By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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The voice on the phone had a tantalizing offer last week. The Insider had just published an article with a partial list of participants in the minority share of the Enron Field food services contract. Would he like to see confidential documents proving that politically connected blacks got three times the investment share of Hispanics in the deal?
"Anything happens in this city, we Hispanics get screwed," groused the caller. "It's time we spoke up."
Fax on, we replied. It's just the sort of proposition the Insider is incapable of refusing.
The tipster asked for anonymity because food services giant Aramark required that investors in the contract sign a confidentiality pledge. Obviously someone in the deal was unhappy that a local Urban League official and a group of black power players were amply rewarded for their help in making Enron Field a reality, while Hispanics got far less. The source was willing to risk a lawsuit to leak the information.
By way of background, supporters of the downtown baseball stadium referendum were on a losing streak only days before the November 1996 vote. Polls predicted defeat. Then-mayor Bob Lanier, Astros officials and black leaders huddled in a last-minute crisis conference. At stake was the future of professional baseball and perhaps downtown revitalization in Houston, and the powers-that-be were ready to deal big-time.
Included in the group were familiar faces such as the Reverend Bill Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and NAACP president Howard Jefferson. Also at the table was Urban League chairman Darryl "Chicken Man" King. He already had a lucrative city contract to operate a Kentucky Fried Chicken concession at Houston Intercontinental Airport, and King was a key fund-raiser for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The group came to the meeting to broker the black vote in exchange for promises that minorities would receive a fair share of the revenues generated by the stadium.
Following the session, Astros owner Drayton McLane and Enron CEO Ken Lay trumpeted an agreement that won the black leaders' endorsement for the endangered ballpark proposal. Minorities would get 30 percent of the work in building the stadium and that same amount of the valuable contract for stadium food and beverage service.
The alliance helped the ballpark and a future football stadium proposition gain a narrow victory. Of course at the time, no one knew which minorities would get the business.
King also played a starring role last year in negotiating with Rockets owner Les Alexander for a similar 30 percent guarantee on minority participation in the proposed downtown basketball arena. In a chapter almost identical to that of the 1996 playbook, former mayor Lanier flew King and Jefferson in a private jet to Alexander's home in Boca Raton, Florida, where the deal would be brokered.
A source familiar with both negotiations says King and Jefferson introduced themselves as "The Clearing House." Team owners could deal only with them, and they in turn would line up the political support in their communities.
True to form, after Alexander cut the deal, a black ministers group that had threatened to protest the arena did an abrupt about-face and endorsed it. But that didn't save the referendum, which lost to well-funded opposition organized by local Republican leaders.
Still, when and if the arena goes before voters again, it will likely feature the same 30 percent minority participation promise now in place at Enron Field and for the future Astrodome-area home of Bob McNair's National Football League franchise.
Keeping that in mind, consider who benefits from the Enron Field food service deal. Aramark itself, which will do all of the work in dispensing the concessions, has 70.20 percent ownership. But the minority investment set-asides show old, familiar names.
For King, it paid off handsomely in a personal way. His Quality Hospitality Consulting company received about 10 percent of the minority slice, the largest of any individual. Other minority ventures have larger percentages than King, but they consist of groups of investors. According to documents, King put up a little over a half-million dollars for his share of the deal.
King did not return an Insider call for comment on his role in the contract.
Blacks as a group didn't do badly either. Participants include the French Pea Joint Venture, made up of former judge and city councilman and Hotel Six bribery defendant John Peavy, who along with wife Diane and son Jason are teamed with Frenchy's owner Percy Creuzot III for about 14.2 percent of the minority contract. They're down for a $718,639 ticket to ride.
Creuzot's wife, Cheryl, is also an investor, though she came in under the umbrella of Women Stadium Investors, along with Paula Arnold, a lobbyist and former HISD school board member; lawyer Zinetta Burney, who collects delinquent taxes for the city and is a key supporter of mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney; and Metro board member and South Texas environmental law professor Olga Moya. They are teamed with LaTrelle's Management Corp., a black-owned food service, and Faith Broadcasting Service, owned by Anthony Chase, under the appropriately named Triple Play Joint Venture. They have about 23.6 percent of the minority stake and a $1.2 million investment share.