

"It's funny that the first thing that came out on the Web page, it's about a race over in District A and not some big story that represents the whole city," says Lawrence. She suspects that several Tatro campaign supporters are using Flores as their front person.

Despite the controversy over the Web page, Tatro has no intention of barring Flores from his campaign. Asked if she was still on the team, he answered, "I think so, yeah."

As for HOUSNITCH, Flores promises a bigger, badder Web page, loaded with more nuggets supplied by her whistle-blowers. And don't be surprised if she invades bureaucratic realms beyond Houston.

"In Sunday's mail there was an offer from San Antonio from some people to come and do a SANSNITCH. And we have one from El Paso and two from Dallas," continues Flores, conjuring up the vision of a statewide TEXSNITCH Web page.

"Darlin', it just blows my mind."

The Blair Snitch Project may frighten you, but all you have to do for the Insider is scare up some news tips. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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