At first glance, 39-year-old cosmetics specialist Melony Ann Robbins's appearance last month before federal magistrate Nancy Johnson seemed an insignificant skirmish in the government's war on drugs. Robbins, a former assistant at a Bellaire skin care clinic, pleaded not guilty to ten counts of exploiting her position to write false prescriptions for controlled substances using the clinic director's name and drug registration number without the physician's knowledge. But when Johnson set Robbins's bond at $25,000, a familiar Houston political figure attempted to sign for it.
Steven Miles Stockman, the 41-year-old hyperconservative former GOP congressman from Friendswood, had accompanied Robbins and her attorney to court. Her lawyer was also a well-known Republican -- Harris County GOP party chairman Gary Polland, a close ally of Stockman's during his one term in office from 1994 to 1996.
Before Stockman could spring Robbins, U.S. Assistant Attorney Samuel Lewis lodged an objection. Stockman could not pay the bail, Lewis told the magistrate, because he was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. After a hasty conference, Robbins's sister Dawn Johnson signed for the bond.
"I wouldn't make it unless there was merit to it," Lewis explained later when asked about his on-the-record court comment that Stockman was a co-conspirator. "It's in the investigation stage, so I cannot go any further than that."
The case began last year when Dr. Christy Saller, the medical director of Lasers for Skin Restoration on Bellaire Boulevard, realized drugs were missing from her clinic. Saller confronted Robbins, who had been hired six months earlier after presenting an impressive résumé, including recommendations from several area physicians and Stockman.
After initially claiming she knew nothing about the missing drugs, Robbins eventually signed witnessed admissions that she had removed a virtual pharmacopoeia of controlled substances from the clinic, including $1,300 worth of Botox. That drug is a greatly diluted compound using the Bochilinum food poisoning bacteria toxin, and is injected into the skin around the eyes and forehead to paralyze nerves and relax wrinkles.
Robbins also owned up to taking $490 worth of collagen and smaller amounts of Demerol. She also admitted a longtime substance abuse problem and agreed to go into rehab. Robbins pledged to make restitution for $2,463 in missing drugs to the clinic but never did.
Saller eventually called in Bellaire police, who forwarded the case to the Harris County district attorney. At that point federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents launched an investigation that uncovered a series of prescriptions allegedly signed by Robbins and filled without Saller's knowledge.
The grand jury indictment against Robbins issued last month cites ten instances in which she fraudulently used Saller's DEA registration number to obtain a variety of controlled drugs, including Demerol, Fentanyl, diazepam, Versed and Ambien, from a Clear Lake-area Walgreens pharmacy.
While the indictment does not mention Stockman by name, federal sources say an additional indictment naming him may be forthcoming before Robbins's July 16 trial date in Judge Melinda Harmon's court.
The DEA agent in charge of the case, Molly Callahan, declined comment on the probe.
Callahan and another agent recently visited Saller's clinic and obtained the originals of Stockman's patient records to compare samples of his handwriting with the script for prescriptions for controlled substances obtained at the same Walgreens listed in Robbins's indictment. According to Saller, she looked at these prescriptions, including one for a quantity of the painkiller Vicodin, and believed her name had been forged on them.
Contacted at her current job answering phones at a Pasadena transitional center, Robbins refused to discuss her case or her relationship to Stockman. She then hung up.
Stockman, who did not return Insider phone inquiries, is married to a Johnson Space Center staffer, Patti Stockman.
Robbins apparently met Stockman several years ago when she worked as an assistant to Dr. Abdel Fustok, who has an office in the Galleria area but also practices in Clear Lake. Robbins was then in charge of providing drug injections for the doctor's patients who stayed at a motel next to St. John Hospital. Robbins struck up a friendship with the ex-congressman and began frequenting Stockman's circle, centered on his home and political office on Winchester Court in Friendswood.
Stockman was a patient at the Bellaire clinic last spring at the same time Robbins was Saller's assistant. He frequented the clinic in April and May of last year.
The Robbins-Stockman nexus also has a political dimension. She has described herself to co-workers as Stockman's campaign manager for an upcoming run for the Texas Railroad Commission next spring. She claimed she has already raised thousands of dollars for the next Stockman political crusade. According to family sources, Robbins bragged that Stockman had paid her sizable commissions on money contributed by local corporate political action committees to Stockman's campaign fund.
(In the interest of full disclosure, The Insider must report that he and Steve Stockman are well acquainted. After a June 1996 visit by Tim Fleck and photographer Nicole Frugé to Stockman's Friendswood residence to investigate a campaign consultancy business operating on premises, the congressman unsuccessfully attempted to file trespassing charges against Fleck. As a result of statements made by Stockman, Fleck filed a libel suit against Stockman. The suit was later dropped.)
Since Polland is a political ally of Stockman's and chairman of the county GOP, his role in representing Robbins would seem to raise conflict-of-interest issues, since the feds clearly want Robbins to cooperate in building the case against Stockman. Asked about that aspect of the investigation, prosecutor Lewis replied, "That would certainly be a good question to ask Mr. Polland."
Get Your Political Salsa, Extra Hot!
Houston Hispanic politics have always seemed a little spicier, with a more personal edge than black and Anglo counterparts. The escalating rhetoric surrounding the race for the eastside District I seat indicates nothing has changed.
District I incumbent John Castillo and District H's Gabriel Vasquez, two of council's three Hispanic members, are trying to throw up a roadblock to the ambitions of Mayor Lee Brown's staffer Carol Alvarado, who is running to replace the term-limited Castillo.
Vasquez is calling on Alvarado to jettison her campaign treasurer, Port of Houston chairman Jim Edmonds, because one of her areas of responsibility at City Hall is the port.
"Can you imagine, as her treasurer, Jim approaching architects and engineers, legal consultants, and people who do business with the port and asking them to contribute to Carol Alvarado's campaign?" says Vasquez. "To me, that's a conflict of interest. To me, it's unethical. I think Jim should resign from her campaign."
Vasquez also sees a conflict in Alvarado's work at City Hall for Brown and her campaign for office, though he isn't calling for her resignation from the administration -- yet.
The new feuding is all too reminiscent of the bitter struggle between former councilman and current federal prisoner Ben Reyes and his followers versus estranged protégé Al Luna and political consultant Marc Campos in the late '70s and '80s. Recently, new battle lines formed between Vasquez against State Senator Mario Gallegos, Campos and a posse of Houston Hispanic state reps.
Vasquez ran for council over the Gallegos's bloc's opposition and triumphed, though not without a particularly nasty incident where he and state Rep Jessica Farrar cussed each other out in a parking lot. Now Gabe and Castillo are endorsing District I candidate Al Flores against Alvarado, and tempers around town are edging toward a steady boil.
Campos, a close friend of Alvarado's and a consultant to Gallegos, claims Vasquez is a power freak who won't stop till he assumes Reyes's old position as El Jefe.
To the charge of power grabbing, Vasquez has a ready comeback. "I think they're just looking in a mirror and seeing themselves," he replies coolly.
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Vasquez's call for Edmonds to resign from the Alvarado campaign draws a laugh from Campos. "Has he ever heard of Ned Holmes?" retorts the consultant, referring to Edmonds's predecessor as port chair who routinely served as campaign finance chair for a number of city officials.
Alvarado says she's proud to have Edmonds supporting her and has no plans to ask him to resign. She adds she will be taking a leave of absence from her City Hall post to campaign after Labor Day. Alvarado professes surprise that Vasquez and Castillo would be meddling in another council contest.
Campos is not quite so diplomatic. "Gabe is sick, man," says Campos. "Gabe and Castillo are both lying buddies. There's such a thing as a liar's club, and they're in it."
Isn't it reassuring to know that some things haven't changed in the new millennium?