In Through the Out Door

A new law hastens a Brown official's departure

Mayor Lee P. Brown's chief of staff resigned last month after negotiating an agreement for the city to tap into a statewide on-line data system built by technology and accounting giant KPMG. The company eventually will recoup part of its investment in the project from fees charged to users of a city portal into the system.

Guess what's Cheryl Dotson's first stop after leaving City Hall? An executive position in Houston with KPMG, of course.

An endless spinning of the revolving door that quickly catapults city officials to private companies doing municipal business is nothing new. Dotson's departure is notable only because it is the last such switch. This week a new ordinance designed to slow down the revolving door took effect.

Councilman and mayoral candidate Chris Bell authored the law that mandates a yearlong hiatus before departing city employees can sign contracts with the city or hold more than a 40 percent share in companies that have municipal contracts. It also bans former city workers from directly contacting councilmembers or administration staffers to influence legislation or related city action during that same yearlong cooling period.

Bell says there have been several instances where there was "at least the suggestion" of departing city employees exploiting their positions. "There was a feeling on the ethics committee that in the area of elected officials, that would only get worse in light of term limits."

Houston's three-term limit for elective positions guarantees a rapid turnover of officials going back to the private sector. The ordinance aims to at least delay the ability of outgoing councilmembers and city staffers to reward their future employers before their departures.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the revolving door in recent years involved Doug Williams. The administrator in the mayoral regime of Bob Lanier helped select Montgomery-Watson and Brown & Root to manage the city's $1.5 billion Greater Houston Wastewater Program. In 1995 Williams jumped directly from the city to a subsidiary of Montgomery-Watson.

In Dotson's case, Bell recalls that she had assured him and other councilmembers at the time of the KPMG discussions that she had no plans to join that firm.

"A rumor was floated that Ms. Dotson was talking to them about possibly going to work for KPMG at some later date," Bell says. "She caught wind of the rumor and assured everyone that there was no truth to it whatsoever."

Contacted at her new office at KPMG, Dotson denied that she had plans to join the firm at the time City Council considered the contract late last year. She also rejected the suggestion that she had helped KPMG land a financial windfall.

"The city hasn't paid a single, solitary dime on this contract," Dotson stressed. "It wasn't like KPMG got some sort of huge deal and made a bunch of money and then decided to hire me."

Bell retorts that KPMG will make plenty of money down the road on those user fees. "I doubt they're doing all this out of the goodness of their heart," Bell cracks. He tells of potential competitors complaining that they were shut out of consideration for the no-bid contract.

The way Dotson explains the situation, she had used a search firm to start job hunting late last year, and had some offers from the Philadelphia area. The search firm needed references, but Dotson didn't want to ask city supervisors for them because that would alert the mayor that she had itchy feet.

"To be honest, at that point I didn't feel comfortable going to the mayor to get a reference," Dotson chuckles. "So I called people I had worked with previously, including KPMG. They said, 'Wait a minute, if you're thinking of leaving, we want to offer you a job too.' "

According to Dotson, that offer came after council had approved the technology agreement. She admits there was the additional incentive to move on before the revolving-door ordinance took effect.

"I … didn't believe it was fair for the city to ask me to have to not work anywhere for a year," explains Dotson. "I can't go practice law somewhere or do some of the things other people do."

Dotson began her financial services career with KPMG and also worked for the City of Houston under finance chief Camille Barnett. She followed Barnett to Washington, D.C., and eventually migrated back to Houston.

According to Dotson, her situation is no different from that of Lanier chief of staff Dave Walden or former city finance chief Richard Lewis or any of the myriad other former city employees who entered the private sector. In fact, she feels the new ordinance could diminish the caliber of public servants.

"To some extent that ordinance created a little bit of a brain drain, because anybody who's good is not going to want to sit out a year after you've come just to help the city," she says.

Dotson's successor, chief of staff and convention center director Jordy Tollett, sees the new law differently. "I think it's a very good ordinance," says Tollett. "It protects the city, and it doesn't bother me one bit."

In fact, Tollett says Dotson's statement that she moved up her departure plans to elude the ordinance could have some later fallout.

"If she left to go to work for KPMG, I'm going to think twice about what KPMG--" Tollett stopped in mid- sentence, then concluded, "If you don't work for the city, you sure don't have any influence in getting anything through. They mean nothing to me."

HISD's Golden Dentures Winner

The much-sought-after position as Houston Independent School District mouthpiece and political spinner has gone to a 29-year-old African-American Austinite with Republican political ties and past journalistic experience. Heather Brown reported for work last week after beating out a gaggle of Houston news and public relations veterans for the $100,000 post.

Brown's pedigree is similar to that of Terry Abbott, Rod Paige's $120,000 former mouthpiece who accompanied the former superintendent to his new post as secretary of education for George W. Bush. Abbott worked as a wire service reporter before becoming a spokesman for a GOP governor of Alabama, who later was convicted of stealing inaugural funds. Brown worked in Bush's final gubernatorial campaign and then took a deputy press secretary job with Attorney General John Cornyn, also a Republican.

Brown has covered the legislature for an Austin AM radio station and has been a TV producer. She's also a UT journalism grad. That puts her a notch ahead of Abbott, whose lack of a college degree was especially glaring since he made nearly twice the salary of the highest-paid HISD teachers.

Brown, the daughter of a curriculum specialist for the Austin school district, cites her knowledge of educational issues as one of her qualifications for the HISD job. Education aside, Brown's selection indicates that a Republican political background is apparently the make-or-break requirement for district spokesman these days.

Payback Time

Among the audience at last week's mayoral campaign kickoff for Orlando Sanchez was City Council colleague Gabriel Vasquez. That drew puzzlement from several City Hall insiders, who note that Vasquez generally has voted with Mayor Lee Brown against the Republican bloc on council that usually includes Sanchez. Did Vasquez's presence indicate support for Sanchez in the developing three-way contest that includes Councilman Chris Bell?

Nope, says Vasquez. He claims he was simply returning a courtesy extended when he was involved in a bitter run for City Council and the Democratic Hispanic establishment lined up against him.

"Orlando made some very statesmanlike comments about the [council] race that were pivotal in explaining to the Hispanic community what it was all about," explains Vasquez. He indicates he now considers the debt repaid and has no plans to back Sanchez's mayoral bid.

Sanchez may get more sustained backing from a good pal he squired to a River Oaks garden party hosted by Rich and Nancy Kinder the weekend after the announcement.

Attendees report that Sanchez, divorced with a young daughter, spent the evening in a tête-à-tête with 65-year-old Margaret Alkek Williams, a millionaire divorcée famous on the party circuit for low necklines and ostentatious displays of jewelry. She's also noted for favoring worthy causes with her largesse.

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