Apex National Insurance Company executive Lutfi Hassan was just oozing holiday spirit last month, after City Council awarded his joint venture group an airport insurance contract worth $6.3 million. Hassan decided to gift Mayor Lee Brown, chief administrative officer Al Haines and several councilmembers with 16-place, 85-piece settings of garish, gold-plated, made-in-China "American Chippendale" flatware. One recipient's spouse described it as "uglier than hell."
Since each Lutfi gift bore a price tag of $200, it was also illegal. State law prohibits any elected official from accepting a freebie worth more than $50.
Hassan is a longtime supporter of Mayor Brown's and accompanied Hizzoner last year on Asian and African trade junkets. In late 1997 Hassan also served on a mayoral transition committee overseeing airport operations, the same area he later mined for the insurance contract.
The flatware flap first came to light when the HOUSNITCH whistle-blower Web page reported that Brown and some staffers had been the recipients of Lutfi's largesse. Hassan later sent councilmembers another barrage of gifts that included a vase and crystal mantel clocks, though it's not clear that those items cost more than the $50 state limit.
Mayoral spokesman Don Payne says his boss immediately recognized the gifts as inappropriate and possibly illegal. Brown returned his and Haines's packages to Hassan.
However, the reaction of the Council recipients varied.
Councilman Orlando Sanchez voted against Hassan's contract and did not receive a package. By coincidence, late last year he attended a Texas Attorney General's conference on the subject of the state law banning gifts to elected officials.
"Would I accept flatware?" muses Sanchez. "If it were plastic forks and spoons and knives, and not worth more than $50, I'd say thank you and accept it. If it were over $50, I would return it."
Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney says he never opened his gift or took it home. However, a Council colleague says when the packages arrived just before Christmas, Boney not only accepted the flatware, but called it "the nicest gift I've ever gotten."
Councilwoman Annise Parker says she was uncertain what to do with the flatware when it arrived December 23. Although the Chronicle reported that Parker immediately returned the gift, the councilwoman says she decided to wait until after the holidays to decide what to do with it. She called city agenda director Marty Stein for advice two weeks ago, and Stein suggested Parker send the flatware back to Hassan. After the city Inspector General launched an investigation last week, Parker's staff returned the gift to sender.
District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr. says the state law criminalizes both the giver and recipient of gifts, although it lists a number of exceptions. Food, travel and entertainment are exempted if the official is a guest of the giver's. None of the exceptions appear to apply to Lutfi's flatware.
Councilman Chris Bell, an attorney who helped craft recent city ethics legislation, seemed strangely unaware that Hassan's gifts violated state law. Bell took the flatware home, where wife Alison stashed it in a closet. A Bell staffer says Mrs. Bell thought the gold eating utensils were too tacky for personal use.
Bell first told the Houston Press, "I've never returned any of the things that have been given before people drop things off over the holidays, and I think good manners dictate that you accept them and write a thank-you note so long as it's nothing that out of the ordinary."
Bell notes that city airport vendor Central Parking gave councilmembers gift baskets this year, and Coastal Financial execs presented officials who voted for their contract last year with holiday hams. Bell recalls that he and staffers ate that gift.
"I guess it's one of those things where people tend to give Christmas gifts in general to folks they like who have done nice things for them," chuckles the official.
Bell suggests that the current controversy is more people "picking on Lutfi" than any real concern with illegal gifts. However, after the Inspector General got into the act last week, Bell changed his tune.
A staffer from Bell's office e-mailed the Insider that "Chris and Alison have donated the flatware to a charitable organization to use at its discretion." Bell will henceforth pursue a policy of donating all gifts to worthy causes.
Wonder whether the lucky charity that gets the gift will find the gold-plated flatware as tasteless as Mrs. Bell did.
E-mail Tim Fleck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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