Food Fight Hiccup

Will four felonies spoil Four Families' Hobby deal?

Just when you thought the battle for that lucrative City of Houston food and beverage concession at Hobby Airport had been conclusively settled in favor of the homegrown Four Families team, along comes a little security situation.

The dominant corporate player on the Four Families consortium, Pappas Restaurants, may have difficulty qualifying for access to Houston airports under tightened regulations being promulgated by the federal Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) as part of the war on terrorism. The reason is that Pappas Partners L.P. pleaded guilty to four federal felony counts in 1998 in Dallas for shielding, concealing and harboring undocumented workers.

As part of the plea, the company agreed to pay a record $1.75 million fine. The company and each of its 54 restaurants also entered into a memorandum of understanding to participate in the Immigration and Naturalization Service Worker Verification Program for three years.

City of Houston Aviation Department spokesman Ernie DeSoto says the tough new security regulations mandate that no one with felony convictions in the past ten years can be employed at the airport. DeSoto says that in response to The Insider's questions about Pappas's eligibility, aviation officials are turning to Washington for clarification.

"You can't work here if you've got a felony conviction," notes DeSoto. "But the way the regulation is written is more toward the individual than the company. Transportation and Security has to give us a good ruling on this, because this is something new to us…"

An airport work application specifies a disqualifying felony as one involving "dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation."

DeSoto notes that the recent Operation Tarmac by the U.S. attorney's office in Houston netted 143 undocumented workers at Bush Intercontinental Airport. They had phony ID cards and were working in what had previously been considered low-security areas. As a result of post-9/11 measures, concessionaires and their employees will now be subject to much more comprehensive screenings.

"Before, people like myself who had access to secure areas had to go through extensive background checks, fingerprinting and everything else," explains DeSoto. "Now, what's going to happen is everybody, even the lady who sells popcorn on the concourse, is going to have to go through that. Things have changed, and the way we looked at things a year ago is different than we look at them now."

Critics of Operation Tarmac charged that the Justice Department was staging photo ops and rounding up undocumented workers with minor violations under the guise of cracking down on terrorism.

A Pappas spokesman says that because the Pappas participant in the Four Families deal is a different corporate entity from the company that pleaded guilty in Dallas, it will have no effect on the company's access to Hobby Airport.

"The company that owns the piece of Four Families is Pappas Restaurant Inc.," says Bill Miller. "They have no criminal record, and neither do Chris and Harris Pappas, so there will not be a problem."

The specific restaurants involved in the Dallas litigation were Pappasito's Mexican Cantina and Pappas Bros. Bar-B-Q Dallas. The entity that paid the fine was Houston-based Pappas Partners. Chris Pappas is one of those partners.

In a suit last year by a nonprofit group over the Americans with Disabilities Act, both Pappas Restaurants Inc. and Pappas Partners L.P. were co-defendants, indicating their close relationship.

Miller says that Pappas principals got their first walk-through of the Hobby facilities last week and will undergo the same security screening as cooks and other employees who work at Pappas concessions.

Asked whether the company has attempted to clarify its security standing with TSA officials, Miller replied, "You're the first person to raise this."

When Pappas pleaded guilty in 1998, the U.S. attorney's office in Dallas issued a fact statement detailing how company managers surreptitiously rehired illegal aliens that had been arrested at its restaurants. To avoid federal inspectors, managers juggled the undocumented workers' schedules and went so far as to hide them when INS officers staged unannounced inspections.

During federal officers' search of a Pappas restaurant in 1995, according to the statement, an undocumented worker "concealed himself in a walk-in cooler. When INS agents departed from the restaurant, [the worker] abandoned his hiding place and 'Pappas' instructed him to return to work."

In one particularly blatant case, an undocumented worker named Oscar Pineda-Molinawas arrested at a Dallas Pappasito's and was deported to Mexico. Within days, he was back in Dallas to collect his paycheck and seek re-employment. The chain moved him to another restaurant but required he assume the name of Jorge Camposin order to be rehired. Pappas managers altered records to reflect the new identity, and in a subsequent INS raid they hid him in a false ceiling in the restaurant. When the agents departed, they instructed Pineda-Molina to get back to work.

The case against Pappas began with several restaurant searches by INS in San Antonio in 1993 and the levying of a $14,000 fine. The Dallas U.S. attorney then joined forces with the INS and conducted a three-year investigation that concluded with the guilty pleas and the record-setting fine.

"If you can't take the heat of prosecution," commented then-U.S. attorney Paul Coggins, "get your unauthorized workers out of the kitchen or any part of the workplace. This prosecution will have ramifications far beyond the restaurant industry and far beyond the Dallas-Fort Worth area." The ripples have now reached Houston.

TSA Washington spokesman David Steigman says his agency is researching whether corporations with felony records are ineligible for airport security clearance.

City Councilman Gabe Vasquez chairs the council's aviation committee and was crucial in the 9-6 vote that awarded the Hobby contract to Four Families. At the time, he cited the delinquent tax record of a member of the CA One team as his reason for siding with Four Families. Vasquez now says he and other councilmembers were unaware of Pappas's felony convictions when the contract was considered.

"It never came up, and this is the first time I've heard of it," says the councilman. As to whether Pappas should be prohibited from operating concessions at Houston's airports, Vasquez says, "It's kind of early to come to a final conclusion. I'd want to see some specifics, some details, and a legal ruling before making a full determination."

Tony, Orlando and Dawn

No candidate for office in Texas has spent more of his money trying to get elected than Laredo banker Tony Sanchez ($57 million), and his reward was a drubbing by GOP Governor Rick Perry. But if Democrats and their defeated standard-bearer want some consolation, Houston's Hispanic precincts hold out hope for the future.

Not only did Sanchez demonstrate that Democrats have a solid hold on the Latino vote, he decisively outperformed that other Sanchez named Orlando who ran for Houston mayor last year. Orlando narrowly lost a runoff against incumbent Lee Brown while flaunting his Republican colors.

The Insider crunched precinct numbers from both races to get some results that debunk the conventional wisdom that Tony Sanchez flamed out in the Hispanic community. Turnout comparisons show that the gubernatorial Sanchez drew more Hispanics to the polls than his mayoral counterpart, and corralled much bigger majorities.

For example, In Magnolia Park's Box 11, Tony Sanchez outpolled Perry 510 to 56, an 89 percent majority, while Orlando in 2001 pulled 294 to Brown's 183 for a 61 percent majority.

In Denver Harbor's precinct 560, Sanchez ran ahead of Perry 329 to 40 for an 87 percent majority. His mayoral counterpart Orlando outpolled Brown 236 to 71 for a 77 percent majority. The same pattern was evident in eight other precincts sampled.

As a breakthrough Hispanic candidate in Harris County, Tony Sanchez drew larger totals and larger turnouts than Orlando Sanchez in his history-making run for mayor. Black voters also supported Tony Sanchez by overwhelming margins, with only a slight falloff from the even more lopsided majorities they gave African-American senatorial candidate Ron Kirk against Republican John Cornyn. The tale of the precinct totals is that the Democrats' black-brown coalition worked in Harris County.

The difference in the local vote was not a collapse in minority support for Democrats but rather the sky-high turnout in heavily GOP Anglo precincts. In some cases it approached levels of a presidential year, and doubled that in black and Hispanic boxes. Margins of nine and ten to one, magnified by the lopsided turnout, allowed Republicans to sweep every countywide race.

UH Center for Public Policy director Dr. Richard Murray says the results show the Democrats have a solid base, "but you've got to have candidates who can get a more significant share of the Anglo vote, as well as probably stir somewhat more enthusiasm in the minority community."

He pauses, and then concludes, "Read: Henry Cisneros."

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