Perk of Office

artha Wong and Helen Huey weren't taking any chances when the city's Ethics Committee convened last week to consider complaints against the two councilmembers.

Both contend the complaints are groundless, but, just in case, Wong and Huey have availed themselves of the kind of high-priced legal talent that their adversaries in the proceedings couldn't dream of having -- unless they were to get themselves elected to Council.

In Wong's corner were three lawyers from Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, including former city attorney Jonathan Day, who serves as outside counsel for Mayor Bob Lanier's favorite cash cow, Metro, and J. Kent Friedman, who oversees the blind trust in which Lanier has parked his assets. In the past, their politically wired firm has done a fair amount of business for the city, including a stint as its bond counsel.

Across the room, looking only slightly more comfortable on folding chairs than the buttoned-down Day, was Huey's legal team: Stephen Tipps and Kathy Vaughn of Baker & Botts, the city's third largest law firm and occasional contractor with the city. Tipps and Vaughn also brought along a couple of clerks in case the going got rough.

No chance of that, at least for Tipps. The committee voted to dismiss the conflict-of-interest complaint filed against Huey by activist Brenda Flores in February. And although it dismissed two of media consultant Glenda Joe's three complaints against Wong, the committee will hold an evidentiary hearing next month on Joe's allegation that Wong tried to have her booted from a city contract and replaced by a contributor to Wong's campaign fund.

Wong says she's responsible for footing the bill for her pricey legal counsel. But when asked if the Mayor, Day lawyers would be paid out of her pocket or from her campaign treasury, Wong replied, "I don't know. We'll have to check to see how we can pay for this."

Huey did not return phone calls seeking comment. But City Attorney Gene Locke confirmed that the city was not picking up the tab. "I'm not sure who's paying," Locke said. "Certainly not the city. These are private attorneys. They might be donating their time." If that's indeed the case, it would make for an interesting scenario the next time Mayor, Day or Baker & Botts needs Council approval to do business with the city.

But, as Day pointed out at the hearing, the Ethics Committee would likely be too busy to investigate.

"This committee would have to be in full session, year round," Day said while arguing Wong's case, "if it considered every public official who is perceived to put personal interest above the public interest."

-- Brian Wallstin

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