Smooth Operator

Jack Linvillle transformed a little architecture firm into a leading public contractor -- with help from some well-heeled political pals

 Political neophyte Lee P. Brown announced his mayoral candidacy in June 1997 with a daylong string of campaign appearances symbolizing his slogan, "The Mayor for All Houstonians." For his last stop that evening, Brown's entourage headed west toward Sandalwood, a comfortable, white and affluent subdivision in a bend of Memorial Drive. Signs and balloons bearing the former police chief's jarring gold and black campaign colors pointed the way along Hickory Ridge to his waiting hosts, Jack and Karen Linville.

Outwardly, it was an unlikely partnership between the candidate and Jack Linville, 53, his treasurer for the campaign.

Since his arrival in Houston in the mid-'70s, the thin, long-faced Linville had been associated with a westside power circle that included, among other notables, patrician Port Commission chair Ned Holmes, former mayor Bob Lanier, godfatherlike Walter Mischer Sr., Park 10 land-shark David Wolff and the late, disgraced commissioner Bob Eckels. In his climb into the circles of power in Houston, Linville has assiduously cultivated private and public men who could make things happen for a succession of business interests he first toiled for as an employee and then joined as an equal. He built a company, Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, into a rapidly growing national architecture and engineering firm.

Commissioner El Franco Lee has lucrative business ties to Linville.
Commissioner El Franco Lee has lucrative business ties to Linville.

Linville voted Republican in the 1994 GOP primary. That hardly made him a prospective soul mate for Brown, who had been President Clinton's drug czar. Linville didn't think much of the mayoral skills of Kathy Whitmire, the woman who first brought Brown to town.

To an outsider, he might have seemed a much more logical supporter for Brown opponent Rob Mosbacher, the Republican who received the endorsements -- and dollars -- of most major architecture and construction figures.

But on that night in 1997, Linville was no question mark in the minds of the key players of the Brown brain trust. They had a much better understanding of Linville's motivations. He was there, according to several sources, at the behest of County Commissioner El Franco Lee, one of the architects of Brown's run for mayor and a longtime Linville friend.

"He's got a pretty strong social conscience," says Lee, stressing the idealistic side of Linville. "He was raised on the poor side of town."

However, those humble roots were in the distant past. His political associations have paid off handsomely for him -- as well as for Lee. Since 1996 Linville's PGAL firm has received almost $10 million for a host of county contracts. Last month PGAL was part of the team selected for the new civil courthouse project, to be funded by $119 million in voter-approved bonds.

Lee and other members of Commissioners Court award county contracts to Linville's PGAL -- and Brown and City Council award contracts to both Linville and Lee. Since Brown has been mayor, PGAL has snared nearly $20 million in new work. And Commissioner Lee is majority owner of the engineering firm that has hauled in almost $1.5 million as the minority subcontractor chosen by Linville's PGAL.

The Lee-Linville connection may raise ethical questions, but it's legal, and they defend it as a sound business practice. While the setup draws protests from PGAL competitors, the deals highlight Linville's pragmatic side, which draws praise from longtime associate and Houston Sports Authority chair Billy Burge.

"He knows you've got to be on the right political side of the fence to win the day in terms of how political chits stack up," says Burge. "He knows how to play that and team up with the politically correct side of a deal."

Even if Linville had been inclined to support Mosbacher, there wasn't much room at the top in that heavily Republican, massively financed campaign. Linville competitor Jim Royer -- president and CEO of the local engineering heavyweight Turner, Collie & Braden -- already had the inside track with Rob.

"When you think about it," says one Brown campaign source, "Linville really didn't have anyplace to go, unless he wanted to be stupid and back someone like Helen Huey or Gracie Saenz." Those former Houston city councilmembers were also-rans in the race.

The same source describes Linville as "petrified" about the possibility that Mosbacher might have won, for his pro-Brown firm might have found itself frozen out of City Hall. As Linville himself acknowledges, "every partner in my firm said, 'You're crazy to do this.' "

When business leaders explain their motivation for contributing thousands of dollars to a winning candidate, almost invariably their line is that they are supporting good government, not trying to buy business. In the case of professional services contracts, where hard bids are replaced by highly subjective selection criteria, influence with elected leaders can be the difference between a winner and an also-ran on a short list.

Says one City Hall operative who knows the former college basketball player well, "Jack wants every rebound." Political connections put firms like his under the basket and in position to snatch the ball.

For Jack Linville, politics and business are two sides of the same urban coin and should not be confused with ideology or party. It is the interaction of elected officials, government agencies and business interests that reshape the face of the city and generate the projects that feed his industry.

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