The administration of Mayor Lee P. Brown has never been renowned for its smooth operations or operators, but the ride is really getting bumpy as the clock runs down on the mayor's third and final term. Nothing indicates that so much as its recent foibles in the realm of high technology.
In their push to award a $9.5 million lowbrow Internet-access software system to a favored vendor, Brown's administrators apparently fooled Internet giant Microsoft about the project's scope. With Bill Gates's minions on the sidelines, Unisys-backed Internet Access Technologies (IAT) wound up as the only bidder, gaining approval in a narrow 8-7 council vote.
Microsoft officials told councilmembers in the weeks after the vote that recently departed city chief information officer Denny Piper deceived them into thinking the project simply involved library users -- not the entire city workforce.
"They got caught with their pants down," says Councilmember Annise Parker, who met with the Microsofties. "They indicated they would have paid a lot more attention had they known this involved city business and not just free software in the library."
Councilman Bruce Tatro charges that Piper all but awarded the contract to IAT by putting specifications in the request for proposals (RFP) that could be met by only that firm. He says he has turned over documentation to the Harris County district attorney's office concerning possible violations of state bid laws.
"The RFP was tailored so that your initials almost had to be IAT," chuckles Tatro. "So you got Denny Piper running block and tackle, and telling Microsoft it didn't need to bother to respond."
It seems Brown and company also pulled a fast one last year by cutting a fat $210,000 technology consulting contract for the now-tottering accounting firm Arthur Andersen, a deal that Brown never even brought to council for a vote. Instead, the mayor's staff went through the Texas Procurement Center, a clearing house routinely used by municipalities to purchase computer equipment. City Council had earlier set a $30 million ceiling on expenditures through the center. But some members now say they never envisioned it would be used to slide consulting contracts around council, particularly one involving a former and future city official.
Piper denies showing any favoritism toward IAT, and says the scope of the project was clearly spelled out in the RFP. "I talk to Microsoft all the time about operating systems, so I'm not sure about being misled. I don't understand them saying that, and it's not true."
Arthur Andersen's point man on the project was none other than Richard Lewis, a former city deputy chief administrative officer who previously directed finance and administration. He left the city in November 2000 and scooted out the revolving door ahead of a new city ordinance that prohibited former city officials from doing business with the city for a year after their departure. Lewis immediately jumped on board the accounting firm and began working the city for contracts.
Lewis helped the firm snag that $210,000 consulting deal and worked with Piper to compile a strategic information-technology plan for the city. Then Andersen's Enron-related troubles escalated.
"On March 14, I saw the handwriting on the wall when the Justice Department opened a sealed indictment against the firm," recalls Lewis. "Arthur Andersen became radioactive at ground zero, and all of my clients were government clients, and there wasn't any way I was going to ask anyone to hire us."
However, the city was interested in hiring Lewis back. With Brown a lame duck, applicants are not exactly beating a path to the mayor's door. Lewis immediately became a front-runner to take over as Houston parks director, a job vacated by Oliver Spellman when he became Brown's chief of staff.
The picture changed when Piper unexpectedly resigned as technology chief in May, shortly before the council vote on the IAT contract. Since Piper had pushed the new computer system by promising to produce substantial savings, his quick exit to California both angered and puzzled councilmembers. The mayor's proposal to have Lewis replace Piper passed council last week in a 12-3 vote.
Councilman Carroll Robinson, chair of the Information and Technology Committee, says he was unaware of the city's contract with Arthur Andersen when he voted to hire Lewis.
"If they did that, I think they are going to have some serious problems," warns Robinson. "If I had known this, I damn sure wouldn't have voted [for Lewis] because this goes to the same problem people keep talking about: 'Tell us stuff and stop running backdoor dumb traps on people!' "
Parker was amazed that the deal got past council scrutiny. "That just boggles the mind," she says. "I hope it's not the case. It's not the Arthur Andersen and Richard Lewis connection that bothers me. It's the large amount of money that could be spent without council approval."
Lewis's boss, Don Hollingsworth, is also departing, expected to be replaced by Police Chief C.O. Bradford. It's another example of the self-cannibalization of the administration as its time in power dwindles. For anyone out there who would like to run a city department during the last months of Lee Brown: Freshen up those résumés and drop 'em off pronto on the third floor of City Hall.
State Representative Sylvester Turner was all over the recently concluded state Democratic convention in El Paso, leaving no doubts that he's gearing up for another Houston mayoral race. Turner lost a close, mud-smeared runoff to Bob Lanier in 1991 and then waged war with a libel suit against Channel 13 and investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino. Buttons worn by his supporters in El Paso proclaimed "It's Turner's Time" and featured a clock emblem with "2003."
Although many political observers assumed that the bad publicity Turner received during the libel trial and long-ago campaign made another mayoral bid unlikely, Harris County Democratic chair Sue Schechter begs to differ.
"I rate his chances very good," says Schechter. "I've done a jillion events [with Turner] and the crowds love him. On their feet and wild about him. On a bus trip to a legislative session, he had everybody up with ovation after ovation. He was just fantastic."
One crowd that isn't giving Sly ovations is the folks at the State Bar of Texas. It issued a public reprimand to the lawyer late last year and published the details in the May issue of its journal. A bar grievance committee found that a woman had paid Turner $1,000 to be her divorce attorney, but he didn't communicate with her about the case or trial date, and didn't even show up in court to represent her. A judge granted the divorce and issued a default judgment against her -- but Turner didn't tell his client about that either. He was ordered to pay the woman $1,543.
Before running for mayor again, maybe Turner needs to clean his clock.
Blast from the Past
The national news coverage of the bizarre court maneuvers of so-called 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui briefly focused last week on Houston attorney Charles Freeman. Reports described him as a Muslim lawyer and adviser to the man charged in the September 11 conspiracy. They failed to note that Freeman has some life experiences that might be of use in defending the alleged terrorist.
In 1967, Freeman was one of five Texas Southern University student activists charged with homicide in the shooting death of Houston police officer Louis Kuba during a TSU campus riot. Police claimed they were fired on from the dormitories. Students claimed it was a police riot and that the officers fired on the dorms and trashed the rooms.
The bullet that killed the officer apparently came from another policeman's gun. However, the group was charged with murder under a wide-ranging Texas law passed during the unrest of the '60s. It made participants in a riot responsible for any illegal actions that occur during the incident.
That parallels Moussaoui's situation -- he was already arrested and in a jail cell when the hijacked planes hit their targets on September 11. He faces the death penalty for his alleged role in the planning of the attacks. A judge has ruled that Freeman cannot be his attorney because he is not licensed to practice law in Virginia.
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SHOW ME HOW
In the TSU situation, only Freeman was tried on murder charges. That 1968 proceeding in Victoria ended in a mistrial and the state eventually dropped all charges. Freeman went on to law school and a career as a lawyer in the Harris County criminal courts. It will likely take a feat of courtroom wizardry to produce the same result for Moussaoui.
Forget Me Not
In our exploration last week of rising Asian-American political clout in Houston, The Insider somehow neglected to cite Jay Aiyer, the first Indian-American to sit on the Houston Community College Board. Aiyer, a former chief of staff for Mayor Brown, was appointed to the board last year. He and another trustee automatically received full terms when they faced no opponents last fall.
Also, a tip of the hat to paralegal Andrew Tran. The Vietnamese-American is the Democratic candidate facing incumbent Talmadge Heflin for the position of state representative District 149 in Harris County.