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By Craig Hlavaty
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Anyone who sits through City Council meetings knows that District E Councilman Rob Todd loves the sound of his voice projected through a microphone.
The Clear Lake staunch conservative attorney and former model delights in driving stolid Mayor Lee Brown to distraction with swarms of needling questions, like a high-pitched hound dog badgering a grumpy bear.
Judging from city billing records over the past six months, when Rob wasn't yakking it up at council meetings, he whiled away the minutes spewing sweet nothings into his taxpayer-funded cell phone, some of it in secretive calls to fellow Councilman Bert Keller's now estranged wife, Susan.
Since January the increasingly hirsute and bar-hopping councilman has rung up an incredible $3,929 bill, blabbing for an amazing 21,353 minutes. Even if some of those calls were made by aides, that still adds up to nearly 15 days and nights of nonstop talking. At this rate he'll rack up a full month of mouthification and an $8,000 tab over a year's time. Makes you wonder when he finds time to sleep.
Luckily for Todd, whose worst nightmare is a bad hair day, he can check out a mirror and comb his impeccably styled locks without interrupting his marathon conversations. Meanwhile, the King of Chat has repaid the city a paltry $52.54 over the six months to cover personal calls made on his favorite instrument of choice.
Todd admits his cell phone usage is high but justifies it because his district sprawls from Clear Lake to Kingwood. "It goes through three counties and it's far away from downtown," he says. "As a result I am required to be away from City Hall for a good part of the week, and it's important for me to stay in touch with my office and my constituents."
By comparison, at least four of Todd's colleagues -- at-large councilmembers Chris Bell, Gordon Quan, Annise Parker and District G's Keller-- do not use city cell phones at all and pay for their work-related calls out of campaign funds and their own pocketbooks.
"To try to keep track of what was related to my law practice and my campaign activity and the city would have just been a nightmare," explains Bell. "So I decided just to avoid the issue altogether and not have a city phone and pay everything either out of my campaign or my personal account."
At-large Councilman Orlando Sanchez does have a city cell phone, and an aide reports that his typical bill over the last six months is approximately $80 per lunar cycle. Sanchez's highest monthly total was $428, dwarfed by Todd's personal best of $904 in June.
City Controller Sylvia Garcia, whose duties representing the entire city are presumably weightier than that of a district councilman, used her city-supplied cell phone sparingly. In six months she has racked up less than 1,000 minutes and $551 in bills.
Brown hardly used his city cell phone at all during the past five months. The mayor's highest bill was $84 in June. In August he made no calls whatsoever.
Asked for a reaction to a councilmember ringing up a $900 cell phone bill in one month, Bell responds, "that would seem to be way above what would be required to carry on a normal month's worth of telephone business."
City Attorney Anthony Hall exclaimed, "Good Lord!" when Todd's cell phone bill was recited to him. "My city phone bill by comparison, and I do use it fairly heavily, runs about $100 a month," explains Hall, a former councilman. Hall says he routinely writes a $100 check to the city every six months to cover private calls made from his phone.
A Houston Press open records request brought forth six months of Todd cell phone bills from Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney's office. Todd was allowed to mark out calls to immediate family. The result left some months' bills looking like CIA memorandums after the censors capped their Magic Markers. The plethora of black lines frosted with Wite-Out icing raised Insider suspicions that Todd's definition of "family" might extend to the human race in general, and certain embarrassing and embarrassed recipients of his calls in particular.
Todd claims he redacted home numbers of councilmembers, staff and personal calls to protect the privacy of all concerned.
The six months covered by those billings were also a period of upheaval in the councilman's life. He and aide George Biggs, a part owner of Prague and Jones Bar downtown, took to serious club-hopping. Biggs, the scion of big-bucks plastic surgeon Tom Biggs, initiated the formerly straitlaced Todd into downtown nightlife and turned him on to electronic dance music.
His 14-year marriage to wife Penny hit the skids as well. Todd filed for divorce June 9. Penny countersued in late August. She has primary custody of the Todds' two sons, one of whom has a hearing disorder. While the divorce filings were largely legal boilerplate, both sides alleged "discord and conflict" as the reason for the split.
Of interest in the case file was a confidential order issued by family court Judge Eva Guzmanin response to a request from Todd's lawyer. Guzman barred the public release of any information the case reveals about Waldron, Schneider, and Todd, P.C., Rob's firm. That makes one wonder whether Todd is trying to keep the public from learning about his client list, or perhaps his earnings.
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