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Man Overboard

Sylvester Turner seated himself in the witness box at 11:12 a.m. on September 6, adjusted the microphone, and smiled.

"It's been a long road, hasn't it?" asked his attorney, Ron Franklin.
"Been a while," replied Turner.
And then, just as he often had when he ran for mayor five years earlier, Sylvester Turner began to recount the amazing story of Sylvester Turner, the sixth of nine children from a working-class family in the Garden City section of Acres Homes, son of a commercial painter and a maid at the Rice Hotel. The kid who, after his all-black school in Acres Homes closed, was bused 18 miles to the Klein school district, where he became a championship debater and student body president of his predominantly white high school. The magna cum laude graduate of UH who put himself through school working nights at the Southwestern Bell headquarters downtown, then went off to Harvard, got his law degree and came home to a job at Fulbright & Jaworski. The young lawyer who left the blue-chip firm to start his own was later elected to the Texas Legislature, and eventually came as close as any African-American has come to being mayor of Houston.

It's a powerful, inspiring story, and for a few moments I found myself wanting to believe in Sylvester Turner all over again, wishing that the things I know about Sylvester Turner, and the things that I have good reason to suspect about Sylvester Turner, weren't true.

Listening to Sylvester Turner tell the story of Sylvester Turner was to be reminded why his mayoral campaign resonated so deeply with so many Houstonians, most especially older, church- going African-Americans: it was their generation that had finally kicked down the door, and Turner -- a boy from New Bethel Missionary Baptist, a scholarship boy, a Harvard lawyer by way of Acres Homes -- walked through. He was destiny's child, the pure promise of America.

It was also to be reminded how deeply shocking and wounding it was -- even considering the other not-so-flattering things that had been revealed about Sylvester Turner in the previous few months -- when Wayne Dolcefino, shortly after 5:30 p.m. on the Sunday of December 1, 1991, asked, "What did Sylvester Turner know, and when did he know it?"

What followed that evening was also a powerful story.

Before Turner gave his testimony, it was not unreasonable to wonder whether he might speak of himself in the third person, as he often did during his campaign speeches and appearances in 1991.

At first, that affectation had seemed to be nothing more than the rhetorical quirk of a former high school and college debater. But the more you learned about Turner and the longer you listened to him, the more you suspected that the Sylvester Turner doing the talking and the "Sylvester Turner" being talked about might not be wholly one and the same.

Turner did stick to the first-person singular after taking the stand in the trial of his four-year-old libel lawsuit against Dolcefino and Channel 13; nonetheless, there seemed to be two distinct Sylvester Turners in the courtroom. After Ron Franklin finished his questions, Turner would turn and look directly at the jurors a few feet away, flashing his little smile that always seems somewhere between pained and forced, and gently shaking his head back and forth in a rhythmic accompaniment to his words. But as soon as he ran out of words, Turner would abruptly swivel his head back to face Franklin, the little smile would vanish and his face would settle into a blank mask as he awaited the next question. And after Franklin had led Turner through his autobiography, many of the questions that followed in cross-examination by Channel 13 lawyer Chip Babcock were simply cues for orations, rather than answers, from Turner.

There were telling bits of testimony, though: when Turner recalled how he and two other young black lawyers started their own firm in 1984, it sounded as if he were talking about the way he ran for mayor seven years later: "We'd take 'em out to lunch," Turner said of prospective clients, "and say, 'Look at the resume, look at what we've done.' "

Look at the resume.
That, in sum, was the message of Sylvester Turner's 1991 mayoral campaign. "That seat is mine," he would tell mostly black audiences. There was no larger idea or cause: the seat was his, not theirs.

I got my first look beyond Turner's resume shortly after he began running for mayor. I was the Chronicle's political editor at the time, and the paper had run several stories on the fact that Turner did not live in Houston but had rented a house inside the city to satisfy the legal requirement for residency.

 

Turner dismissed the issue as a niggling legalism, but I thought, and I believe the residents of Kingwood would agree, that there's an important distinction between living and paying property taxes inside the city and outside of it -- especially if you want to be mayor. Turner's hasty acquisition of a city address also indicated he hadn't given a lot of serious thought to the idea of running for mayor before deciding to do it. A few days after declaring his candidacy, Turner returned the call of a colleague at the Chronicle; I answered the phone and in the course of taking a message from Turner made some feeble stab at humor regarding his residency.

That set Turner off. The Chronicle had published the name of the street on which Turner resided outside of the city, and if something happened to his family because of that, he snarled, "I'm coming after you."

At the time, I didn't take that as a threat, although it is now known that Turner has made similar remarks to other people and they've definitely considered themselves threatened. But I thought it was more than commonplace lawyer's bluster, too, especially after Turner made the same declaration four or five more times, interjecting it rhythmically, and more forcefully, each time: "I'm coming after you .... I'm coming after you ...."

The next few months saw a steady accumulation of nagging little inconsistencies in things that Turner said, along with revelations, such as his failure to repay his student loans from Harvard, which at best signaled that Turner was not so good about taking care of details and at worse suggested that he did not consider himself bound by the rules that apply to everyone else.

Turner told out-and-out lies as well, most notably his claim during his campaign that, despite evidence to the contrary, yes, he actually did live most of the time in the house he rented in the city -- then after his defeat revealing that, no, he actually had lived at home with his wife and young daughter in northwest Harris County. At the trial, we learned that Turner had a third address: the Lancaster Hotel, where he lived for the final three weeks of his runoff against Bob Lanier.

And there was his marriage: Turner's wife never appeared at public functions with him, and rumors that they were estranged had circulated for most of his campaign, picking up currency about the time that Cheryl Turner, looking as uncomfortable as a human being possibly could, appeared in a commercial with her husband before the runoff.

"I have no marital problems, period," was how Turner dismissed the question at the time.

As Turner and his now ex-wife confirmed in court, their marriage actually began to unravel around the time he decided to run for mayor, and near the end of his campaign she had retained a lawyer to sue for divorce and a private detective to investigate her husband.

I'd call that a marital problem, period.
By the time Dolcefino raised his question about Turner, just five days before the runoff, so much had been revealed about the Sylvester Turner who wasn't on Turner's resume that I, and a lot of other voters in Houston, were ready to believe the worst about Sylvester Turner.

Much of the story that led to Dolcefino's story had been previously disclosed, but it was nothing if not entertaining to hear pieces of it unfold in sometimes conflicting detail during the seven-week trial. You'd have to dig up some cheesy 1950s bus-station paperback to find a similar cast of smalltime grifters, except this assortment had a very '80s multiracial and omnisexual overlay.

There was Dwight "Dirty Red" Thomas, a lifelong friend of Turner's who grew up in Acres Homes and in 1991 was "housesitting," as Turner explained, in the house the candidate rented for his mayoral campaign. There was Thomas' friend Sylvester Clyde Foster, a male model and the owner of beauty salons, modeling studios and health clubs, who was busted in Las Vegas in 1986 driving the Porsche owned by UPS driver Thomas, who had reported it stolen. There was Christina Batura, a cosmetologist and Foster's fiancee, and Russell Reinders, the pipe-smoking owner of a "finance company" of sorts who had come to Houston from Ohio in 1983 with his younger boyfriend, Keith Anderson, to catch the "boom" that was already over.

And there was Sylvester Turner, either the innocent dupe of most of the above characters or a co-conspirator with all of them in an attempted insurance fraud.

The rough outline of the story was this: Turner had met Foster in late 1985 at Thomas' parents home, and, according to Turner, they continued a casual association until April 1986, when Foster asked Turner to prepare a will for him, which Turner proceeded to do. In late May, Foster, Reinders and Anderson came to Turner's law office to have him witness a partnership agreement stipulating that Reinders would inherit Foster's businesses in the event of Foster's death. (During his testimony, Turner was strangely impassioned when emphasizing time and again that he had not drafted the partnership agreement -- stylistically, it was "totally inconsistent" with the work done by his firm, he said. This seemed to be something he felt was very important for the world to know.)

 

Foster came to Turner's office on June 19 to sign his will, which he had Turner revise to have Dwight Thomas named as executor. The next day Foster went sailing off of Galveston with Reinders and Anderson, who on June 22 reported to the Coast Guard that Foster had fallen overboard and was presumed drowned. Turner testified he had last spoken to Foster by phone on the 19th, although Foster's cellular phone records showed nine calls from the boat to Turner's office or home in the three days before Foster's "drowning."

In the months leading up to his disappearance, Foster had taken out a number of life insurance policies, acquired a passport and purchased four luxury cars and expensive jewelry. And on June 18, the day before signing his will at Turner's office, he had promised a Secret Service agent that he would report the next day to be arrested on credit-card fraud charges. Foster's body wasn't found until 1990, when authorities learned that he was in a Spanish prison serving time for cocaine trafficking.

How much of that Turner knew, and when he knew it, was disputed at the trial, as was how quickly and vigorously Turner and other lawyers in his firm pursued possible proceeds from Foster's estate. Despite a considerable amount of damning but circumstantial evidence to the contrary, both Turner and Thomas denied in court that they were parties to Foster's scheme, and there wasn't a live body left that Channel 13 could produce to say otherwise. Batura died in a plane crash in 1990, Anderson and Reinders are both dead of AIDS, and Foster, in a videotaped deposition he gave in 1992 after being extradited from Spain, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

But Anderson, three years before his 1995 death, gave a video deposition in which he placed Turner at the heart of the conspiracy, although Franklin made much of the fact that private investigator Clyde Wilson, one of Channel 13's original sources for the story, had paid a $280 phone bill for Anderson's roommate in Ohio to cover the cost of Anderson's phone conversations with Dolcefino following the reporter's story. Franklin also strongly implied that Anderson had received some other financial benefit for his testimony.

Anderson, however, seemed credible in his demeanor and matter-of-fact responsiveness -- more so than Turner and Thomas, or Dolcefino for that matter -- as did Turner's ex-wife, a former assistant county prosecutor whose testimony flatly contradicted Turner's claim of having had only a casual relationship with Foster. Cheryl Turner testified that Foster was a frequent caller to the Turner home prior to his disappearance, and she denied her husband's assertion that it was she who had taken a 19-minute call from Foster after he was arrested and jailed in Las Vegas for drugs and auto theft in April 1986. And Thomas, she testified, had told her that her husband was going "to make a lot of money" from the Foster probate.

Her divorce from Turner had produced more unflattering revelations that, while not related to the insurance swindle, made their way into the libel trial: that Turner had received $3,000 a year for teaching a law class at TSU from 1981 to 1991 but had failed to report the income for tax purposes; and that during the divorce case he had not filed his income tax returns for 1991 (a year in which he had a seven-figure income but couldn't find his way to pay off his Harvard loan until the delinquency was discovered by the media), 1992 and 1993 until 1994.

Although no smoking gun was produced to tie Turner to the conspiracy, the cumulative weight of the evidence was in no way restorative of the good name of Sylvester Turner. But the trial was not a criminal prosecution -- it was held to decide a libel lawsuit against Channel 13 and Wayne Dolcefino, and it revolved around what Dolcefino and his station did and how they did it before and after the reporter approached Turner in the front yard of his rent house on Thanksgiving morning in 1991.

As the videotape showed, Dolcefino was fully into being "Wayne Dolcefino," Ray Bans and all, when he walked up to Turner that morning, breezily asked the candidate the whereabouts of his "roomie" Thomas and greeted Turner's young daughter with, "Hi, sweetheart." He was even deeper into the role in a 45-minute phone conversation with Keith Anderson the following January, in which -- as the jury heard -- Dolcefino cajoled, flattered and made various smarmy and shameless appeals to persuade Anderson to talk to Channel 13 about the Foster conspiracy.

 

It didn't take long for Dolcefino to regress into a similar self-caricature when he took the stand on September 13, only a few days after the death of his mother. Wayne, apparently, has gotta be "Wayne," no matter the occasion, and in less than 15 minutes he somehow managed to personify almost everything people detest about the media: he was unnecessarily combative, arrogant and show-biz pompous (he addressed the jurors as "folks," as if he were talking to a television audience), and he generally behaved like a man who didn't consider himself bound by the rules that apply to everyone else.

His was a frantic, finger-jabbing, face-rubbing performance, culminating in an contentious exchange with Franklin that led to an early lunch break on his first day of testimony.

When Dolcefino hotly declared that he'd "call the district attorney and ask him to personally investigate who is lying and who is telling the truth," Franklin, who at times appeared so grimly purse-lipped and puffed full of self-righteousness that you feared he might explode, quickly shot back: "You're that powerful, aren't you?" (Franklin later demonstrated that he knows where the real power lies by his restrained and mostly sanctimony-free cross-examination of defense witness Lanier.)

Dolcefino was more subdued in later testimony, but his first turn on the stand was a full-blown defense attorney's nightmare, and one that left other journalists and interested parties in town aghast.

Channel 13 didn't help itself during the trial's closing arguments when the front row of the court gallery was occupied by Marvin Zindler, Alvin Van Black and Shara Fryer, all looking like barely animated refugees from a wax museum, and a very uncomfortable Melanie Lawson, whose father had helped organize the boycott of Channel 13 by African-Americans after Turner's loss to Lanier. They were there to support their colleague, but the presence of Zindler and Van Black played perfectly into Franklin's characterization of Eyewitness News as a fright-house operation.

As testimony pointed up, the station hadn't helped itself much in the immediate aftermath of Dolcefino's first report, either, starting with its failure to air supposedly exculpating footage from a press conference Turner had hastily called to respond to Dolcefino's 5:30 story. Channel 13 had sent reporter Mary Ellen Conway to Turner's law office, where he trotted out Probate Judge John Hutchison and Prudential Insurance lawyer Jim McConn to defend him. But neither McConn nor Hutchison were seen on Dolcefino's 10 p.m. report, an omission he and his superiors wrote off to a harmless miscommunication but which Conway suggested was due to Dolcefino's design.

In a follow-up story a few days later, Channel 13, as it was being besieged by angry African-American leaders, reported that Clyde Wilson had "stepped forward" as its source for Dolcefino's story; Fryer -- who had been the recipient of the initial call to the station from Wilson -- enhanced the funhouse-mirror approach by relating that Turner had "refused to apologize" for claiming the Lanier campaign had been behind the story.

Nor were Dolcefino's stories factually perfect: Thomas was referred to as the "administrator" of Foster's will, which is a court-appointed position, rather than the executor, and the station also reported that Turner "drew up" Foster's will on June 19, when in fact Foster had signed it on that day.

Franklin made much of those relatively minor errors, but if you reduce Dolcefino's story to its words -- ignoring the timing, the hype ("a mystery with a potentially explosive political twist"), the graphics, the charge in Dolcefino's voice, the station's less-than-exemplary behavior in the aftermath -- it holds up remarkably well, even if Dolcefino never answered the question he posed at the outset.

Obviously, ten of the 12 jurors didn't see it that way, although the handful who remained to speak with reporters after their decision had a hard time pinpointing exactly why they determined Dolcefino's story was not substantially true. "In my mind I knew that there was not much that was false," said one juror who was on the fence until late in deliberations, "but in my heart I had questions about the whole broadcast and the circumstances around it. In the end, my heart ruled out over my mind."

The other jurors apparently weren't as conflicted, but their explanations indicated that they, too, had listened to their hearts: Dolcefino was "out of control" and station management was lax, Channel 13 behaved badly by trying to make Conway its "scapegoat," the story devastated Sylvester Turner.

 

Truth aside.

The way Ron Franklin portrayed him, Wayne Dolcefino was a grubby, unschooled little hit man working in a grubby, unregulated trade who in a reckless five minutes had ruined a good man's name -- a good man who should have been mayor.

"You know what you have to do to call yourself a journalist?" Franklin asked in his closing argument. "You say, 'I'm a journalist.' "

Yeah, and that's the beauty part.
By contrast, Sylvester Turner was a lawyer from Harvard who had worked at Fulbright & Jaworski. Why would he throw all that away, Franklin asked, by conspiring with a male model in an insurance swindle?

"It could happen," said Franklin sarcastically, as if that were the most ridiculous turn of events he could imagine. And maybe Franklin really believes that, because, as he later averred without a trace of sarcasm, a lawyer's work is about "ideas, and values ... justice and fairness."

There's some truth to that: there are narrow truths that emerge in courtrooms -- sometimes -- and there is a semblance of justice that is occasionally achieved there.

Then there are the questions that amateurs such as Wayne Dolcefino, whose parameters of inquiry aren't limited by a judge, have to wrestle with, questions that sometimes only yield ambiguous or less-than-definitive truths, such as what did Sylvester Turner know and when did he know it; questions that need to be raised, anyway, especially about someone who wants to be mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city.

And there are only three possible versions of the truth regarding what Sylvester Turner knew and when he knew it:

* He truly didn't know. When signs of criminal conspiracy were writ large all around him, the Harvard lawyer and magna cum laude graduate of UH remained ignorant. All the details and suspicious moves passed him by or were beneath his inquiry. He was just doing his job as a lawyer. If that's the case, then Sylvester Turner is incredibly naive, if not incredibly stupid.

* Turner, as the investigator for the administrator of the probate case told Dolcefino before his broadcast, was "up to his eyeballs" in it. If that's the case, then Sylvester Turner is more than just the liar he had proven himself to be before the trial: he's a sociopath, willing to carry a lie into a highly public forum and walk it through in hopes of a big payday.

* He was willfully ignorant: that perhaps Turner saw but didn't see, and went right on doing his lawyerly duty; that maybe the Sylvester Turner doing the talking figured there was no way the Sylvester Turner being talked about could have a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in an insurance swindle. I can accept that explanation on a gut level, if not an intellectual one, because it's apparent the same admirable and fierce powers of determination and invention it took to fashion a Harvard lawyer from the sixth of nine children from Acres Homes also have been employed to keep any outside reality from intruding on Sylvester Turner's conception of Sylvester Turner.

How else to explain this comment, which Turner offered after the verdict: "I have always said that people will respond to you the way you respond to yourself ..."?

But by now it really doesn't matter what the truth is about what Sylvester Turner knew and when he knew it. What is true is this: most Houstonians wouldn't have Sylvester Turner as their lawyer, much less their mayor.

Turner will run for mayor again, waving the jury verdict as proof of his vindication, but "mayor" is an entry that will never appear on his resume. Some other African-American will be the first black mayor of Houston, and all another Turner candidacy will do is delay that day.

That being mayor is no longer his destiny is good for Houston: it's good for you, me, Ron Franklin and the jurors who awarded Turner $5.5 million in damages last week. And as hard as it is for some people to acknowledge, that salutary development is due in large part to Wayne Dolcefino.

In the meantime, on the off-chance that Sylvester Turner ever collects any of that judgment, I hope Sylvester Turner pays his taxes on it.


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