You can bet Rockets owner Les Alexander would have rather been just about anywhere but Houston last weekend, facing off in the court-ordered mediation of a lawsuit accusing him of breaking an arena referendum promise to minorities. The litigation also has put two state legislators in uncomfortable positions.
As previously detailed by The Insider (see "Rocket Rodney," March 6 and "Rockets Court Date," April 10), Alexander signed an agreement in 2000 pledging that minority, women and disadvantaged business enterprises would receive at least 30 percent of revenues in the construction and operation of the new basketball arena. In exchange, leaders of the NAACP, the Urban League and the Baptist Ministers Association, among others, pledged their support for the ballot measure approving the construction of the Rockets' new home.
After the franchise insisted on keeping the arena's food vending outlets, minority leaders protested they were getting shortchanged. Former city attorney Benjamin Hall filed a floridly worded lawsuit on their behalf in state court.
One particularly pungent passage declares that "Alexander, apparently recognizing the highly questionable nature of his economic apartheid approach in the new Arena, has found two minority leaders to panhandle his ridiculous approach. Alexander's 'servants-only-proposal' for minorities, spoken from the lips of these respected community leaders, is no more convincing than out of Alexander's own mouth."
He was referring to state Senator Rodney Ellis and Sylvester Turner, the state representative and Houston mayoral candidate, respectively. Turner's law firm represents the team, and he has played a limited role as Alexander's attorney in the dispute.
"I do not have a business interest in any of this," says Turner. "The Rockets asked me to step in once there was some discussion, to see if I could help facilitate this whole deal."
Turner says he's met with a few people and attended a few meetings. He's tied up in Austin for the next 30 days as a key arbiter of state budget appropriations and says, "whether I will become more involved will depend pretty much on my schedule."
The lawsuit puts Turner in an awkward position, since some of his key mayoral supporters are among those suing the Rockets. Turner hopes they'll understand he's just making a living.
"I've been an elected official since 1989, and I've represented people on the plaintiff as well as the defense side. If not, I couldn't eat."
He says he doesn't believe anyone will have a problem with him representing the Rockets "as long as my cards are up front and I'm not trying to advance my personal interest at the expense of their legitimate interest."
Ellis, a paid consultant for the Rockets, oversees the minority hiring component of the arena deal. He has also been mentioned as a possible minority participant in the stadium operations.
Billy Burge, chair of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, says the Rockets' hiring of two of the most prominent minority politicians in the city creates the appearance of trying to purchase influence.
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"We told Rodney he was walking into a hornet's nest," says Burge. "And I think it's a political blunder for the Rockets to go at it in this way. I think it sends the wrong signals to the community."
At press time, mediation talks were continuing between the Rockets, including Alexander, and the signatories to the arena pact. Asked whether he was seeking an amicable settlement for his clients, attorney Hall chuckled.
"I'm a warrior. People don't hire me for peace. They hire me for killing."
Perhaps he should try out for that court-enforcer role that the team so desperately needs filled next season. -- Tim Fleck