Orlando and the 23rd Chair
City Councilman Orlando Sanchez has not been shy about claiming credit for alerting law enforcement officials to alleged criminal wrongdoing by four public works staffers now under indictment. Three of them, including 20-year city veteran Dan Jones, 51, are charged with the misdemeanor violation of bid laws in the purchase of 23 fancy greenish-blue high-backed chairs in which city elected officials park their buns during Council meetings.
Nearly a year ago, Sanchez wrote District Attorney Johnny Holmes to say that "for some time I have observed that the Public Works Department of the City of Houston has engaged in a practice that may be circumventing the state purchasing and bidding laws." Later, Holmes told reporters that Sanchez and fellow councilman Joe Roach had argued forcefully to him that city bid rules had been violated and his prosecutors had launched an investigation to determine whether the officials' allegations were true.
In the case of the chairs, it turns out that Sanchez was an extremely close observer of the practices he now claims are illegal. Not only did he originate the idea for purchasing the new chairs, city sources say, he even suggested a private vendor to handle the work.
Part of Sanchez's motivation was his desire to have one of the classy chairs bearing the city seal for his own office, and he eventually got it after he hounded Jones to speed up the order. It was only after the investigation of bid law violations became known in City Hall circles that he returned the chair, though he says he tried to pay for it much earlier.
The chair imbroglio began with a decision made midway through the City Hall renovation in the mid-'90s to make the temporary Council chamber in the City Hall Annex a permanent meeting area. That meant the plush orange chairs in that room would stay, and new ones would be needed when the old art deco City Council hall reopened.
Sanchez admits he started the ball rolling by telling Jones that the Council chairs in the annex "looked crappy," and the city should purchase something nicer for the renovated Council chamber. Sanchez also had something in mind. He had visited the state Senate hearing rooms in the Capitol in Austin and liked the attractive high-backed chairs there that bore the state seal. A source close to the investigation says Sanchez then gave Jones the card of a chair maker who could do the work.
Jones, a former public works flack, knew from previous experience that chair purchases could be politically volatile. The Houston media had a field day in the early '80s, which was the last time the city had purchased expensive chairs for the elected officials. Newspaper and television reports ridiculed the price of the furniture -- at that time an outrageous $1,000 a chair.
Since Sanchez has been one of the biggest critics on Council of the Bob Lanier and Lee Brown public works bureaucracies, Jones took his interest in the chairs as a signal that Sanchez would support the chair purchase rather than make it a political football. Jones told staffers to find a supplier for the style of chair that Sanchez suggested but warned them not to buy the chairs from Orlando's suggested vendor because he didn't like the suggestion of an inside deal.
At the same time, Sanchez had inherited the office vacated by Councilman Lloyd Kelley when Kelley was elected controller, and found some serious defects in the furnishings. "The rollers had broken off twice on the chair I'd gotten from Lloyd Kelley, and I'd fallen out of it," recalls Sanchez.
The councilman does not remember giving Jones a business card for a chair maker but does recall visiting a frequent City Hall furniture supplier, Weisz Office Furniture, and getting a quote of $2,800 a chair. "That was too expensive," says the councilman.
A former Weisz employee who handled city business at the time, David Gafrick, cannot recall Sanchez's visit or the company making any such estimate on the cost of the chairs. While Sanchez described Weisz as the authorized city vendor who did not have to go through a bidding process, a Weisz spokesman says the company is not exempt from bid requirements.
Jones's staff had meanwhile found a supplier that could provide the chairs for less than $2,000 each. "Dan said he got a special buy on these because the city was buying so many," remembers Sanchez, who then suggested, "Why don't we order an extra one, and I will reimburse you." The city then purchased 23 chairs, including 20 for the Council, two for spares and the final one for Orlando Sanchez.
According to a defense source, after the chairs were ordered, Sanchez began peppering Jones with the weekly query: "Where is my chair? Where is my chair?" Jones's defense, led by attorney Rusty Hardin, will likely put the onus on Sanchez for pressuring Jones into rushing the contract. Eventually the chairs got delivered in the fall of 1997, and Sanchez installed his prize acquisition in his Council office.
What happened next is in dispute. Sanchez claims he repeatedly badgered Jones to tell him how much the chair cost so he could pay for it from his City Council account. The only memos Sanchez could provide to document his payback attempt are dated last January and February, well after the investigation began.
According to a defense source, Sanchez only became serious about the reimbursement after the city Inspector General's officers launched their investigation into the misapplication of funds by public works, the very investigation that Sanchez had helped trigger. In any case, the councilman finally returned the 23rd chair this February to City Council chambers.
"I kept inquiring and inquiring, and never got it back," explains Sanchez. "So when I started noticing all these change orders for public works projects ... I finally returned the frigging chair."
Assistant City Attorney Susan Taylor replied to Sanchez's attempts to pay for the chair with a refusal on January 27. "In view of the ongoing investigation ... and until a resolution is made as to any possible purchasing improprieties ... Ido not believe it is appropriate to adjust the funding source on this or any other purchase."Taylor did add that at the appropriate time Sanchez should be allowed to pay for the chair.
In a follow-up memo, Sanchez told finance official Richard Lewis, "I would really like to have the chair back, but -- as I have said repeatedly -- not until Iam able to pay for it."
Sanchez suspects that someone is trying to use his involvement with the chair purchase to smear him politically.
"It's my impression, some way or other," muses the councilman, "that people are trying to link me to that City Hall purchase scandal. Nothing could be further from the truth." Sanchez claims the purchase of items through other city departments is a common practice.
"Agencies routinely piggyback on one another to get a better deal. That is a far stretch from taking money from one account and misdirecting it to another. I had no clue they were involved in a misdirection of funds. I thought that Dan had gotten a good deal on chairs, and I simply said, 'Order me an extra one, and I will pay you.' "
A source close to the defense for the indicted workers points out that Sanchez knew that the chairs were not in the original City Hall renovation contract Council had approved, knew they exceeded the minimum $5,000 for items that should be voted on by Council, and knew the chairs hadn't come to Council as a separate purchase item. Yet he still went along with a deal that would provide him with his own deluxe office chair at a reasonable price.
"So how did you think they got bought, Orlando?" asks the source acidly. "The chair fairy?"
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