It was the start of a new year and a good time for cleaning house. That's what the Glen Cairne Community Association thought, anyway, when it contracted with a north Houston firm to sweep the debris from the streets around its 2,650 homes, located 20 miles northwest of downtown Houston.
And so on January 6 and 7, streets were duly swept throughout the community of $60,000 to $100,000 homes. Unfortunately the sweeper force left the trash in a vacant lot next door to, and owned by, the Progressive Baptist Church. Which was something the church's pastor, the Reverend Robert Marshall, didn't like at all. He confronted the sweepers. "They told me who told them to dump it there, and they did not want to move it. They were very adamant about not moving it because they were told to put it there."
The preacher called the cops.
Soon, the Houston Police Department was on the scene issuing citations. Roger Haseman, chief of the environmental unit of the Harris County district attorney's office, says that photos of the trash show that Marshall had plenty of cause to complain, and that the trash piles had quickly grown higher than nearby fences.
Before dark, the debris was moved to property owned by the civic association and left there for another 24 hours before it was carted off to a dump. But that was far from the end of it.
Next thing you know, Ransom and Larry Daly, who operate Association and Community Management Professionals Inc., previously known as ACMP Inc. -- as well as the street sweepers they hired -- are charged with illegal dumping, transporting street litter and allowing it to be dumped, a Class A misdemeanor to be tried in county court. Maximum punishment is a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. The trial, originally set for Monday, was postponed until October 23.
But civil attorney Fred Johnson, who is representing the Chubb Insurance Group, a Dallas-based insurance giant, and by way of that, the two Daly brothers, says a simple mistake has been blown way out of proportion and that the D.A.'s environmental unit is pushing the criminal charges only as a way of extracting money from his client's deep corporate pockets.
Civic association president Ken Richardson says that the organization paid the Dalys $2,000 for the cleanup. He says that he and his association are satisfied with the work of the Dalys and their men. He is mystified by the resulting litigation.
"The association has not been involved," he says. "To be honest, I don't even know where it was dumped.
"After they finished the work, the neighborhood looked great, but if they did something they weren't supposed to have done, I guess it didn't finish well; I guess it didn't turn out. I do understand that they cleaned up the mess quickly."
The D.A.'s office's Haseman is puzzled by Chubb's interest in the case. The company's insured is not the two Daly brothers, but the Glen Cairne Community Association that hired them.
But Johnson says that the answer is simple. "Chubb believes that under circumstances like this, one where criminal charges are brought against the insured under the policy, they will defend."
"[The D.A.'s office] devised a plea proposal," Johnson says. Chubb would pay between $3,000 to $5,000 toward a city project to clean up a dump containing old tires, $3,000 to the City of Houston Supplemental Environmental Projects Fund and $1,000 on each count against the corporate defendant, the Dalys' company.
Johnson and his clients balked. It amounted to nearly $10,000 out of Chubb's pocket on what in their opinion amounted to a misdemeanor dumping case.
Then, the insurance defense attorney says, things began to get really nasty. He asserts that prosecutors are using the threat of a grand jury investigation as leverage against his client and the Dalys, claiming that the two men are committing insurance fraud because of the 1998 name change of the corporation from ACMP to Association and Community Management Professionals.
"Where is the fraud?" Johnson says. "Chubb is aware of the situation and believes that they are entitled to a defense."
"She began telling me that she wanted to see documents related to their insurance coverage, and I asked her what that had to do with an illegal dumping case," he says. "She suggested that there was insurance fraud going on. Her attitude was very strident, very confrontational.
"I talked to Chubb, and they said that these guys were entitled to a defense [since the community association had named them on their policy]," Johnson says.
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"She didn't find that at all satisfactory. She wanted the name of Chubb's corporate counsel, the name of the adjuster and all of the documents. It was a threat."
Chubb spokesperson Barbara Brown Eddy declined comment to the Houston Press. Prosecutor Smith was out of town on vacation. Haseman defends the D.A.'s interest in the case and the prosecutors' interest in what would otherwise be a routine dumping violation.
"We just thought that we had better take a look at these guys. They hadn't done the right thing in the first place," he says. "We've got three charges, and we already have to dismiss one of them because it is on the corporation, and we can't charge the corporation because it doesn't exist anymore."
To a degree, though, the state of Texas has already exacted its pound of flesh from the case. Each of the street sweepers was fined $100 plus community service.