A Hard-on for Numbers

The Chron tries to stay, uh, abreast of circulation counts

Newspapers everywhere are desperate to come up with new ways to produce high circulation figures. If the claims in a Harris County lawsuit are to be believed, the Houston Chronicle is a real leader in that effort.

What was the Chron's trick? Offering readers compelling takes on hot topics? Brightening up its dreary pages with lively writing?

No. Instead, the paper's reps took the independent auditors who monitor the circulation figures out to titty bars and kept them happy, liquored up and too distracted to count.

The high price of progress: No more north-south 
Daniel Kramer
The high price of progress: No more north-south trolleys.

That claim comes from depositions in a suit filed by Houston attorney Jerry Payne, best known for his long battle with the IRS over a stock deal. (A stock deal involving a "gentleman's club" Payne owned, coincidentally enough.)

Payne represents former Chron distributors who say the paper routinely inflated its circulation, through either lascivious entertainment or such ruses as delivering hundreds of extra papers to schools involved in a reading program. The plaintiffs say they were fired for refusing to go along with the schemes.

"It's all very real," Payne says. "There's no way in the world a jury will listen to these [former] managers and not believe it didn't happen." The trouble will be getting past the Chron's motion to dismiss the managers' case before trial through Texas's "employment at will" law, which offers workers few options to sue over termination.

Chronicle attorney William Ogden calls the suit "frivolous" and the claims about bogus circulation numbers "completely false."

As for the titty-bar allegations, Ogden labels them "a scurrilous thing that has nothing to do with this lawsuit." -- Richard Connelly

Heavenly Signs

The Lord continues to work in mysterious ways, especially along Heights Boulevard, where two churches are locked in a holy war of words on their curbside message boards.

The battle began innocently enough. At 17th Street, Heights Christian Church advertised morning, evening and nighttime prayer services. Down the way, Grace United Methodist Church reminded patrons to attend "SUNDAY" prayer services. From there, trouble brewed.

"IN A WORLD OF LATTE CHURCHES, WE ARE THE BLACK COFFEE," the Christian Church marquee proclaimed.


By last week, the duel had escalated to the brinkmanship of a schoolboy football match. "TO GRACE UMC -- WE'VE GOT THE HOLY SPIRIT YES WE DO, WE'VE GOT THE HOLY SPIRIT HOW ABOUT YOU?!" the Christian Church chanted.


Christian Church pastor Eric Foley plans to bring out the big guns this week: "EXPOSING MODERN CHRISTIANITY FOR THE STEAMING PILE OF YAK POOP THAT IT IS."

"I really hate churches that do things like 'Five ways to control your temper,' and 'Six ways to be a better dad,' and all of the other crap you see on church signs," Foley explains. "We're about taking over the world. This is a major social revolution." -- Josh Harkinson

We're All in This Together

The grisly Galveston murder trial of millionaire cross-dresser Robert Durst is making some people squirm with its descriptions of hacked-up bodies and other creepy goings-on.

It's reportedly making one Houstonian squirm for yet another reason: the high-profile role played by defense attorney Mike Ramsey, a member of Durst's very expensive legal team that includes Dick DeGuerin.

Ramsey has been getting less face time lately in the constant news reports about the case. That may be just a matter of preplanned strategy concerning which lawyer would handle certain parts of the trial, but another theory making the rounds among regulars in the courtroom is that Ramsey has been told to stay out of the spotlight by one of his other clients.

That client would be Enron's own Ken Lay, who apparently doesn't want to be associated with cross-dressing murderers. He also reportedly wasn't happy when Ramsey was initially out in front defending rapper South Park Mexican on child-molestation charges.

Lay evidently believes bulldog lawyers like Ramsey should defend only sweet, innocent white-collar executives with a dream, naive folks who just didn't have enough time to check on everything their overzealous employees were doing. -- R.C.

Bye-Bye, Trolley

Downtowners may be delighted to have the Main Street light rail line finally operating in January -- but the price they pay could be more than the $1 train fare.

Metro confirmed last week that it will propose to eliminate most of the north-south free "trackless" trolley routes and will cut Midtown service entirely.

Under the draft plan, to be discussed in a public meeting next week, riders accustomed to taking the Milam/Travis, San Jacinto/Caroline and Midtown trolleys would have more complicated travel itineraries. Depending on the destination, they'll have to take an east-west trolley -- those routes are to be expanded -- over to Main Street, pay a dollar and use the train.

Metro spokesperson Maggi Stewart wouldn't weigh in over whether the proposal to curb the two north-south trolleys is a veiled move to boost train revenues. "I don't know about that," she said. "It's really just to serve the light rail route, because it's a direct route to Midtown and Reliant Park."

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