The Deal Busters

GOP chair's super slush fund helps sink arena deal

As for the idea she might emulate her fellow chair, Schechter laughs. "I keep thinking nothing ever surprises me, but that thought had never crossed my mind."

During the campaign, Polland called Schechter to ask her to bring her party into the anti-arena coalition with him, but she politely declined.

"I've got enough problems running the Democratic Party without trying to do anything with them too," says Schechter. "My life's hell enough without having Gary Polland calling me."

State Senator John Whitmire, an arena backer, watched the election fizzle.
Steve Lowry
State Senator John Whitmire, an arena backer, watched the election fizzle.

If anyone wants to give Polland grief by complaining to the Texas Ethics Commission over his campaign tactics, one official believes they would be on solid legal ground. Commission attorney Karen Lundquist questions the legality of taking money for a specific purpose and passing it on to a political action committee. She opines that if the money was given to Polland specifically for opposing the arena, then the GOP chair is obligated to identify the original contributors.

"Clearly, if I gave money to you and said, 'I want you to contribute this money to a specific PAC for me,' then you are required to tell that PAC this is not really from you, it's from Karen," explains Lundquist. "You're supposed to give the name of the original contributor, and that's clear where the original contributor is earmarking it and you are passing it through."

Lundquist concludes that "the election code prohibits a person from making a contribution in the name of another, unless they disclose the original source."

An illegal pass-through contribution is a Class A misdemeanor subject to maximum penalties of a $4,000 fine and one year in jail.

Republicans who are locally elected officials seemed bemused by Polland's campaign gambit. County Commissioner Steve Radack is no fan of the current party leadership. He unsuccessfully fought Polland and Bettencourt by pushing his own candidate, Willie Alexander, for the tax assessor-collector position won by Bettencourt.

"I don't dispute the ability of Gary Polland to use his campaign money for whatever he cares to use it for," says Radack. Just because Polland opposed the arena doesn't mean Republicans are against it as a party, Radack adds.

"He as an individual funded a tremendous amount of money on an issue he saw as a conservative Republican issue, when in fact a whole lot of people saw it as an issue that dealt with the economy. If he wants to throw $200,000-plus into a deal, it becomes more of a Gary Polland deal than a Republican deal."

City Councilman Orlando Sanchez, a Republican, questions whether the GOP leadership's new emphasis on local issues might detract from the effort to elect party members.

"I think any political issue is fair game for the Democratic or Republican Party," observes Sanchez. "But I think that probably candidates, and to some extent contributors, might want to see the money and the activities of the party go towards promoting causes and candidates in partisan races." With GOP leaders blowing $200,000 on the arena fight, Sanchez fears the party may neglect traditional partisan activities such as voter registration.

Councilman Chris Bell, a Democrat, is amused by the Republican leadership's sudden interest in nonpartisan municipal issues. "Bettencourt's been coming down to Council bringing us opinions on every controversial issue we have," Bell says with a chuckle. "You would think the county has a good many issues of their own he could probably be dealing with."

In the afterglow of the arena defeat, Polland and Bettencourt are looking to expand their involvement on local issues. The tax assessor-collector figures that Citizens for Accountability will become an all-purpose advocacy group that could give downtown deal-makers headaches for years to come.

"I think it's incumbent on both political parties to look for issues that they believe have some bearing on the health and long-term well-being of the community," says Bettencourt. "It's actually been very easy, even though it's only been a few weeks, to form what I call this good government coalition. I expect the Citizens for Accountability will stay as a PAC and receive multipartisan support."

According to Bettencourt, the mission of the new organization will be "to help citizen-taxpayers understand these deals, watch 'em and try to say we want better performance out of our elected officials." "We have to stand for something," he adds. "It's a different game."

Likewise, Polland is looking to the future.

"By the party being involved in local issues, we have brought more focus and given both sides the opportunity of being heard," says Polland. He says the arena supporters "thought they could take $2.5 million and just shove it down the voters' throats." "Well," he adds, "a new day is dawning in Houston and Harris County politics."

With Brown unable to persuade enough voters to approve the arena, Polland figures opposition to the mayor will intensify on City Council.

"The public has rejected his leadership on this issue and found it wanting," says Polland. "I'm not surprised, since he was so ashamed of his handiwork he refused to discuss it in public in a pro-versus-opposition session. Lanier wouldn't have made this deal. He was a much harder trader."

The 1997 mayor's race between Democrat Brown and Republican Rob Mosbacher introduced a level of partisan politics not previously seen in municipal contests, but Polland wants to make the election in 2001 a partisan odyssey.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets