2010 Turkeys of the Year

Metro chief Frank Wilson is our biggest gobbler.

You'd think, in the eighth year of the Houston Press Turkey of the Year awards, that we'd be running out of candidates.

Luckily, this is Texas. Not only that — it has been Texas in an election year, with a (black) Democrat in the White House. Turkey madness!!

Rush Limbaugh honored as an Honorary Texan. Glenn Beck rallying the Tea Partiers at the Alamo. The governor of the state dropping hints about seceding from America because...he loves it?

Trae took to the web...
Trae took to the web...
...to tell the story of his unparalleled persecution.
...to tell the story of his unparalleled persecution.
Mack Brown looked a lot less genius-y without VY or Colt.
AP Photo/Harry Cabluck
Mack Brown looked a lot less genius-y without VY or Colt.
Rice president David Leebron chose the lesser of two options.
Rice president David Leebron chose the lesser of two options.
Part of the 42 percent of Texans who voted for Bill White give him a hug.
Aaron M. Sprecher
Part of the 42 percent of Texans who voted for Bill White give him a hug.

But all the Turkeyness was not restricted to the political arena. Sports came through as always, as did entertainment and government bureaucracies.

But, hey, let's end the suspense and get right down to it.

Turkey of the Year: Frank Wilson

Frank Wilson rumbled in from New Jersey to run Metro, and he brought with him a management style straight from The Sopranos: Cut a few corners here and there, maybe, but whatever you do, don't talk about the family business.

Wilson loved to talk about "transparency" at Metro, but apparently the New Jersey definition of "transparency" is "Who da fuck are you to be asking me questions?"

As a result, just what Wilson had been doing at Metro didn't become clear until he left this year, shortly after discovering the new mayor actually cared about being a watchdog over the agency. She replaced Wilson with longtime good-government guy George Greanias, and it was only when the howls of aghast horror were heard from Greanias's office as he reviewed operations that the actual picture became clear.

Greanias immediately went on a goodwill tour of constituency groups and media, listening in disbelief at the horror stories he heard about how the agency was perceived and how it interacted with outsiders.

Whether he can turn it around and build a light-rail system in tough economic times remains a question, but he will be spending his tenure cleaning up after the gigantic mess left by Frank Wilson.

How does one become a Turkey of the Year? One way is to run a massive transit agency so badly that it becomes the subject of gubernatorial-race political ads airing in Austin, El Paso and Lubbock.

Not everyone can pull off such a feat, but Frank Wilson could.

We asked our Metro beat writer, Paul Knight, to offer the five greatest jaw-dropping moments of Wilson's tenure. His take:

Frank Wilson's Five Worst Moments

Frank Wilson was hired at Metro to do one thing: Expand Houston's light-rail system at any cost. He resigned this year without building an inch of rail during his tenure, leaving the agency with mountains of debt and in the middle of a federal investigation that resulted in the light-rail program grinding to a halt. Counting down to the worst moment of all:

5. The Secretive Parsons Contract. The first step in Wilson's light rail plan was finding a company to actually build the thing. Wilson's Metro negotiated with one transit company for two years before that company unexpectedly backed out. In March of 2009, Wilson and the Metro board were set to vote on a $1.46 billion contract with a new company, Parsons Transportation Group.

The trouble started when the public wanted details of the contract — paid for with tax dollars — before Metro voted on it. Wilson and Metro held firm, and wouldn't make anything about the contract public until after it was approved. The worst part was that Metro, at the time of the contract's approval, wasn't sure how it would be paid for, and Wilson simply assured everyone that Metro would surely be getting a lot of federal money in no time.

4. The Trip to Spain. Along with the Parsons contract, Wilson had to hire a rail-car manufacturer to build new rail cars for the planned rail lines. Wilson settled on CAF, a company headquartered in Spain, and after the contract was signed, Wilson, along with his alleged girlfriend, Joanne Wright, traveled to Spain for "business." The trip ultimately resulted in a couple lawsuits and local and federal investigations. Metro hired an outside firm, at $310 an hour, to investigate Wilson's business expenses, and in that firm's final report, Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing. Of course, the investigation only looked at what Wilson charged to Metro, and Wilson's and Wright's airfare to Spain was not included in the report.

3. Metro Shredding. After attorney and former city controller Lloyd Kelley requested documents from Metro in January of this year but didn't get what he wanted, he sued the agency with the belief that public documents were illegally being destroyed. Turns out Metro was shredding documents, but agency officials contended that the shredding had nothing to do with the documents requested by Kelley.

But a judge issued a restraining order against Metro, ordering it to stop destroying documents. The Harris County District Attorney, with help from the FBI, launched an investigation and "raided" Metro's offices for documents. The whole thing also revealed that Metro didn't have an official policy for document retention. Pauline Higgins, the head of Metro's legal department, was fired. Wilson and Metro publicly smeared Higgins, saying that she was fired because she was a bad manager and bad employee. E-mails later revealed that Higgins was questioning Metro's practice of destroying documents, and Higgins filed a lawsuit against Metro. The Kelley suit was settled by Metro, the DA dropped its investigation and Metro was cleared of any wrongdoing. Higgins's case is still active.

2. Wilson's Pyramid Scheme. Part of Metro's public funding, as set by Houston voters, is a General Mobility Fund that sends part of Metro's sales tax revenues to the city and county to fill potholes and repair bridges and things like that. If the city repaved a road, for example, it could send the bill to Metro to cover the costs. Wilson, however, operated Metro on such a cash shortage that when the city asked for a General Mobility payment, Metro would take out a loan to cover the payment. For that specific business practice, Wilson racked up $167 million in debt. George Greanias, Metro's new president, has said that he doesn't have a solid plan to repay those loans.

1. The FTA lowers the ax on Wilson's Metro. After Wilson moved forward with plans to have CAF build test cars in Spain, despite the Federal Transit Administration's instructions against that, the FTA launched an investigation to determine if Metro violated federal "Buy American" rules. The investigation quickly expanded into Metro's entire procurement process and, really, Wilson's business practices.

The final report, issued in September, was damning. According to the FTA, Metro, because it had violated federal guidelines, would have to re-bid the rail-car contract, and $900 million in federal funds, the key to Metro's light-rail expansion, was all but gone. Metro had already paid CAF more than $40 million, and will likely face litigation from CAF because of the canceled contract. Light-rail construction had already started in parts of the city, but, because Metro won't be getting the federal cash, those projects have pretty much been abandoned. Greanias slashed Metro's budget this year by about $430 million. Wilson, of course, resigned a few months before the FTA's announcement, and, because of his contract, walked away from Metro, despite driving the agency into the ground, with a fat severance payday.

Frank Wilson: We wish we could say, "We hardly knew ye," but we're not that lucky. But congratulations on winning such a highly deserved honor. We can only take comfort in the knowledge that unlike Tom DeLay, you cannot be a repeat winner.
_____________________

Musical Turkeys of the Year:
Trae the Truth and 97.9 The Box

Trae the Truth is a well-known Houston rapper who puts on a Trae Day celebration each year, often without accompanying gunfire.

The 2009 event wasn't one of those gunless ones, though. And the fireworks were only starting.

Trae and a DJ from The Box called Nnete got into an on-air tiff after Nnete criticized the crowds that go to the rapper's shows.

Trae responded with eloquence, in the song "Uptown."

Look at you with your bad-built ass, you're trash...

I guess it's understood while I'm rolling on glass

And the world hating on me like Nnete fat ass

The Box didn't take too kindly to this, and somehow all Trae songs disappeared from its playlists. DJs who played his songs at outside events also got in trouble.

Ho hum, another rapper feud, right? No. For this dispute between an overly sensitive radio station and an overly sensitive rapper was about to go to court, where Trae would attempt to create the legal precedent of forcing a radio station to play an artist's songs.

Cheering madly on the sidelines, no doubt, was Every Group Ever who had fallen victim to radio programming directors who could not appreciate true genius.

We're not sure what the suit looked like, but we assume it was pretty much like this.

Trae the Truth

vs.

The Box

STATEMENT OF FACTS

1) Trae is a gifted, insightful rapper.

The Box plays rap music.

Recently, The Box has stopped playing Trae's music.

STATEMENT OF LAW

1) In bringing this action, Trae acknowledges that his music is so fan-fucking-tastic that the only reason it might not be played on the radio is because The Box is run by a bunch of whiny-ass bitches. (Note: Whiny-ass bitches are different from bad-built asses, although they are not mutually exclusive.)

Even assuming arguendo that The Box might find Trae's music not good enough, plaintiff would argue that there's no way they could do that because his music is so fucking tight.

Okay, assume — big, big, big assumption — that The Box doesn't like the latest from Trae. Case law is clear that quality does not matter. To wit:

a) The Box's action is undeniably in violation of such rulings as Metallica Fans v. St. Anger and Mick Jagger's Solo Career v. Rolling Stone Magazine. In the former case, Metallica fans sued over being forced to buy the St. Anger album, which is universally regarded as "a piece of crap" (See U.S. Supreme Court, Critics v. Hetfield, et al.); the court ruled the suit to be moot, seeing as the plaintiffs were Metallica fans and nothing could stop them from buying it anyway.

In the latter case, Mick Jagger's Solo Career (MJSC) sued Rolling Stone magazine, demanding that the magazine "take seriously" MJSC. The magazine argued that MJSC "had to be kidding" and "Have you actually listened to this mannered crap?" to no avail. The court ruled that the magazine's ludicrously over-the-top critical praise of late-era Stones albums extended by default to MJSC, which was awarded a cover and an exclusive interview billed as "Mick Jagger Finally Opens Up" or some such thing.

b) Plaintiff Trae would also direct the court's attention to mainstream country radio, which plays awful music 24-7.

THEREFORE, the plaintiff wishes the court to issue a summary judgment declaring:

a) The Box is full of shit;

b) Nnete's ass is big.

RESPECTFULLY SUBMITTED,

Trae

The actual lawsuit never quite made it to trial — after an initial hearing in which a bemused judge wondered just what he was supposed to be ruling on, the two sides settled.

All is more or less right in the Houston rap world again, and a rapper and a radio station have proven themselves more than worthy of being named Turkeys.
_____________________

Sports Turkey of the Year: UT's Mack Brown

We know what you Texans fans are thinking: UT Head Coach Mack Brown? Yet another case of the Texans' Gary Kubiak grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Kubiak came close to winning this, but in the end he couldn't compete with the total, hilarious collapse of the befuddled Brown.

The Longhorns came into the season as they always do — ranked in the top ten, sitting on four or five years worth of highly rated recruiting classes.

It's pretty difficult to overstate what a disaster this season has been: home losses to UCLA, Oklahoma State, Baylor (!) and Iowa State (!!!). A loss to Oklahoma. And complete domination by Kansas State.

Brown laid the blame exactly where he thought it should go: On everyone but him.

He blamed the players: "We stood around and got beat," he said after the Iowa State game. "I don't think it's talent. I think it's attitude."

He blamed his coaches: "If you're coaching a position, and your position's not playing well every week, I can't trust that you're doing a good job of coaching," Brown said, relaying what he said he had told his staff. "If one of your guys is playing bad, I can change him. If three of your guys are playing bad, I've got to change you."

If everyone's playing bad? Don't blame Brown.

Back in the glory days of Vince Young, Brown made a big deal out of how the youngsters had loaded up his iPod with rap, and he liked it. We didn't believe it then, we don't now, but we wonder if these tunes are on shuffle:

Public Enemy, "Welcome to the Terrordome"
Check the record
And reckon an intentional wreck
Played off as some intellect
Made the call, took the fall
Broke the laws
Not my fault that they're falling off
Known as fair square
Throughout my years
So I growl at the living foul
Black to the bone my home is your home
So welcome to the Terrordome

Or maybe

Eminem, "Who Knew"
But don't blame me when lil' Eric jumps off of the terrace
You shoulda been watchin him — apparently you ain't parents
So who's bringin the guns in this country? (Hmm?)
I couldn't sneak a plastic pellet gun through customs over in London
And last week, I seen a Schwarzenegger movie
where he's shootin all sorts of these motherfuckers with a uzi
I sees three little kids, up in the front row,
screamin "Go," with their 17-year-old Uncle
I'm like, "Guidance — ain't they got the same moms and dads
who got mad when I asked if they liked violence?"
And told me that my tape taught 'em to swear
What about the make-up you allow your 12-year-old daughter to wear?
(Hmm?) So tell me that your son doesn't know any cuss words
when his bus driver's screamin at him, fuckin him up worse

or

Mia X, "Don't Blame Me"
Don't blame me for the pain the world has caused
Don't blame me for your own imperfectionate flaws
If every individual were to accept his own blame
I think the world would be a better change
A better change

But we bet instead he's still listening to country. Like, maybe, Dwight Yoakam.

Dwight Yoakam, "Blame the Vain"
I blame the vain for what we wear,
And I blame the blind when we can't see.
I blame it all on someone else...
_____________________

Political Turkeys of the Year: The State Board of Education

Texas adopted new standards this year for social studies in its schools, and since the State Board of Education was dominated by hardcore social conservatives, things got horrifying and/or entertaining in a hurry.

Mostly horrifying, but undeniably entertaining, especially when entities like The Daily Show took on the subject.

How bad did things get? So bad that Republican voters revolted. They replaced the extremists with people who, while still staunchly conservative, at least promised to not go off the deep end.

Relive the fabulous year of 2010 with your elected State Board of Education with this multiple-choice quiz. We've been teaching to this test all year, so you should do well.

1. Which of these did NOT attend a SBOE board meeting in order to protest how conservatives wanted to portray slavery?

a) The head of the NAACP

b) A former U.S. Secretary of Education, also the former head of Texas's largest school district

c) The committee that wrote the draft guidelines on the subject

d) Trick question: They all protested

2. Instead of referring to "America's slave trade," what term did SBOE conservatives prefer?

a) The "Atlantic Triangular Trade"

b) "An immigration policy that was actually effective"

c) "The awful beginning of the road to 'rap'"

d) "The 'Land o' Opportunity Program'"

3. What did the conservatives hope students would learn about affirmative action?

a) How it helped kids from the lower socioeconomic rungs of society achieve success in college

b) How it helped people like George W. Bush get into Yale as a "legacy"

c) Its "unintended consequences"

d) That it may sound all well and good, but next thing you know you've got a radical Marxist Muslim as president

4. The conservatives wanted to de-emphasize Thomas Jefferson and emphasize Phyllis Schlafly. Why?

a) Just for shits and gigs, to see if anyone was paying attention

b) Because really, what did Thomas Jefferson ever do when compared with Phyllis Schlafly?

c) Because ol' TJ coined the phrase "separation of church and state," forever displeasing God

d) To fight the hegemony of the Dead White Guy in history in favor of women and minorities

5. In addition to the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., Texas students studying the Civil Rights Era will now also have to study:

a) The pro-violence philosophy of the Black Panthers, in case they get the wrong idea from MLK about blacks and how uppity they can get

b) The pro-violence philosophy of the Black Panthers, because the Black Panthers have proven to be so much more influential in history than Martin Luther King

c) The Mau Mau Uprising in Africa in the 1950s

d) The degree to which blacks were ungrateful for the "Land o' Opportunity Program"

6. When conservatives wanted to take out any mention of César Chávez, a Hispanic state representative protested that "We're in the 21st Century, and we're writing textbooks like it's ____." Fill in the blank.

a) " the 1950s."

b) "the 21st Century — in Texas."

c) "a time when some elected officials actually think Glenn Beck makes sense. Oh, never mind."

d) "1999" (with Prince blasting in the background)

7. Textbooks on the Civil Rights Era will mention that Republicans supported the law. Why?

a) Because "Republicans need a little credit for that," a board member said

b) Because today's Republican conservatives would ABSOLUTELY be on the side of civil-rights protests if they were happening today

c) Because any Republican who supported the Civil Rights Act would not be denounced as a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only; i.e., communist) if the vote happened today

d) Because the section will also include the sentence "Of course, kids, back then there was actually such a thing as a moderate Republican."

8. The conservatives wanted to replace the word "capitalism" with "free enterprise system." Why?

a) God said to

b) Because capitalism ends with the same three letters as communism, socialism and fascism

c) "Capitalism" has gotten a bad connotation

d) Because "free enterprise system" also means freedom from government overregulation that would try to tell a business owner just how much he could pollute the air

9. Which of these were pushed by conservative SBOE members?

a) Noting that Germans and Italians were interred in World War II just as Japanese were, so that America would not seem racist

b) Noting that several white people lost their property in one way or another in the 19th Century, so that shoving Native Americans off their land would not seem racist

c) Noting that white people who couldn't pass a quiz asking who Millard Fillmore's vice-president was also would not have been allowed to vote in Alabama in the 1960s, if that test had been given to white people, so that the Jim Crow South would not seem racist

d) Noting that Real "Build the Dang Fence" Americans don't want any French, Belgians or Lithuanians crossing the Rio Grande illegally, so that Real "Build the Dang Fence" Americans don't seem racist

10. The conservatives pushed for students to "evaluate efforts by global organizations such as the United Nations to undermine U.S. sovereignty." This will include studying

a) All those black helicopters

b) The FEMA concentration camps Glenn Beck exposed

c) Those bastards at UNICEF

d) Delusional paranoia on the part of right-wing extremists

(Answers: 1-d, 2-a, 3-c, 4-a, 5-a, 6-a, 7-a, 8-c, 9-a, 10-d)
_____________________

Educational Turkey of the Year:
Rice President David Leebron

You run a prestigious school where many people on all levels take themselves very, very seriously. Your school's not exactly strapped for cash, but like every college president, you say it is.

Ah-ha! You have in your control a valuable asset, worth millions. It's a 50,000-watt radio station that everyone pretends to listen to but no one does. The public university across town wants to buy it.

Now all you have to do is make sure you and your administration pull off the deal in the worst way possible, so you look bad, your students and alumni are pissed, and everyone involved, including the city's main newspaper, looks bad.

Success!!

Rice President David Leebron might not have gotten himself involved in every last little nitty-gritty detail of the sale of KTRU-FM to the University of Houston, but his administration did. And if there was a wrong move to make along the way, they jumped at it with both hands, turning what could have been a win for everyone into a public-relations disaster.

We imagine the memo a consultant would have written beforehand.

To: Rice

From: Your high-priced consultants

Re: The KTRU sale

Everyone: Thanks for the briefing on what you're planning to do with UH.

It's clear to us that there are two options. We'll call the first one the Obvious, Smart Choice and the second the Really, Really Dumb Choice.

Option One: The Smart, Completely-Obvious-to-Anyone-Breathing Route to Take

The key to this option is always keeping in mind that the vast majority of people don't really care about KTRU. They may like the idea of it, perhaps even nostalgically recall when it was the first to play the Ramones or Soundgarden or Strawberry Alarm Clock or whatever, but no one's listened to it in years. It's kinda like The Simpsons.

So what do you do? Easy: Have lots and lots of "town hall meetings" with "stockholders" and anyone who "has skin in the game." Present dire options.

First, the meeting with the radio staff. This will be the most intense, so get someone who can take a lot of flak and a) nod sympathetically, b) promise to take the ideas she/he is hearing right up to the highest levels and c) (most important) keep a straight face. This last part can be difficult, obviously, especially as show hosts make dramatic threats to rouse up student demonstrations.

After that, it's gravy. Post flyers all over the dorms announcing a session on KTRU. At the session, which will be sparsely attended, emphasize that the station will still be available on the net. Watch attendees leave, bored.

Now, the alumni or local residents. Don't hit too hard on the advertising on this one (not because alumni will show up — Lord knows they will find much, much better things to do), but you never know what kind of local lunatics will show up to harangue you about squelching free speech, the corporatization of Amerikkka, whatever. It's too much to ask anyone to bear. Just do enough in the way of announcing the meetings to get away with saying there were plenty of chances for public input and no one really showed up.

Then, after you've seen the KTRU staff try in vain to get anyone to care, possibly having to put up with some glorified "We're Not Leaving!!" lock-themselves-in-the-studio drama, you present a report on how you've listened to everyone and feel confident in moving forward.

Cost: A couple of hours of an intern sitting around looking at Facebook on her BlackBerry while pretending to be listening to losers gripe.

Option Two: The Really, Really Dumb Way to Go

The key to this option is keeping in mind that the core KTRU constituency, such as it is, is made up of old hippies, young proto-anarchists and anyone who loves to wallow in fights against The Man, in whatever corporate form he takes.

So to fully understand the dumbness of this proposed method, you have to understand that it will reinforce every suspicion, bad feeling and resentment in anyone who feels even fleetingly some small connection with that constituency.

So what do you do? Easy: Keep everything secret. "Why?" you say. "We're selling an asset, how could publicity hurt?"

You're missing the point. You need to take great pains to keep things secret — in fact, write memos about how you've made an embargo deal with the Houston Chronicle so you can have "a quiet weekend" before the vote on the sale. If you want to go really nuts, feel free to write another e-mail saying how you are deceiving the Houston Press so they won't publish the story "prematurely."

The point is, make yourself, and the sale, look as evil and manipulative as possible.

You'll stir up resentment, give legitimacy to the previously marginalized KTRU people and possibly engender court costs from a lawsuit.

Like we say, there's a reason we named this option what we did.

But, hey, it's your choice. We're sure you'll choose wisely.

Or, on the other hand, Rice and its administration could choose to nominate themselves for a Turkey award. It's clear what option they chose.
_____________________

The Coulda-Beens

The runners-up to this year's slate of Turkeys of the Year all deserve, at the very least, a participation medal. They gave their all, no one can gainsay that, but in the end they all just lacked that one little piece of true Turkeyness to put them over the top. Or, more likely, they had someone completely Turkified they were trying to compete with. (Hey, you try to out-nut the State Board of Education.)

The silver and bronze medalists:

Bill White might have been a shoo-in any other year for Political Turkey. Running as a Democrat for statewide office in Texas, on the program of being a big-city mayor? In a city that has minorities in it who are dealt with as legitimate constituents? Not in this Tea Party cycle. Still, he gave it all he had. Very, very earnestly. We're sure he still goes to bed dreaming of how he'd kick Perry's ass in a debate.

Gary Kubiak, as we indicated above, came oh-so-close to winning Sports Turkey. He came as close as, say, a missed Kris Brown kick, a Sage Rosenfels helicopter fumble, a Hail Mary for the all-time highlight reel. We'd say, as Texan fans have long grown used to saying, that there's always next year, but we're not sure Kubiak will be around to try.

Michael Brown, star of the once-ubiquitous Hand Center ads, managed to get himself arrested on yet another domestic-violence charge. This is despite his wholesome, infant-dandling commercials, and his prominence in the Houston Chronicle society pages. He coulda been a Society Turkey contender, he coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what he is. Only because we didn't have that category this year.

State Representative Debbie Riddle made a serious run for overall Turkey of the Year with a maniacally dedicated obsession with un-whitish Texas residents. So eager was she to file a clone of Arizona's "show me your papers" bill in the upcoming legislative session that she camped out to be first on line when pre-filing began, like some Who fan trying for tickets in the '70s. Unlike Gary Kubiak, we feel safe in saying, "Wait till next year!" to Representative Riddle.

Finally, since it was an election year, the potential picks were heavy on the politicos. And Rick Perry tried his damnedest to do what no one since Tom DeLay has done. And by that we don't mean spout inane Limbaugh-echoing rhetoric (he did do that, to be sure). No, we mean becoming a two-time Turkey of the Year winner. Much like the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins always open the champagne whenever the last unbeaten NFL team goes down each season, DeLay can now crack open the Dom, put on some sequined jumpsuits and go dancing with his own stars.

Celebrate good times, Hammer.

rich.connelly@houstonpress.com

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