The saga of Bayou City Enterprises should pose a simple, open-and-shut question:
Did the firm actually do any work for the more than $400,000 in taxpayers' money it has received since it was named as a minority subcontractor on a ticket-collection contract in 1993?
After a two-month audit of Bayou City by his office, City Controller George Greanias has answered that question in the negative, concluding that the firm performed little or no work and recommending the city attorney try to retrieve the money Bayou City was paid.
Unfortunately, that's where things get complicated, raising -- or, more precisely, lowering -- a straightforward matter of good government into a murky political imbroglio.
That's because the three politically connected lawyers who formed Bayou City -- John Davis, Ray Shackelford and Walter Strickland -- have been given every benefit of the doubt in their dispute with Greanias by Mayor Bob Lanier and City Attorney Gene Locke. Since Greanias' office undertook its audit in December, Lanier has consistently defended the firm's right to be a "pass through" -- that is, to essentially be paid for dishing work off to another firm.
Meanwhile, the mayor has offered no support for Greanias as the controller has cautiously edged his way through a political and racial minefield in an effort to do his job. And perhaps what's really torquing Lanier's jaw is the fact that Greanias seems to enjoy so much public support on the issue. So Lanier has turned to Locke in an attempt to discredit the controller -- a tactic he used in 1992 when he and Greanias battled over short-term bonds that Lanier wanted to issue to pay legal claims against the city.
That episode started out as a legitimate philosophical disagreement over the implications of debt financing. Then Lanier unleashed his city attorney at the time, Benjamin Hall, who diverted attention from the nuts and bolts of Lanier's fiscal policy by attacking Greanias' integrity with accusations that the controller was exceeding his authority for political purposes.
When Greanias re-fused to agree to sign the bonds, Hall and Lanier persuaded the City Council to sue the controller. A state appeals court eventually backed Greanias' right not to sign off on the debt. But before it was over, Greanias had spent $120,000 of his own money for legal counsel to defend his right to disagree with Lanier. Only a last-minute compromise to pay two of the claims out of existing funds and Lanier's reluctant decision to put the matter to a public vote defused the controversy.
It was Hall who brokered Bayou City's role as the Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MWDBE) subcontractor in the ticket collections contract given to Municipal Collections Inc., a company started by Lanier cronies. Hall resigned in December, but Lanier apparently is betting that the way out of the Bayou City morass is by having Locke employ the same tactics against Greanias that Hall did three years ago.
In fact, Greanias has been concerned about where the city attorney stands in the Bayou City dispute since Hall held the position. In a December memo to Lanier regarding Bayou City's failure to cooperate with his auditors, Greanias wrote, "Iindicated Iwas willing to give the city's Legal Department an opportunity to respond to this issue in a timely manner. I must now respectfully submit to you that Ibelieve there is a conflict of interest involving the Legal Department in this matter."
Greanias' concerns that the city attorney might not defend him if he were sued by Bayou City have grown since Locke succeeded Hall on January 1. Greanias, according to a series of memos he's swapped with Locke, has been unable to pin the city attorney down for a straight answer on the issue, despite several attempts. On January 18, Locke wrote to Greanias, "Iwill, of course, advise you at the earliest possible date if litigation is initiated and a determination is made that my office is unable to represent you."
Litigation is now likely, but Greanias still hasn't seen evidence that the city attorney will back him up. And following Locke's comments at his February 16 news conference to address Greanias' audit report, perhaps the controller should consider starting a legal defense fund. Locke opened by saying Greanias had issued the report "against my recommendations." He said Greanias had refused a request to allow the city's legal department to interview the controller's auditors, and he suggested that not all the paperwork from Greanias' audit had been turned over to his office. Locke did say he would represent Greanias in a lawsuit against the city by Bayou City -- unless he determines that the controller has engaged in what he termed "intentional and willful acts" of misconduct.
The suggestion that Greanias may have done so comes not from any palpable evidence that Locke is aware of, but from Shackelford and Davis, who is an uncle of City Councilman Judson Robinson III and the husband of Algenita Scott-Davis, a Texas Commerce Bank official who served as a Lanier appointee to the city's Planning Commission. Davis and Shackelford argue that their rights have been violated because Greanias, the city's bill payer, has no authority to examine what a subcontractor in the city's MWDBE program does in exchange for taxpayer money.
"I'm not sure I would agree that the controller has been elected to make factual determinations on who is a certified MWDBE, who should be certified and who should not," Locke said.
Though Bayou City's MWDBE certification is not at issue, Locke said he is nonetheless conducting a "factual investigation" of his own into Greanias' audit.
"Just good, sensible lawyering," he explained.
That may be so, but Locke's initial moves suggest he isn't going to make it easy for Greanias or his staff .
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Consider the city attorney's charge that Greanias denied him access to the auditors. According to a Greanias aide, the controller had agreed to allow Locke's staff to meet with the auditors, only to have the city attorney revise his request and demand one-on-one meetings with each auditor. And although Locke has not committed his office to represent those "potential witnesses," as he called them, in litigation against the city, he initially refused to allow them to have their own attorneys present during the interviews. He has since relented on that issue.
Somewhere behind all the political machinations is a matter of good public policy -- namely whether a firm that took $400,000 under the city's MWDBE program should be expected to work for it. But as he did three years ago when Greanias called the debt for legal claims into question, Lanier has shrouded the core issue by waging a personal war with George Greanias.
Or can it be that Locke and Lanier -- who never hesitates to remind people that he's also a lawyer -- actually believe that Bayou City has a legitimate legal claim against the city? Or that the firm even relishes the idea of defending its role in the contract in court? After all, if Bayou City is a legitimate firm doing legitimate work, why couldn't it provide auditors with such basic business documentation as tax returns, payroll and other expense accounts and a record of the notices they were in charge of mailing out?
With the Bayou City saga apparently headed to court, the city's other ticket-collection contract, the one Bayou City doesn't have a piece of, is set to expire early this summer. The Municipal Courts Department is preparing to award a new contract later this spring, and a few weeks ago it conducted a "pre-bid conference" for those interested in making a pitch for it. Among those in attendance was John Davis of Bayou City Enterprises.