Council's Cell Phone Phanatic
Anyone who sits through City Council meetings knows that District E Councilman Rob Todd loves the sound of his voice projected through a microphone.
The Clear Lake staunch conservative attorney and former model delights in driving stolid Mayor Lee Brown to distraction with swarms of needling questions, like a high-pitched hound dog badgering a grumpy bear.
Judging from city billing records over the past six months, when Rob wasn't yakking it up at council meetings, he whiled away the minutes spewing sweet nothings into his taxpayer-funded cell phone, some of it in secretive calls to fellow Councilman Bert Keller's now estranged wife, Susan.
Since January the increasingly hirsute and bar-hopping councilman has rung up an incredible $3,929 bill, blabbing for an amazing 21,353 minutes. Even if some of those calls were made by aides, that still adds up to nearly 15 days and nights of nonstop talking. At this rate he'll rack up a full month of mouthification and an $8,000 tab over a year's time. Makes you wonder when he finds time to sleep.
Luckily for Todd, whose worst nightmare is a bad hair day, he can check out a mirror and comb his impeccably styled locks without interrupting his marathon conversations. Meanwhile, the King of Chat has repaid the city a paltry $52.54 over the six months to cover personal calls made on his favorite instrument of choice.
Todd admits his cell phone usage is high but justifies it because his district sprawls from Clear Lake to Kingwood. "It goes through three counties and it's far away from downtown," he says. "As a result I am required to be away from City Hall for a good part of the week, and it's important for me to stay in touch with my office and my constituents."
By comparison, at least four of Todd's colleagues -- at-large councilmembers Chris Bell, Gordon Quan, Annise Parker and District G's Keller --do not use city cell phones at all and pay for their work-related calls out of campaign funds and their own pocketbooks.
"To try to keep track of what was related to my law practice and my campaign activity and the city would have just been a nightmare," explains Bell. "So I decided just to avoid the issue altogether and not have a city phone and pay everything either out of my campaign or my personal account."
At-large Councilman Orlando Sanchez does have a city cell phone, and an aide reports that his typical bill over the last six months is approximately $80 per lunar cycle. Sanchez's highest monthly total was $428, dwarfed by Todd's personal best of $904 in June.
City Controller Sylvia Garcia, whose duties representing the entire city are presumably weightier than that of a district councilman, used her city-supplied cell phone sparingly. In six months she has racked up less than 1,000 minutes and $551 in bills.
Brown hardly used his city cell phone at all during the past five months. The mayor's highest bill was $84 in June. In August he made no calls whatsoever.
Asked for a reaction to a councilmember ringing up a $900 cell phone bill in one month, Bell responds, "that would seem to be way above what would be required to carry on a normal month's worth of telephone business."
City Attorney Anthony Hall exclaimed, "Good Lord!" when Todd's cell phone bill was recited to him. "My city phone bill by comparison, and I do use it fairly heavily, runs about $100 a month," explains Hall, a former councilman. Hall says he routinely writes a $100 check to the city every six months to cover private calls made from his phone.
A Houston Press open records request brought forth six months of Todd cell phone bills from Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney's office. Todd was allowed to mark out calls to immediate family. The result left some months' bills looking like CIA memorandums after the censors capped their Magic Markers. The plethora of black lines frosted with Wite-Out icing raised Insider suspicions that Todd's definition of "family" might extend to the human race in general, and certain embarrassing and embarrassed recipients of his calls in particular.
Todd claims he redacted home numbers of councilmembers, staff and personal calls to protect the privacy of all concerned.
The six months covered by those billings were also a period of upheaval in the councilman's life. He and aide George Biggs, a part owner of Prague and Jones Bar downtown, took to serious club-hopping. Biggs, the scion of big-bucks plastic surgeon Tom Biggs, initiated the formerly straitlaced Todd into downtown nightlife and turned him on to electronic dance music.
His 14-year marriage to wife Penny hit the skids as well. Todd filed for divorce June 9. Penny countersued in late August. She has primary custody of the Todds' two sons, one of whom has a hearing disorder. While the divorce filings were largely legal boilerplate, both sides alleged "discord and conflict" as the reason for the split.
Of interest in the case file was a confidential order issued by family court Judge Eva Guzman in response to a request from Todd's lawyer. Guzman barred the public release of any information the case reveals about Waldron, Schneider, and Todd, P.C., Rob's firm. That makes one wonder whether Todd is trying to keep the public from learning about his client list, or perhaps his earnings.
Even before Rob split with his wife in June, the tracks of his cell phone indicate he was on the prowl. Records show Todd called the Keller household on May 12 -- three months after Keller separated from wife Susan and moved out -- for a 44-minute chat. Todd's bills reflect seven calls to the River Oaks residence of Susan Keller's mother -- the place where Susan often stayed -- over a two-day period later in May. Soon after that, Todd made two more calls to the Keller home, followed by calls to Susan's cell phone on May 24. These were the only Keller-related calls among the blizzard of redactions on the bills from April through June. Interestingly, nothing is redacted from the Todd cell phone bills for the period after Todd himself filed for divorce in June.
Asked about the calls to Susan Keller, Todd responded, "I don't recall. It's been some time ago.I'm not going to comment on anything of a personal nature."
Contacted for comment about Todd, Keller responded, "I think it's just sick that he called my mother-in-law's house. Thank God there's a Holy Spirit, because this guy's a nightmare."
(Bert also wanted to clarify that he hasn't dated an 18-year-old country-western singer, as mentioned in last week's Insider, but only spent time with her during a visit with her family.)
The split with Penny also created a problem for Todd when it came time in July to file his campaign contribution and expenditure report for January through July. The report lists Penny Todd as campaign treasurer, but the councilman ordered his aide Alex Thompson to compile the report during working hours in Todd's office at the City Hall Annex. That's an apparent violation of regulations prohibiting the use of city assets for campaign purposes.
Todd says Thompson volunteered to do the report on comp time and that the use of the council office was insignificant.
The aide says, "I just filled in the blanks." Blanks he consistently did not fill in were the ones that read "purpose of expenditure" for withdrawals made from the Todd campaign account. They include payments of $10,460 and $3,470 made directly to the councilman. In addition, Todd charged $14,800 to three credit cards. The dollars may be reimbursements for legitimate campaign functions, but it is impossible to tell from the disclosure report.
Without providing documentation, Todd says the direct payments to him are repayments of old loans he made to his campaign when he first ran for office five years ago. As for the credit card charges, he says they were all related to the campaign or city service. He cites a trip he took to Seattle in spring to study the town's civility laws, information that might really come in handy in his future dealings with Keller.
The July report also documented nearly $7,000 in payments to GOP political consultant Allen Blakemore. Todd contributed $5,000 to the Conservative Republicans of Harris County, a political action committee controlled by westside religious right activist Dr. Steven Hotze. Blakemore is also a paid consultant for Hotze, and the PAC lists its address as Blakemore's office on Richmond.
Todd also gave the Gary Polland-chaired Harris County Republican Party $3,700. Keep in mind the spending spree occurred after Todd had been re-elected last November. He is in his third and final third term and cannot run for council again.
Todd has made no secret of his goal to run for the Precinct 2 County Commissioner seat Jim Fonteno is expected to relinquish in early 2003. Todd leaves City Council in January 2002 and could immediately launch a campaign for the post.
"It's obvious Todd's trying to buy conservative support in his race for commissioner," says a political consultant taking the pulse of the developing county race. "Politically, he's definitely running unless he gets bloodied so bad over this business with Keller's wife."
If he does make the race, perhaps Todd can campaign on the slogan, "A free cell phone in every pot."
It's the kind of party you could expect to attend only in Texas. Top executives of federal offices in the Houston area have been invited to "a barbecue luncheon and shoot-off" Monday, October 30,at the FBI's state-of-the-art gun range in Conroe.
Houston Federal Executive Board director Michael Mason sounded positively breathless in his description of the soiree. Mason invited the execs and a staffer to take advantage of "live fire exercises and simulated exercises." "You may bring your own handgun. A barbecue luncheon, at no cost to you and your guest, will be catered."
Mason's RSVP request was also a bit unconventional.
"In order to provide enough food and ammunition (and FBI Firearms instructors), we need to know if you are bringing your own weapon and what caliber it is."
Let them eat lead!
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.