In his first trial on federal bribery-conspiracy charges last year that ended in a hung jury, Houston City Councilman Michael Yarbrough called upon a former elementary school teacher, now blind and infirm, to vouch for his good character.
As the 48-year-old Yarbrough prepares for a second trial, a widow tells the Insider the Councilman hoodwinked her out of more than $10,000 during a ill-starred romance in the early nineties. It ended when he dumped her and another girlfriend for his current wife. Some women who worked for Yarbrough say their insight into Yarbrough's public and private conduct convinces them that Brenda Delaney Smith is telling the truth.
If so, one could conclude that it would indeed take someone who could neither see -- nor hear -- evil to give the Councilman a glowing character reference.
Since getting elected to City Council, Yarbrough has used his campaign account for everything from dining to pet supplies to large cash withdrawals with no documentation for how the money was spent. Federal Bureau of Investigation cameras also documented him accepting thousands of dollars more from undercover agents during a sting operation. Those tapes will air again in the retrial, tentatively set for April, of Yarbrough, colleague John Castillo and former councilman John Peavy.
Yarbrough did not return calls for comment about the claims of Smith, 49. A petite, round-faced beautician now living with her parents and a son, she says the experience with Yarbrough convinced her that he is in politics strictly for the money. But before he got elected to an office he could use to reap financial benefits, he pressured her for loans which he never repaid.
When she demanded the money back, Smith claims, Yarbrough struck her with his fist during one incident and pushed her down in another. A neighbor filed a police report after one incident, but officers took no action. Yarbrough has never been formally accused of civil or criminal wrongdoing in connection with the allegations.
Smith grew up in the same northeast Houston neighborhood as Yarbrough and knew him from sight since they were children. Until she received a substantial insurance settlement from the death of her husband, Raymond, in 1990, she had never spoken to the then-unemployed Yarbrough. He lived in his parents' house and helped manage the care of his mother, an Alzheimer's victim residing in a nearby nursing home.
Yarbrough had had several unsuccessful runs for state representative by that time and was in the early planning stages of a City Council campaign. He had also spent a large settlement from his late father's estate and, according to Smith, needed money in the worst way.
After Smith's husband died, she became more involved in Miles Chapel Methodist Church activities. "My nephew was in the choir, and I would take him to choir rehearsal," Smith says in an interview in the living room of her home on Sparta Street. She remembers becoming aware that Yarbrough had an interest in her when he started asking other church members for information about her.
On Christmas Day, 1990, Smith says Yarbrough called her house and initially refused to give his name. "I didn't know who it was on the phone because I had never spoken to him. When I threatened to hang up, he introduced himself, and we talked for a while."
For much of the following year, Smith says, Yarbrough repeatedly phoned her and kept suggesting they go out, but she refused because she was still in mourning for her husband.
"I wasn't ready," she recalls. "I had just lost a husband I had been with for 23 years, and my husband was only my second boyfriend. I wasn't used to dating or anything like that."
When 1992 rolled around and Yarbrough continued to call, Smith decided she needed to come out of her shell. They started a relationship that lasted until May 1993. According to the widow, Yarbrough immediately initiated a pattern of demands for cash, in chunks ranging from $500 to $1,800.
"He was getting a feel of me, and I didn't know it because I had never dated before," says Smith. "He was asking me questions about things, finances, and I would answer, naive as I am. I didn't know how to play the game. I'm not a game player, I'm a serious person."
When Yarbrough first asked Smith for $1,000 to attend a wedding in St. Louis, the widow was stunned. "That blew me away," she remembers. "I thought that when you asked for a loan you asked for $10 or $15." Still, Smith says her infatuation with the six-foot-two Councilman and his smooth style overruled her common sense.
"Well, I cared for Michael," she explains. "I was reluctant but gave it to him. But then he needed $800 for this, $500 for that. He needed $300, then $200. This is the way he got money from me. It was never $10, $50, $100."
Smith says she wrote down the loans as they were made, and Yarbrough convinced her he would repay them after his political career blossomed. "I had a list of the dates and amounts," she says ruefully. "Dumb fool that I was, we were at Luby's one day," says Smith, "and he got mad and said if I cared for him, why would I keep a tally of all the money that he owed?" Smith says she gave in and agreed to destroy the list, but she insists she had given Yarbrough more than $10,000.
Near the end of their relationship, Smith says, Yarbrough demanded $500 from her. After getting the money, Smith says she had second thoughts and tried to take it back. A tussle ensued, and Yarbrough ripped half the $100 bills out of her hand. He refused to return the torn money, and Smith still has three of the mutilated, valueless bills as souvenirs.
"He was just too dirty to give it back to me," she says.
Smith says that Yarbrough always refused to accept checks and demanded that she withdraw cash from her account. That love of nontraceable greenbacks is a tendency he has shown throughout his Council career.
She notes he also seemed allergic when it came to posing for pictures with her. "Every time I would go to his house with a camera and say, 'Michael, let's take a picture,' he never wanted to." In retrospect, Smith says she realizes that Yarbrough had other serious relationships "and I was just somebody on the side he could get money out of."
As for marriage, she says she never considered it, although Yarbrough broached the subject once when he needed more money.
"He brought it up once, but I wasn't ready for that," she recalls. "I was more in lust, because he's the kind of person who can whisper sweet nothings in your ear. He is such a con man that you believe everything he says, and I believed him."
Smith says Yarbrough hit her when she demanded repayment of the money near the end of their relationship. "He hit me twice," she says. "He had been to the bank. I followed him home. I went to the door, and he came out and hit me on the side of my head with his fist."
On another occasion, Smith says, Yarbrough seemed mentally unstable and began screaming at her when she complained about a ringing phone in his house. "He snapped and said, 'Get out of my house,' and shoved me in my chest."
After they parted ways and she began talking to other church members, Smith realized how she had been taken. "I loaned him the money, fool that I was. After we broke up and I'm talking to everybody, they know his game. I'm not out there in the streets, so I don't know how to play the game, con games. I'm just naive, I guess."
In spring 1993, as Yarbrough was raising contributions for a Council campaign, Smith found out Yarbrough had been secretly dating another woman all the time he had been taking money from her. She ran into Yarbrough's future wife, Bonita, at a hotel fundraiser. After she phoned the woman to tell her about Yarbrough's duplicity, an angry Yarbrough called her back and cursed her, Smith says.
She limited complaints about his behavior to other African-American Councilmembers. But Yarbrough's ex-girlfriend from Austin took her grievances all the way to Yarbrough's 1993 wedding to Bonita. The woman invaded the well-attended ceremony at a Galleria-area hotel, causing a lengthy delay.
"Everybody was seated, and there was a harpist there," laughs a former Council aide who was attending. "Martha Wong was there; Felix Fraga showed up. We waited and waited."
Then Yarbrough aide Richard Johnson, widely regarded as the brains behind the Councilman, surreptitiously alerted the staff that they had a big problem. The ex-girlfriend had slipped into the church and placed herself in a pew right behind the bride's family, and had mischief in mind. According to the staffer, Johnson was apoplectic.
"We need to get her out of here because she's a threat," he warned. Johnson ruled out security guards because that would have tipped off the unsuspecting bride and the dignitaries. After a lengthy wait, a minister persuaded the woman to leave voluntarily.
"It was horrible," laughs the aide, "because the Councilmembers who were there wanted to leave, but they couldn't go anywhere. The only one I felt sorry for was the poor harpist, 'cause she harped and harped and harped. She started strong but by the end of the two hours it was like dink, dink, dink."
Smith continued efforts to collect her money from Yarbrough for several years, after first trying to get Johnson's help.
"I told him the story, and he said, 'Man, he could be in real trouble if he doesn't get this resolved. Let me see if I can get your money,' " she remembers. "He said he'd get back in touch with me, but he never did."
Smith appealed to several then-councilmembers for help, including Judson Robinson. A former Yarbrough aide claims that Robinson urged Yarbrough to pay Smith back so as not to besmirch the image of minority councilmembers. However, Robinson has a different memory.
"[Smith] called me, and the accusations were so surprising to me," muses Robinson, "you wonder if a person is telling the truth when they say things like that. I don't even remember what she said. I just remember saying this is something I need to bring to Michael's attention."
Robinson says Yarbrough seemed unperturbed. "I asked him if he recognized the name of the lady and he said, 'Oh yeah, she's called you too?' And he chuckled, suggesting, 'Don't worry about it, she's been calling a lot of people with this story.' "
Robinson recalls giving friendly advice to Yarbrough: "I would hate for something like that to get around. Take care of it and do whatever you have to do, you know, it wouldn't-be-good-for-you type thing."
Robinson says he doesn't remember details of Smith's complaints. "I guess [he was] just cheating on her and taking her money, or something like that. Just kind of so bizarre for Michael to have to do something like that."
A woman who worked in Yarbrough's early campaign retorts, "How can you not believe her when Michael had no means of support at the time and didn't file tax returns?"
"She was very credible to me," says the source. "When I talked with her [at the time she complained], I was 75-80 percent convinced she was telling the truth. When I talked to another former coworker about Michael's behavior, I became 90 percent convinced. The course of events since has given me 99 percent certainty."
A former council aide who was loyal to Yarbrough says she was "blown to smithereens" by Smith's account. "Listening to that poor lady, she had a lot to say. If everything she says is true, she went through quite an ordeal, and the individual took advantage of her at her time of weakness." After working for Yarbrough and leaving because of what she felt were unethical activities, the source says she now believes Smith "100 percent."
Smith says she doesn't expect that Yarbrough will ever repay the money she lavished on him. An attorney reviewed the situation and concluded that she doesn't have the evidence for a legal case.
She last saw the Councilman two years ago, as she drove home from work in the Galleria. She says he pulled his car alongside her vehicle and motioned for Smith to follow him off the freeway.
"He got ahead of me and took the exit, and I just kept going,"she declares. "I wanted no part of him."
When it comes time for character witnesses to take the stand in Yarbrough's upcoming trial, you can bet the Councilman will want no part of Brenda Delaney Smith either.
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