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.
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
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.
Grace fired back: "GRACE IS A FAIR TRADE COFFEE CONGREGATION."
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.
Grace didn't bite: "CELEBRATING ALL THE SAINTS OF GOD SUNDAY 10:45 AM."
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.
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."
She cautioned that the free trolleys, which replaced downtown's 25-cent "Texas Specials" a few years ago, were always meant to be temporary. "They were started to help out during this construction period," she said. "The free fare was not seen as a permanent deal." -- J.H.
Hey, Urine Business
The war on drugs in Brazoria County has just gotten uglier. Gone are the old days when probationers merely smuggled in bags of other people's clean urine to ace their drug tests. Probation officers recently busted two men attempting to submit samples with the help of a prosthetic penis and synthetic urine.
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Known commercially as The Whizzinator, the fraudulent phallus is sold online for $150 and comes in five different skin colors for added authenticity. The device is strapped to a belt and attached to a bag that holds warm, fake urine created in the Whizzinator labs. A representative of the California-based company says the liquid contains everything real urine does, except for DNA, which isn't analyzed in drug tests.
The flow of faux pee is controlled by manipulating a clip valve, which, according to the company, can "make a slight snap sound" when opened. Individuals should "try disguising the sound by clearing your throat or coughing as you open it."
Apparently, one Brazoria County man did not heed this advice -- his probation officer heard an unnatural metallic sound as the guy attempted to submit a sample. When confronted, the probationer fessed up and surrendered the decoy dick.
"They're just going to have to get a little more close up to make sure that what's being used to provide a specimen is the real thing," chief probation officer Larry Jablecki says of his staff. "It's not a fun thing to do." -- Craig Malisow