Houston city officials, apparently outraged at how they had fallen behind Galveston and Kemah in the heated race to service every little whim of restaurant-and-real-estate mogul Tilman Fertitta, took bold action a few years ago.
They gave Fertitta a sweetheart lease to the old downtown fire station and central waterworks plant -- even in the year 2040, he'll still be paying rent of only $12,500 a month for the prime location.
In its rush to bend over for Tilman, the city vacated the space even though it didn't have a replacement site lined up for the fire station. Houston is currently paying more than $24,500 a month to lease an admittedly inadequate building on Milam.
All this allowed Fertitta in February 2003 to open the Aquarium restaurant, which features outrageously overpriced train rides, Ferris wheels and -- he hopes -- tigers. (Because nothing says "aquarium" like tigers.) Food is also served, apparently.
In return for all this largesse, which was supposed to spark an unprecedented explosion of downtown development, Fertitta had to do only one thing: file an annual report with the city detailing how the restaurant is doing and what the city is getting for its investment.
And Fertitta can't be bothered to do it.
The first report was due June 1, says Pete Radowick, spokesman for the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities. In the eight weeks since then, he says, the city has contacted Fertitta and asked if he would please file the thing. (For some reason, imagining this conversation brings to mind the Cowardly Lion approaching the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.)
Despite the nudging, the report hasn't been filed. The city's aggressiveness on the matter is best summed up by Radowick's response when told Hair Balls might be writing on the matter: "Well, maybe that'll get him moving," he said.
Glad to do our part.
Fertitta and his wife both gave $2,500 to Mayor Bill White this March; perhaps the paperwork involved in writing out those checks has delayed his filing the Aquarium report. Or maybe he's just too busy with his tiger project.
Fertitta's office, by the way, referred us to a PR agency that didn't return phone calls.
Money and Medals
A lot of people are not all that happy that America is tied down in a quagmire of a war in Iraq. Those people, however, don't work for Graco Awards of Tomball.
Graco, it turns out, is the exclusive manufacturer of the military's Global War on Terrorism medals, given to those who serve or support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The company's Web site says it's the leading manufacturer of medals and service ribbons for America's armed forces. It will be making up to 513,000 of the GWOT medals, says Cynthia Esposito, a contracting officer for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.
Graco will be paid $713,000 for the job. But that's not all they'll get out of the war; Graco is also one of the leading manufacturers of Purple Hearts.
Company officials, who definitely are busy these days, did not return phone calls.
The peace caravan to Cuba that we wrote about two weeks ago has made its return trip across the Mexican border. And lived to tell the tale.
The Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan takes medical supplies and other aid to Cuba, in violation of all sorts of federal embargoes. In the past they've said they've been roughed up by border guards as they've crossed over to Mexico. This year the crossing was peaceful, but caravan members were anxious about getting back into the good old U.S. of A.
And again, those wily feds let them go by more or less unmolested. Scores of officers were waiting, and went over the group's vehicles very, very closely, organizers say. "The contrast between the reception [in Cuba] and the reception here really strengthened our resolve," says caravan spokeswoman Ellen Bernstein. (Bringing medical aid to a strapped country does tend to pep up the welcome, you know.)
U.S. Border Patrol folks did their duty, says fed spokeswoman Judy Turner. "As you know, our first line of defense is to protect any dangerous items from coming into the U.S.," she says.
And so they confiscated a book of Cuban poetry, a paper flag on a stick, a set of maracas and a bag made in China that had the name "Cuba" on it.
We feel safer already. When you even think of the incendiary combination of Cuban poetry and maracas, you simply tremble.
Since its beginning earlier this year, the conservative Web news service called TexasDigest.com has been scrupulously highlighting the shining gallantry epitomized by Governor Rick Perry and his GOP brethren, contrasting it -- more in sorrow than anger -- with the pitiful moral swamp that is the state Democratic Party.
So it's somewhat surprising that the ethical guardians at TexasDigest.com have run into a little behavior problem of their own. Despite promises that e-mail information on subscribers would be held as sacrosanct as as as heterosexual marriage, we guess, someone at the company has been rifling through the lists for private business purposes.
Editor Seton Motley wrote to subscribers in what he called a "humble missive," describing his publication's high ethical standards about the security of e-mail information. "Regrettably, someone with whom we have been working does not adhere to the same behavioral standards," he wrote. "More unfortunate still, that person was the one in charge of hosting and maintaining our e-mail list."
"More unfortunate still"? That's kind of like saying, "Regrettably, someone on this plane does not know how to fly. More unfortunate still, he is our pilot."
Motley says TexasDigest.com has "severed all ties" with the person involved.
Deport Me, Please
Haki Danaj is an Albanian immigrant who just doesn't understand the concept of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. As hard as the state and federal government have tried to ensure he doesn't get punished much for his manslaughter conviction, they just can't get the job done.
Danaj was released on parole in March after serving less than two years. Johnny Halili of San Leon, the victim's brother, had worked in vain with his wife to get the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department to send Danaj back to Albania. Halili's wife, Lisa, pestered immigration officials with dozens of phone calls, but was told nothing could be done.
Danaj, though, couldn't handle his success. He failed to report to a halfway house and then was caught skulking around an elementary school.
He thus revealed an interesting insight into the thinking of the immigration service: Kill a guy by manslaughter? No need to deport you. Head to a Catholic grammar school and pull an "Aqualung"? (Come on, you know it: "Sitting on a park bench / eyeing little girls with bad intent ") You are so out of here.
Danaj was shipped to Jefferson County, where he'll be jailed until an immigration judge decides whether to deport him.
Lisa Halili isn't resting easy, though. She says she's seen the Galveston County Sheriff's Department let Danaj flee the country once before; she's seen the county's D.A. cut the lenient plea deal.
"I know how lucky this guy is," she says. "Something is going to happen. His paperwork won't show up, or the judge will say, 'He didn't do this.' It'll just be my luck."
In which case, she should start scouting grammar schools. Danaj is definitely a guy who can't take "yes" for an answer.
Cuffs Are In Fashion
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Houston has been awash in perp walks lately, thanks to those fun folks at Enron. Whether you're being arraigned or heading to prison, you're going to be surrounded by photogs and reporters. Who displayed the best catwalk style on their big day? We asked OutSmart magazine's fashion maven Thomas Blanton to go all Joan Rivers on their respective asses:
Lea Fastow -- "The saddest thing about the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal was that frumpy blue outfits went completely out of style. We all owe a debt to Lea Fastow for bringing the 'ready to be soiled by an Arkansas Democrat' look back to the fashion forefront. But what's up with that collar? Is it an homage to The Flying Nun? Maybe she's hoping a strong wind will come along and she can hang-glide her way to freedom."
Ken Lay -- "My mother used to tell me that you should always own a good navy-blue blazer, because you never know when a formal occasion or an indictment is going to crop up. So snaps to Mr. Lay for being style-prepared. I'm not amused that he didn't have the decency to iron his pants before turning himself in, but maybe he thought that would help him out once he got to the big house. It's like, 'Look, fellows! I'm rumpled! I have street cred!' You're going to be a feeder pet in the prison food chain, my friend."
Jeff Skilling -- "Why no tie? The government agents dragging him away are wearing ties. Ken Lay wore a tie. Even the photographers who snapped these pictures were probably wearing ties. Without any color to break up the black suit and the white shirt, he looks like a penguin. A bitter, fraudulent penguin. I think he's going for a laid-back, casual-Friday kind of look, but it just falls short. Which reminds me: Jeff, think about lifts."