The Insider

Curse of El Mercado. Did a city planning commissioner try to cash in on the project?

With its redevelopment problems and closets full of skeletons, the old El Mercado del Sol near downtown would make a great set for a political version of Poltergeist. The imposing brick facade rests, though not in peace, atop a graveyard chock-full of unrealized civic schemes that seem immune to exorcism.

Just last month the Houston Fire Department ordered the first six tenants of the freshly christened The Americas lofts to move out because the developer, Transamerica Group, had no occupancy permits. Although a spokesman for the project says the required permits will be issued within weeks, there's more Mercado-related trouble just around the bend.

The former Hispanic-themed market, now an apartment and office center, will have its next plotline unfold in Harris County district court in early March when City Planning Commissioner Luis Alberto Bodmer is tried on aggravated perjury charges.

A grand jury last April returned a third-degree felony indictment against Bodmer. He is accused of falsely swearing that he and others in the Transamerica Group were not connected to the city when the corporation made a successful bid to purchase the Mercado site in 1997.

Project manager Alan Atkinson says he was unaware that Bodmer was an appointed city official when Bodmer signed an affidavit that was part of the bid package submitted to the city.

Bodmer, born in Colombia 53 years ago, is a stylish dresser fond of his trademark bow ties. He lists himself as an architect on résumés and project bids, although he is not registered with the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners, according to an agency spokesman. Bodmer appeared on the Houston scene in the '80s, touting his friendship with then-mayor Kathy Whitmire. An early associate says Bodmer was not shy in advertising his political clout at City Hall. He was the first president of the Houston Hispanic Forum.

In 1992 Whitmire successor Bob Lanier appointed Bodmer to the Planning Commission. Bodmer is a former campaign supporter and social pal of City Controller Sylvia Garcia's, although a spokesman for the controller says she has not had contact with him since his indictment.

For nearly two years city officials have been aware of allegations that Bodmer was using his post for personal gain. His commission term expired last September, but he continues to occupy the unpaid position because Mayor Lee Brown has not appointed a replacement.

Last October Bodmer filed a slander and malpractice suit against Atkinson in which Bodmer denies profiting from his city position. He also claims he was following Atkinson's legal advice in signing the affidavit that is the basis for the perjury indictment. Atkinson counters that he never gave legal advice to his former business associate.

Bodmer is also embroiled in a financial dispute with the David Cordish group over the Bayou Place development. The Cordish group gave him a small percentage interest in the project, but Bodmer claims he was entitled to a larger share. Cordish's attorneys plan to depose Bodmer this month.

Transamerica's Atkinson says Bodmer initially recruited investors, including Transamerica, to purchase the Mercado site in 1996.

"He convinced us he knew people in the city, was a licensed architect and would provide the architectural services if we got the agreement to buy the property," says Atkinson. Atkinson also says he was unaware at the time that Bodmer was a planning commissioner.

"We agreed to make him a partner if he got the deal and if he provided the architectural services," says Atkinson. Bodmer began writing letters on Transamerica's behalf to Michael Stevens, Lanier's dollar-a-year housing executive in charge of resuscitating the moribund El Mercado.

Stevens told the group that since federal funds had been involved in El Mercado, sale of the land would have to be through public auction rather than private negotiations. Transamerica submitted an offer in April 1997 for $350,000, by far the best of three bids received by the city. Included in the bid package was the affidavit signed by Bodmer, stating that nobody involved in the corporation was a municipal officer, agent or employee, or was otherwise connected with the city.

At the time, Bodmer had a girlfriend on the mayor's staff. Atkinson says he asked Bodmer to sign the affidavit as assurance that nothing had been promised to the woman in return for the contract.

The day after the city accepted the bid, Atkinson recalls, Bodmer called in a panic. He told Atkinson that the city attorney had informed him he could not be involved in El Mercado because of his position on the Planning Commission, Atkinson says.

Atkinson says Bodmer was removed from the project and listed as an "unpaid volunteer," and Transamerica went forward with the work, assuming he was out of the deal.

According to a complaint filed by Atkinson with the Houston Police Department Public Integrity Unit, Bodmer later pressured Atkinson to sell the Mercado to investors close to the planning commissioner.

"His parting words to me were, 'If you don't sell the building to me I'll start a war, and we'll see what your pulse is in three or four months.' Well, I went straight to the police department and filed an affidavit."

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