Lois Gibson is a longtime portrait painter in Houston, but many of her best subjects are hijackers, rapists and other criminals. Lois, you see, makes composite sketches of bad guys on the lam for her bosses at the Houston Police Department. Her art is more often tacked to substation and post office bulletin boards than found hanging in art galleries, offices or homes.
That changed when Gibson, 49, elevated her artistic aim in 1996 and set her brush to work on a surprise tribute to then-mayor Bob Lanier. Gerald Hines Interests commissioned her for $8,000 to do a portrait of the mayor, which was based on a photograph and took 53 hours of her off-duty time to complete.
Hines in turn billed the city from the taxpayer-funded account for 1200 Travis, the downtown skyscraper renovated under Hines's management as the new Houston police headquarters. While a spokeswoman for Hines claims city officials ordered the painting, City Council was never told about it, and apparently no city official put any approval in writing.
It's not certain who directed the creation of the painting, but the main suspects are former police chief and current appellate judge Sam Nuchia and former first lady Elyse Lanier. The rationale for the artwork was that the new police headquarters would be named after Lanier and would need a classy painting of Hizzoner.
Gibson's 39-by-39-inch canvas, framed in gold, certainly filled the bill. The portrait displays a smiling, younger-looking Lanier sitting at a desk with his hands clasped, against a backdrop of a cloud-dappled city skyline.
"It's an honest, artistic effort," gushes Gibson. "When you see it, imagine you're Bob Lanier, and you'll think, 'How nice!' It looks like him, and it's grand." It also comes with a warranty from the artist that the colors will not fade for 1,000 years.
Grand and near-immortal or not, Gibson's painting now hangs not in the police headquarters, and not even in the public works edifice at 611 Walker that was named for Lanier. Instead, it resides in a safe in the office of the city inspector general at the old 61 Reisner police station -- one more piece of evidence in the sprawling probe of misuse of funds by the Lanier-era public works bureaucracy. So far, four city officials have been indicted for a range of misdemeanors alleging they illegally shunted money from one city contract to another by forging documents or evading bid regulations.
Inspector General and Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier says the painting transaction was the object of a criminal investigation, which was dropped only because the statute of limitations had expired on potential crimes. He would not specify the possible offenses, or reveal who was suspected of committing them, or even who commissioned the painting. He's not even sure what will happen to the painting.
"We're just kind of holding this thing till someone comes and gets it," says Oettmeier, who admits he was flabbergasted when he first learned about it. "We couldn't believe it when we saw it," chuckles the inspector general. "We thought, 'Oh, my God, where is this investigation going to go?' "
According to a former Lanier official, it was then-police chief Nuchia who came up with the idea in 1995 to name the police headquarters for Mayor Bob and commission a painting. At the time, says this source, Elyse Lanier was also on the bandwagon. "Nuchia just kept pushing on it, and Elyse was really in favor of it.... She was just tickled to death about the picture. She looked at it and thought it was a pretty good portrayal of Bob."
But the former mayor says he was adamant that the police building not bear his name. At the time, police union officials criticized the mayor for failing to back big officer pay raises. "We could just see protests down at the police building from cops saying, 'We don't want it named after Lanier 'cause he didn't give us a big pay raise,' " explains that former administration official.
Suddenly Gibson's portrait had no place to hang. For a while, she kept it in her own home, on the wall of her bedroom, according to a City Hall source. The artist confirms that Hines officials asked her to keep it in storage. Once investigators learned of its existence, Oettmeier took custody of the deluxe mug of Mayor Bob and stowed it in his safe.
Contacted at the Laniers' Huntingdon apartment, Elyse Lanier denied having anything to do with commissioning the painting. She said she had never seen the painting, didn't know the artist and was not even sure it was ever completed.
Her claim not to know the artist is questioned by Gibson. A year after painting the mayor, Gibson and the first lady consulted for a very different kind of portrait. Elyse Lanier had been robbed of a bag containing nearly $300,000 in jewelry at a New York-area airport.
"I met her while I did the sketch [of the suspect]," recalls Gibson. "Elyse told me what he looked like. Turns out a guy had been arrested for the same thing, and boy, he looked just like [my sketch]. They showed a photo spread to the witnesses, including Elyse, and she picked him out. They got him in one day."
Gibson also has an artistic connection to her former boss Nuchia. She says she painted a portrait of Nuchia which now hangs in his home. She did not reveal how much Nuchia paid her. (Justice Nuchia traded calls with the Insider but was ultimately unavailable for comment.) Gibson also maintains a nice side business painting the wives and children of police officers.
Former mayor Lanier says he did not know about the portrait until contacted by the Insider and would not have approved the expenditure if he had been asked. On the other hand, Lanier seemed unimpressed by its cost and saw nothing wrong with a city employee being paid to do it on her own time. He compared Gibson's contract to that of a police officer who is allowed to work for private employers while off duty. The mayor also argued that contingency expenditures are routinely made on city projects without City Council approval.
City ordinance forbids a municipal employee from contracting with the city, but it says nothing concerning whether a city employee can be a subcontractor, as Gibson was to Hines for the painting. Inspector General Oettmeier concedes there are questions concerning Gibson's hiring that are outside the scope of his investigation. To the observation that subcontracting could cause a city employee to give preferential service to the private employer, Oettmeier says, "Legally, I think there's a difference between accepting a check from the city versus accepting a check from a [private] employer. It's a small point, but I still agree with you in terms of the ethical question."
When contacted by the Insider, Gibson expressed fear that talking to the media might result in losing her job. "I'm needed in the city," she declared. "How many artists do they have who do the composites? There's only one, and it's me. People need me to fight crime."
She also was concerned that a story would spoil a future surprise unveiling of her work for Lanier.
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"I want to live to see the day that Bob Lanier sees it in person," said the painter, "so I can see him see it, because then he will feel appreciated."
Just how appreciated the work will be is questionable. Lanier says he would have aborted Gibson's contract had he known about it. He also is not enthusiastic about the fact that his image was rendered by a crime artist.
"This is not said to be critical of anybody, but I've had plenty of opportunities to have my picture painted," allows Bob, "and I would not have chosen the criminal composite file."
Let the Insider draw on your news tips. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houston press.com.