CACHH-22

The arts council director departs after accusations of board conflicts

The executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County cleaned out her office last week after resigning from her $90,000 post as overseer of city hotel-motel tax money distributed to local artists and arts organizations.

Luci Dabney's departure leaves some bad vibes in her wake. Shortly before tendering her resignation, Dabney accused William J. Hill, Mayor Lee P. Brown's liaison on the board, of conflicts of interest involving groups receiving CACHH funds.

"In my estimation we have a small but growing problem with board member conflicts of interest," Dabney wrote in a memorandum to CACHH president Liz Ghrist and second vice president Ken Nishimura late last December.

When Motapa didn't get a grant and complained,  CACHH officials  went to "hostile environment" status.
Deron Neblett
When Motapa didn't get a grant and complained, CACHH officials went to "hostile environment" status.

"We have board members advocating for and inquiring about grantee organizations with which they are directly affiliated. [Hill] has done this on at least two occasions I am aware of."

The memo was dated eight days before she submitted her resignation, though Dabney did not mention the alleged conflicts as a reason for her departure. In a voice-mail response to Insider questions, Dabney cited her desire for "time and flexibility," as well as CACHH's need for "new, energetic and entrepreneurial leadership."

Dabney didn't mention that she had gotten in hot water with board members for circulating a letter that blamed a lack of city funding for the inability to pay for regional touring grants and other programs. Some board members protested the letter. They pointed out that Mayor Brown lifted the previous $5 million cap on CACHH funding, and that the agency now receives more than $8.5 million annually. Under pressure, Dabney wrote a follow-up missive to the board that some took as an apology for her previous comments.

Neither Hill nor Ghrist returned Insider inquiries for comment.

In her memo to Ghrist, Dabney also cited a conflict by Andrew Moran, an investment banker recently named to the council by Da Camera of Houston. Moran had asked CACHH staffers to help an old friend and former high school classmate apply for an arts grant. The applicant was Dr. Alkebu Motapa, a Fifth Ward performance and graphics artist whose real name is Carl Austin.

Under Dabney, CACHH required that artists seeking grants use computer-generated forms. Motapa, who lives with and cares for his elderly mother, Viola, did not have a computer. After he complained to the National Endowment for the Arts that the CACHH policy discriminated against poor artists, Moran drove him to the agency office and staffers helped him with the computerized application for a grant that can range from $2,500 to $5,000.

The dreadlocked Motapa, who paints his face and performs what he calls humanity chants, submitted art and audiotapes to a grant panel. He made repeated calls to a CACHH staffer, Tonya Pennie, to complain when he was not among the winners.

Pennie considered the calls to be threats. She reported them to Dabney and worried about her safety. The Houston police homicide division was contacted, although Dabney denies that CACHH had an official role in filing a police complaint. An investigator found no evidence that the highly talkative Motapa had threatened anyone. In fact, he never spoke to Pennie, only leaving a string of voice-mail messages that did not involve threats or profanity.

(The Insider received six such rambling messages from Motapa on his home phone recorder, but none contained anything that remotely could be construed as threatening, and it never occurred to him to call the police.)

Board member Moran reacted to the imbroglio by accusing Dabney and other staffers of blowing the Motapa affair out of proportion and engaging in unprofessional behavior, including slandering both himself and Hill.

"I've known this guy 36 years," Moran says of Motapa. "I would leave him at home with my grandchildren. He's a great guy, and he's not a violent person."

Moran says Dabney should have called him if she felt there was a problem, "versus them going out to the police and taking those unnecessary measures." Moran says the fact that Pennie knew Motapa and had visited the artist at his home made the decision to bring in the police even more incomprehensible. Moran figures Motapa's appearance and race had a lot to do with how he was treated.

Moran recalls that when he joined the board, Dabney warned him to be wary of the mayor's liaison. Since then, he says, the executive director circulated several memos containing accusations and insults targeting himself and Hill, but never directly discussed the issues with him.

In her memo to Ghrist, Dabney admitted, "I have not spoken directly to Mr. Moran or to any other board member whom I feel has crossed this line. This is a very touchy issue for staff to handle on our own…."

Moran cites another situation, in which he claims Dabney refused to approve a $112 expense for a deaf signer at a CACHH Open Forum to the Arts. Moran says that only after he and Hill offered to pay the bill out of their own pockets did the board vote to fund the translator.

"That was an insult to our intelligence," says Moran. "My wife teaches deaf kids. Presently, CACHH has a contingency fund of $100,000, and there should never have been an issue to pay the services of a deaf facilitator."

Moran reacted with a letter to Mayor Brown calling for Dabney's resignation, not realizing she had already submitted it. "CACHH is for the people of Houston, and [funds] should be distributed on a fair and equitable basis," wrote Moran. "The organization should not be run by bureaucrats, establishing board alliances and criticizing the mayor's office and the mayor's liaison."

In her resignation letter, Dabney touted her accomplishments and advertised her future plans to be a consultant to groups such as CACHH. She also made a veiled reference to her conflicts with the Brown administration.

"I regret my inability to articulate a convincing case to leadership of the need to build CACHH's capacity to effectively serve the community," wrote Dabney. "I also wish we had been able to broaden and significantly diversify our funding base…."

Brown's new chief of staff, Jordy Tollett, heads the convention center and is a nonvoting liaison to the CACHH board. He says Dabney's criticism of the mayor about arts funding doesn't make financial sense.

He points out that Brown has increased CACHH funding 77 percent since he took office. According to Tollett, Dabney's letter "upset some board members, who said, 'What the heck can you be wanting?' "

Asked whether Dabney's comments angered the mayor, Tollett replied that the matter was taken care of before it got to that level.

CACHH board member Gertrude Barnstone, a sculptor and former HISD board member, says she remains mystified about the motives for Dabney's resignation. The board has formed a committee to conduct a national search for a new executive director.

Moran says he has served on other community boards, and none compares with CACHH. "If I had not been exposed to all this, I would have never known the organization was so disorganized," he says. "It's time to make some changes."

Shoe on the Other Foot

In 1996 Fort Bend County Assistant District Attorney Mike Elliott vigorously prosecuted ex-Oiler quarterback Warren Moonfor the alleged assault of his wife, Felicia, despite Mrs. Moon's refusal to file charges.

After a jury acquitted Moon, Elliott told the media, "I make no apologies for prosecuting this. I did the right thing." Moon attorney Rusty Hardin countered, "This was a case that should never have been brought."

Fast-forward to early last month, when the voice on the call to a 911 operator was that of Andrea Elliott, the prosecutor's wife. They were in the middle of a domestic quarrel, and she apparently felt threatened enough to seek outside help. Mrs. Elliott then hung up.

The operator called back, and after listening to the couple continuing to yell at each other, summoned the police. When a patrolman arrived at the Elliott home, the wife refused to file a complaint, à la Felicia Moon. Both parties claimed there had been no violence, only heated words. There were no outside witnesses to the incident.

Ten days later Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., the official who made the decision to file charges against Moon, decided to appoint a special prosecutor. He chose veteran Houston defense attorney Robert C. Bennett to investigate whether charges against Elliott were warranted. Bennett concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to base a charge of assault with bodily injury against the prosecutor. The case was then closed.

Elliott did not return an Insider inquiry as to whether his own domestic altercation had changed his attitude about the way he handled the Moon case.

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