Don't Dump Your Debt on Me

A miffed Lanier makes common cause with the controller

Former mayor Bob Lanier has been a constant supporter of successor Lee P. Brown since playing a major role in his 1997 election win. But Lanier also zealously defends his own record, and he has grown increasing irritated by the Brown administration's suggestions to blame the city's current budget shortfall in part on debts incurred in the Lanier years.

Never one to turn the other cheek, Lanier buttonholed Controller Sylvia Garcia recently and suggested they meet to review financial data on the debt issue. The results, claims the former mayor, show that Brown has added plenty of debt of his own making in his three years at City Hall.

At their session earlier this month Lanier compared the first monthly financial report produced by the Brown administration with the latest. He claims the figures prove that increased debt service payments result from roughly $300 million in fresh borrowing by Brown -- not from Lanier's own prodigious spending during six years in office.

Councilman Bert Keller: From Centerfolds to the front page.
Kent Manor
Councilman Bert Keller: From Centerfolds to the front page.

According to Lanier, the city annually pays off about $80 million to $90 million in debts, so the Brown administration could have borrowed that much yearly in new debts without increasing debt costs to the city. Instead, Lanier says, the most recent reports show Brown borrowed all of that amount -- about $200 million total -- plus an additional $100 million.

"What I simply told Sylvia was my experience in borrowing $300 million was it simply increases your payments," he says.

Not one to look a gift ally in the mouth, Garcia opines that Lanier is right and Brown's folks are wrong.

"We went through it with him, and he certainly did demonstrate that this administration has had their share of addition to the debt service payments that we have to make," says Garcia. As controller, she has had a traditionally fractious relationship with the mayor's office over financial issues. "Mayor Brown's administration has done its share to put us in debt."

Lanier and Garcia are also singing the same tune on whether Brown needs City Council approval to move money from a water and sewer account -- known as the "any lawful use" fund -- to plug an impending deficit in the operating budget that covers payroll for city workers. Garcia says the city is facing a $20 million to $30 million deficit at the end of this month, the last in the city budget cycle. The shortfall will require a financial transfusion from somewhere, and she wants to make it a legal one.

"It's bad public policy to transfer dedicated funds to the general fund without City Council approval," says Garcia. "Obviously the check and balance is there between the mayor and I, and obviously we disagree. That makes it more important [that] we go to Council."

"That was our practice," chimes in Garcia's buddy Lanier. "Otherwise you lose control of where your money is coming from."

While Lanier still gives Brown satisfactory marks for his mayorship, get the feeling there's a new political romance brewing at City Hall?

Biting the Beer Can

By the time he came face-to-face with the media last Thursday morning on the steps of the old police station, the news buzz had amplified to the point you'd have thought District G Councilman Bert Keller had taken a bribe or at least solicited sex from a vice squad officer.

The 39-year-old Keller had just rebounded from a late-night drinking binge and subsequent no-injuries collision with a parked truck. But it was less a criminal matter and more a Breathalyzer-taking display of misdemeanor immaturity and felony stupidity from a charter member of City Council's Brat Pack.

Keller had forged a public persona as the best of the Council's new crop, an effective watchdog on the weekly stream of contracts that the Brown administration brings before Council. Now, the shattered image will be a lot more difficult to repair than his crumpled, week-old Ford Expedition.

No one in the seen-it-all ranks of the press corps could recall anyone attempting to evade arrest for DWI by blurting out to bystanders, "I'm a City Councilman and I can't afford a DWI." Come to think of it, maybe he was just parroting that Department of Public Safety ad slogan: "DWI -- You can't afford it."

And what to make of a bystander's claim that Keller muttered he couldn't go to court because "the judge" was already mad at him because he'd been sleeping with the unnamed jurist's wife? Keller says he didn't remember saying anything like that. He also claims to have drunk only beer, though the dialogue at the scene was more suggestive of an acid flashback than a bout with Budweiser. Whazha!

According to colleagues, he'd complained about problems with his new vehicle the day before he plowed it into Susan Borck's truck at 2:45 a.m. He was returning from Centerfolds, a topless club on the Richmond Strip. Keller declined to say where he had been drinking or with whom.

He recently separated from wife Susan and moved into a bachelor pad near the accident site at Winrock near San Felipe, several blocks from his family home. Susan's pop, Don Sanders, is the daddy big bucks of the family who helped fund Bert's entry into politics. So breaking up with her may be a dumber political decision than fleeing from an accident while leaving the car and briefcase behind.

Keller had gone to a baseball game Tuesday night with a group of longtime male friends, none of whom are public officials. Then they dined at downtown's Liberty Noodles. Some of the party topped off the evening with a visit to the strip club.

KPRC-TV Channel 2 aired an interview with a female employee of Centerfolds who described Keller as so obnoxious and sloshed that club management quit serving him drinks. When you can't get a drink at a topless bar, you are seriously splattered!

After the accident, Keller sobered up out of the public eye with relatives. He concluded that he might beat the DWI rap, although the only way to salvage his political career was to bite the beer can and plead guilty.

Accompanied by attorney Rusty Hardin, Keller took the bark out of the gathered pack of media hounds by immediately fessin' up and announcing he would plead out.

Surrender is not the usual tactic of choice for Hardin, who has successfully represented a string of local celebrities accused of drunk driving, including Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. In fact, Hardin advised Keller he could probably beat the charge.

"There's a very good chance we could," says the attorney. "What you had was two or three laypeople at the scene who say he was intoxicated, but you don't have anything elseŠ.He could have gone down there with a trumped-up story, and the D.A. would have been very reluctant to file charges."

Keller's status as an elected official put him in a different position, according to Hardin. "A public person has got to decide whether he wants to be perceived as someone using every defense and every tool they can to avoid being held responsible for what they did," Hardin says. "The answer for the average citizen is pretty simple: 'I don't want to be convicted.' For a public official, there's a certain price to [taking] advantage of all of the defenses the law provides."

Hardin escorted his client to the D.A.'s office and chuckled as he told the prosecutors, "You're being hand-sealed and delivered the easiest DWI you'll ever have."

The case has been assigned to eccentric county court Judge Janice Law, prompting one lawyer to snort, "Even she couldn't fuck up a DWI plea." Wait and see.

There may be one beneficial effect for municipal government; perhaps the incident will chill out the nocturnal escapades of what a Council colleague months ago tagged as the Brat Pack. Membership includes those wild and crazy conservative new boys on Council, Keller, District F's Mark Ellis and District C's Mark Goldberg, with the occasional social input from veteran Rob Todd.

"They're spending way too much time out drinking and running around together and feeling like they're really hot shit," comments one City Council observer.

Like Keller, Todd recently moved out from spouse Penny. Single guy Goldberg has been kicking up his heels with Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Susan Christian of late. The pair showed up in matching togas at the recent Zoo Ball. The Pack's watering hole of choice: Downing Street Ltd., a cigar bar on Kirby.

Or at least it was until last Wednesday.

Keep the Insider occupied and home at night. Call in your hot tips to (713)280-2483, fax them to (713)280-2496, or e-mail to insider@houstonpress.com.

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