Out of the Soup

Each week the Houston City Council considers thousands of dollars in settlement payments to plaintiffs who have sued the city over a variety of complaints. But the roll call that opens each Council meeting usually generates more discussion than councilmembers' "consideration" of the settlements. Nothing more than the basic details of the cases are ever disclosed to Council, and each settlement is approved in the time it takes Mayor Bob Lanier to mumble his customary, "Favoring? Opposed? Carried."

And so it went on November 8, when the Council quickly and unanimously passed a resolution to settle a lawsuit filed by a California couple. According to City Attorney Benjamin Hall III, the basic facts of the case were these:

Leonard and Betty Leath purchased a rundown Spring Branch apartment complex in September 1990. They had spent $260,000 repairing it when the city revoked their building permits and, later, demolished the complex. The Leaths sued in federal court, claiming it would cost $1.6 million to rebuild. Councilwoman Helen Huey, who was named in the suit, was "exonerated of all wrongdoing." City attorneys decided to resolve the issue by paying the Leaths $150,000 and releasing a $60,000 demolition lien the city had placed against their property.

It seemed, under those circumstances, a pretty good deal for the city. "There was a potential for a much larger settlement," explains Councilwoman Martha Wong. "We needed to move swiftly in order to take advantage of the good settlement and save the taxpayer some money. That's my understanding."

But Wong's understanding was based on Hall's version of the story, which, as it turns out, is incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, particularly when it comes to Huey's role in the case and the circumstances behind her dismissal as a defendant in the suit. In fact, some of Huey's critics say Hall's unsuccessful attempt to settle the case without council approval -- for which he was roundly criticized -- appears to have been part of an ongoing effort to keep the extent of Huey's questionable involvement in the city's demolition of the Leaths' property from coming to light.

Hall has tried to fob responsibility for what he terms the "confidentiality" of the settlement off on a federal judge: the city attorney wrongly claimed that U.S. District Court Judge David Hittner ordered the city and the Leaths to settle, making Council approval of the agreement unnecessary. When the settlement ended up before Council, the resolution stated that Hittner "determined that $150,000 and removal of the demolition lien would adequately compensate" the Leaths.

But Andy Vickery, one of the Leaths' attorneys in their suit, says Hittner had no say in what his clients were awarded. Vickery says he offered the settlement to assistant city attorney Robert Cambrice after meeting with a local housing activist who gave the lawyer several documents, including one suggesting that Huey had injected herself into the permit-approval process usually handled by city building inspectors -- a possible violation of the City Charter.

Vickery recalls telling Cambrice, "Robert, $150,000 and the release of the lien is the best deal you're going to get out of this, and you have until 2 p.m. to take it. If I don't hear from you by 2 p.m., I've come into some documents that are of grave concern to me and ought to be of grave concern to you. And I'll get Helen Huey back on the stand to explain some things."

Cambrice agreed to the settlement. Indeed, the case file -- which city attorneys tried unsuccessfully to have sealed from public scrutiny -- shows that there was other evidence of Huey's unusually vigorous efforts to rid Spring Branch of the Leaths' project, even before Vickery received the additional documents.

For example, complaints about the Leaths' apartment building originated with a group of Huey's constituents who trespassed onto the couple's property to take photographs and conduct an ad-hoc inspection of the premises. Their findings, many of which were misleading, were relayed to city inspectors through Huey's office. Among the group were at least two members of the Spring Branch Redevelopment Association, a pro-development organization spearheading a surge in upscale housing construction in Spring Branch. Huey is a charter member of the SBRA.

Inter-office memos, as well as Huey's testimony, show that the councilwoman relied on her constituents' faulty information, even when it was dismissed by the city's chief building inspector. Shortly after taking office in January 1992, Huey asked for and began receiving weekly reports on the Leaths' project from the building official. The reports indicated that there were no problems with the work being done on the apartments.

One report, dated January 29, 1992, deemed the work site "as secure as any other construction site in the city."

But the case file also includes a memo Huey wrote nine days later to Al Haines, then the city's chief administrative officer. "I am very concerned that this property is being repaired and will be occupied again," Huey wrote. "The property was condemned and I feel should have been demolished."  

In August, Huey explained the memo to the Press this way: "If you read this, it says, '...will be occupied again.' 'Will be occupied again' means that I am believing, when this memo is being written, that it will be a successful rehabilitation. That is how it should be read."

But that's not how Huey explained it in court. She testified that when she wrote the memo she was "very concerned" because, despite the building official's reports, "I was continuing to receive calls from citizens out there, some of whom had building and contractor experience...."

Testimony shows Huey received a call from Leonard Leath after the city pulled his permits. Leath, an African-American who planned to turn his apartment building into low-income housing, asked the councilwoman for advice and help in saving his project. Instead, Leath testified, Huey told him that she did not want her council district to be the site for the kind of housing he planned to provide. Huey acknowledged in court that she never told Leath of the favorable reports the city building inspector had issued on his property.

Had Cambrice rejected his offer, Vickery says, Huey would have been "permanently in the soup." That's because the documents he received late in the trial were especially damaging to her, he says. One was a permit application for another project with the typewritten notation, "No permits without CMHH approval," as in Councilwoman Helen Huey. Another was a memo from Huey to city attorney Hall requesting information on that project. "After all," Huey wrote in that memo, "my bulldozer is running."

Asked if those documents helped convince the city to settle the Leaths' suit, Vickery replies, "I think it did."

But Huey's fellow councilmembers were never informed of their existence, nor were they aware that Huey's dismissal from the case was part of the settlement. Huey told the Press in August that she was found "not guilty," and she attended a recent Council meeting armed with a single page of courtroom testimony that she showed to other people in the Council chambers. The page was a record of Hittner's decision to grant the city's motion for dismissal.

What Huey didn't share, however, was that Hittner had denied a previous motion to dismiss the councilwoman. The judge granted the dismissal only after it was included in the handwritten settlement drawn up by Vickery.

Although in his request for Council approval of the settlement Hall wrote that Huey had been "exonerated" of any wrongdoing, he claimed to the Press that Hittner had "found that the plaintiff failed to make a case against her and announced that as part of the record. If people want to go behind that and say something else, that's up to them. I wasn't there."

The case records show that the councilwoman's dismissal was worked out in conjunction with the financial arrangements during a recess on the morning of July 22. When court resumed after the recess, assistant city attorney Michael Siemer asked Hittner to dismiss Huey. Hittner agreed, and told Huey she could leave or "remain for one more witness." What followed suggests that the city went to unusual lengths to obscure the fact that Huey was dismissed as part of the settlement.

After the councilwoman's dismissal, Siemer called another witness. Following that testimony, Hittner excused the jury. Then this exchange took place, according to court transcripts:

Hittner: Is there anything to be announced to the court at this time?
Siemer: Yes, Your Honor, there is .... The parties wish to announce settlement, Your Honor.

Hittner: All right .... You want this made public or are you going to submit this in sealed form ...?

Siemer: Your Honor, we would ask that these do be submitted under seal.
Hittner: ... You-all can keep the arrangements between yourself, although I do assume that it needs City Council approval.

When asked why city attorneys called another witness when it was clear even Hittner knew a settlement had been reached, Vickery replies, "You'll have to ask them. It was a ho-hum affair. We had already agreed."

Hall admits that the city and the Leaths reached an agreement before the last

witness testified. The witness was called, he says, because "we wanted to make sure that Ms. Huey was understood to be vindicated and exonerated of all charges in

the case, and we weren't about to cloud that result."
All that remained after the agreement was struck, Vickery thought, was Council approval. But three and a half months later, the settlement had yet to appear on the Council's agenda. "We were calling them about every week, asking them when our clients were going to get their money," says Vickery. "If [the city's attorneys] weren't trying to circumvent the Council, I don't know what other explanation there would be."  

Even some councilmembers are convinced that if Hall had his way, the settlement would have never come before them. "I think somebody said, 'Well, we'd better do it or somebody's going to find out about it,'" says Councilman Ray Driscoll.

What Council did eventually find out about the case was Hall's abbreviated version of events. That meant fewer hard facts and more subjective interpretation, such as: "The trial evoked strong emotions and sympathetic plaintiffs. The trial was unique in that a sitting federal judge testified as a witness against the city" (the Leaths' original attorney was recently appointed U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Gilmore).

Not that more information would have made much difference. As it turned out, only one councilmember -- Lloyd Kelley -- bothered to seriously question the settlement. Wong says she was not briefed on the facts of the case or Huey's role -- nor did she ask. "I am not an attorney and I did not delve into those things I do not understand .... Regardless if it's the city or an individual, you learn from your mistakes and you move forward."

Huey would probably like nothing better than to leave the Leath case behind her. Though her name was scarcely mentioned in media reports about the settlement, she has remained sensitive to perceptions of her role. At a recent Council meeting she asked that a vote on the settlement be tagged for six days, rather than the usual two weeks. When Kelley asked her why, Huey snapped, "I can't think of anything pressing. I'm not guilty of anything. I don't have any ulterior motives."

On the morning of the vote, Hall and Huey had a lengthy chat via in-house phones in the Council chambers. The topic of that conversation emerged during an exchange Huey had with Alison Dieter, a local activist who criticized the city and Huey before the vote.

"I guess I do have one question for the city attorney," Huey said. "Mr. Hall? When citizens appear before Council and make statements and allegations, are those statements and allegations admissible in any litigation that might ensue ...?"

"Yes," Hall answered.
Hall says that prior to Dieter's appearance he and Huey had discussed whether the activist should be sworn in before speaking. "I think [Huey] wanted a debate," he says, "and if she swore them in, a perjury action could be brought against the person making statements before City Council."

Hall, who says he backs Huey's well-publicized campaign to rid Houston of dangerous buildings, maintains that the councilwoman's role in the Leath case was "innocuous, at best." The real issue, he says, was that the city had issued a building permit, but after allowing the Leaths to spend $260,000 fixing the building, had it torn down. Hall says he won't fault Huey for being too aggressive in her efforts to see the project halted, nor will he quibble with her "absolute right" to apply political pressure to department heads.

"Helen has been most effective against the slumlords of this city," Hall says. "And it's my impression they are mounting a campaign to discredit her. I've found nothing inappropriate as to her conduct. I would hope she could do more legally. I mean legally -- I'm not into this moral thing."

But maybe Hall believes the line between what's legal and what's moral can be too easily blurred in the public's eye. Last week, just days after the settlement vote, he proposed an ordinance that would eliminate Council's authority to approve or reject certain settlements negotiated by his office.

Lanier killed the proposal before councilmembers had a chance to consider it.

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