Back in 1998 Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau comptroller Tony Marquez was asked why the agency's annual report didn't include detailed figures on income and expenditures.
The 42-year-old Marquez, who had just been hired at $75,000 a year to help clean up a legacy of mismanagement and questionable spending by the previous regime of president "Fast" Eddie Webster, replied that the bureau had never included such details in its reports. As it turns out, he may have had a better reason than tradition to hold the agency's financial cards close to his vest.
Jordy Tollett, the city convention center chief, was named president of the agency following Webster's forced departure. Tollett, the longest serving of the current city department heads, got his start in the tourism-convention biz as a teenage roustabout and general-purpose gofer for Astrodome emperor Judge Roy Hofheinz. Over the years he has smelled out many a fishy deal for his employers, and even survived his own media-scorching for entertaining convention center clients at Rick's topless club.
Last fall Tollett noted several oddities on the list of expenditures made from the bureau membership fund, a half-million-dollar account financed by contributions from hotels, restaurants, taxicab companies and other businesses involved in the hospitality industry.
His street-smart nose began twitching over purchases from the fund at a camera shop, expenses for an unexplained trip to Florida and payments for cable television. He called in comptroller Marquez.
"I just told him I thought there were some questionable things and could he explain them," recalls Tollett. After waiting several days and getting no answers, Tollett sent Marquez packing.
"We'd better part ways because I don't trust you, and I can't have my comptroller being someone I don't have ultimate trust in," Tollett says he told Marquez. When the comptroller asked for 30 days, Tollett slammed the door. "I said, 'I don't need you here now -- you can go.' "
(Marquez did not return Insider calls for comment to his League City home, Starfleet Yachts, where his wife works, or the Radisson Suite Astrodome Hotel, where he was hired as general manager after leaving the bureau.)
At first, Tollett says, he considered the problems minor and was willing to allow Marquez to repay the disputed expenditures without calling in law enforcement authorities. But after Marquez departed, Tollett came across several vouchers earmarked as computer supplies, each made out for approximately $5,600 to Manor Services.
"I had confronted him on little bitty things that looked strange to me," says Tollett, "and then I found it was bigger." An annual audit by agency accountant KPMG had turned up no discrepancies, but the different stylings on the checks to Manor troubled Tollett. He notified the accounting firm and went to the bank where the checks had been deposited.
Tollett says bank officials confirmed that Marquez was the depositor, and the checks were payable to Manor Care Services, a Webster-area nursing home. According to Tollett, a Dallas supervisor for the chain later verified that Marquez's mother lived at the home.
At that point, Tollett says, KPMG conducted an internal audit of the membership fund. He forwarded the results to the Harris County district attorney's office for a criminal investigation.
Maria McAnulty, the D.A.'s major fraud division chief, says she is close to wrapping up the probe into Marquez's alleged misuse of the funds. Asked whether the comptroller spent agency money on his mom's nursing home bills, she responds, "Among other things. And that's why we're still working on it. There are other ways that he diverted funds. And so we've got a few more subpoenas out, and we're waiting on the response. And then I'll be ready to go."
McAnulty is uncertain whether others were involved. "Hard to tell till we get a response on the subpoenas and finish looking at all the information," she says. She predicts the investigation will be completed and ready for grand jury review by the end of July.
Tollett says convention and visitor bureau attorneys had been negotiating with Marquez initially to make restitution, but that the discovery of the nursing home payments hardened Tollett's attitude and made inevitable a referral of the case to the district attorney.
"I don't feel sorry for him one iota," comments Tollett, who still expressed sympathy for the Marquez family. "I think whatever he gets he very much deserves."
As for the misappropriated funds, he shakes his head. "What makes people do that, I have no idea."
Since Tollett detected what the agency's paid accountants failed to discover, perhaps Mayor Lee Brown should consider assigning him to go sniffing through the rest of the city bureaucracy's expenditure reports. Never know what he might find.
Last year Texas Printing's Cassandra Washington was on a roll. As the only black female print shop owner in Houston, armed with a new million-dollar high-capacity color press, she was gobbling up the lucrative political market for signs and brochures, particularly with Democratic officeholders.
Then disaster struck. Washington and her firm got in a dispute with an AFL-CIO printers union, which challenged the membership status of some of her workers and the labor conditions at Washington's shop at 4715 Main.
Union leaders then canceled Texas Printing's license to use a union label, or "bug," on its products. That in turn threatened Washington's livelihood, since most Democratic politicos will not do business with a shop that cannot print the bug -- union certification -- on its signs, bumper stickers and brochures.
After the union officials refused to reconsider their actions, Washington filed a federal lawsuit last February challenging the validity of the license revocation. She claims two of the officials involved are workers in rival print shops and that they harassed her and her employees during work hours. The owner accused the union of refusing to allow her to appeal the cancellation of the union bug license and of repeatedly making false accusations.
Allied Printing Trades Council President Roberta Jo Gibson, whose organization pulled the bug from Texas Printing, declines comment on the controversy, citing the lawsuit.
While the federal litigation moved forward, Washington says, union officials began pressuring her clients, including Congressman Ken Bentsen, to cancel their business with her. She claims that a large printing contract for Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign was scuttled.
Backed to the wall, Washington retaliated, bombarding Houston political consultants and politicians with a string of fiery manifestos attacking the unions. One included a list of mass murderers ranging from Charles Manson to Son of Sam, followed by the headline "Have one thing in common, the right to an appeal." Another featured a picture of a lynched black man and a Confederate flag, followed by the tag "Just as their ancestors were, Texas Printing Inc. was denied the right to an appeal."
"My mail piece simply meant this," explains Washington. "You can do some of the most heinous crimes, and in America you get an appeal. We were denied due process to contest their false claims."
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She also claims racism is a motivating factor in the confrontation. "We are African-American; the three people who did this were white, and the people we tried to appeal to were white. No one would listen to us."
The tactics paid off. Last week Washington signed an agreement with another union, the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades, which will provide her with a bug for her shop. Meanwhile, AFL-CIO union leaders appealed to her to stop the incendiary mailers and drop her federal suit.
"Here's your own medicine," chortles Washington. "That's what union folk do -- act a fool in public. Since I started to do this campaign, people have started to pay attention." Washington says she has no plans to drop the suit now pending in Judge David Hittner's court. It lists defendants as the Allied Printing Trades Council, the Graphics Communications Union and the Communications Workers of America. The suit originally sought restoration of the union label. It is now being rewritten to ask for damages incurred to Texas Printing this past year, which the owner estimates at more than $3 million.
It appears Ms. Washington will be bugging her union adversaries for some time to come.