By Chris Lane
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In six years of representing District B's impoverished north Houston precincts, Councilman Michael Yarbrough and Richard Johnson, his boyhood pal and former top aide, proved you can bend and break city campaign finance rules like pretzels and never suffer negative consequences.
The whippet-thin, dapper-dressing Yarbrough and the burly, six-five Army vet Johnson are at least temporarily exiting city politics. So now is the time to pay tribute to all that this pair of political innovators managed to accomplish during their municipal rampage.
Yarbrough will ride out of City Hall in style in his late-model Cadillac Escalante. He can do that despite stiffing his latest attorney, Robert Scardino, for legal fees incurred in extracting the councilman from the jaws of a federal bribery-conspiracy sting. While Scardino sued to collect the fees, Yarbrough found a way to give aide Johnson a $1,000 contribution in his pal's attempt to inherit his Council seat.
Teacher-unionist Carol Galloway scratched out a narrow victory over Johnson in the District B runoff in early December. That contest provided yet another classic Y&J political gem: Vans and youngsters from Johnson's state-funded youth program, Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, worked the polls on Election Day.
It's not the first time that Johnson and Yarbrough have been accused of illegally using resources from the nonprofit in their campaign efforts. But this time a City Hall shutterbug followed the vans, photographing the evidence for posterity and for the Insider.
Golden Eagle is a subcontractor to the Houston Recovery Campus, an umbrella group that originally administered a federal anti-drug grant channeled through the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA). After HRC's handling of the money was questioned several years ago, the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston took over the administration of HRC.
Johnson, the director of Golden Eagle, has made little effort to disguise its involvement in political ventures by him and Yarbrough. In fact, his October campaign expenditure report even listed a $1,400 payment to Golden Eagle for rental of vans. That use of a nonprofit apparently violates campaign regulations.
Texas Ethics Commission attorney Karen Lundquist cites a commission opinion that bans in-kind purchases of campaign assistance from businesses unless the business routinely offers such services to all comers. Golden Eagle is in the business of serving teens with drug and alcohol problems, not running a van service for aspiring politicians.
State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston played a role in having the Houston Recovery Campus placed under UT management. He says Johnson's admitted use of the vans, rental or not, violates Golden Eagle's nonprofit status.
"That's illegal," declares Coleman. "...Even if you are a nonprofit founded for the purposes of political education, you cannot do anything candidate-specific."
Neither Johnson nor Yarbrough returned calls from the Insider. When Johnson was his chief of staff, Yarbrough and Johnson were Houston Recovery Campus board directors who routinely used program youths to assemble signs and pass out handbills in the councilman's campaigns.
"This gives them something to do other than sit around," Yarbrough told the Houston Chronicle in 1995. "[They are] involved in the political process... off the street, contributing something to society."
Or at least contributing something to Michael Yarbrough and Richard Johnson's political well-being.
The latest use of the program for the pair's benefit came in the December 4 runoff election. Galloway campaign volunteer Carolyn Culpepper and an anonymous photographer witnessed the Golden Eagle vans and volunteers in action.
Three vans rode around, depositing young men wearing Richard Johnson T-shirts, Culpepper says. "We were taking pictures, and they came over and asked what we were doing. We asked what those children were doing, and he said, 'Oh, they are volunteering helping Richard. We're not paying them.' "
When Culpepper noted that the vans were nonprofit equipment, an unidentified man with the group repeated that they were volunteers.
Culpepper told the man that "Richard is in danger of losing his 501C3 [tax-exempt status]." She says the man replied, "That doesn't mean a thing, because we're not paying these kids."
"Their headquarters was near our office, and we saw them very early in the morning gathering in the parking lot in nonprofit vans," says Sims. "Lots of clean-cut kids, and they'd be getting in the vans and heading out."
TCADA officials did not return an Insider inquiry about possible misuse of state anti-drug funds in a political campaign.
"People have raised the issue in the past," says Representative Coleman, "but I don't know if TCADA ever did any investigation, nor do I know if anybody had any proof. It was always considered to be conjecture."
The legislator agrees state officials need to examine the issue. "In a time when the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse is looking at a shortfall," says Coleman, "I think that would trigger action by the commission."
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