When last The Insider checked in on City Council's conservative soap opera ("The Ballad of Bert and Rob and Susan," October 26), a Houston Press open records request forced Councilman Rob Todd to produce six months of cell phone records. Those documented nearly $4,000 in calls at taxpayer expense. Citing privacy considerations, the councilman made those phone bills public only after he blacked out information on hundreds of calls -- then frosted them over with Wite-Out just to be safe.
Thanks to the intervention of the city legal department in response to an Insider appeal, the District E councilman was forced to unredact information on all calls to mobile phones and home numbers of folks other than city officials and staff. The restored records document nearly 400 calls made to the personal cell phone of Susan Sanders Keller, Councilman Bert Keller's estranged wife, and to her mother's River Oaks residence. The cost of those calls totaled $266.58.
During the same six-month period, Todd reimbursed Houston a paltry $55 for private calls made on the city-supplied cell phone. When asked earlier about the calls to Mrs. Keller, Todd said he couldn't recall any. Then he refused to answer questions, saying it was a personal matter.
It's likely council's passionate conservative made many more calls to Keller's spouse on the city's dime. However, he was allowed to keep the blackout on records of all calls made to the Kellers' home phone, even after Bert separated from his wife and moved out in late spring.
Judging by the records, the dial-in dalliance began shortly after District G freshman Keller took office early this year. Todd's first calls to Susan came on January 15, long before either Bert or Todd's spouse, Penny, had any inkling of storm clouds on the horizon. (Both couples are in divorce proceedings.)
By February, Keller apparently had started to smell a rat. He confronted Todd at the downtown nightclub Tonic after Rob and Susan had drifted off for an intimate conversation. The argument escalated, ending only after Keller pinned Todd aide George Biggs against a wall. Friends had to pry the two apart.
The show of machismo apparently didn't impress Susan. She and Rob were heating up the cell phones only an hour or so later, at 12:30 in the morning.
From a slow start in February (eight calls), the conversations between the two expanded to 56 calls in March, 115 in April and 95 in May. During a three-day period in April, Todd made 17 city cell-phone calls to Susan. By early May, the Kellers separated, with Bert moving out of their home. At that point Todd began reeling off calls averaging a half hour to a redacted phone number that a source says was the Keller homestead. He notched a personal best of 91 minutes in telephonic staying prowess.
Of particular note was the flurry that occurred around the night of Bert's drinking binge on June 6. That climaxed when he crashed his vehicle into a parked truck in the early-morning hours and left the scene on foot. Susan and Todd talked at least seven times in the two days before the incident, and seven times the following day, starting at six in the morning. The next day she posed with Bert in front of the police station and exchanged kisses with him for the news cameras as they walked away.
If Rob ever wants to do a MasterCard commercial, we have the script ready:
The cost to taxpayers of carrying on a clandestine cell phone romance with your colleague's wife?
At a minimum, $211.58.
And the value of watching council's most outspoken moralist hoisted on the horns of his own hypocrisy?
Long Arm of the Law
Meanwhile, Councilman Keller and another high-profile Houston conservative, Dr. Steven Hotze, are awaiting the outcomes of their court cases for that trendy charge of the millennium, driving while intoxicated.
Keller seemed to be in the clear following his surrender to police the day after that collision. Attorney Rusty Hardin pleaded him out on DWI charges for 40 hours of community service and a fine. But a combination of Keller's personal sloppiness, a City Hall stool pigeon and eccentric County Criminal Court Judge Janice Law now threaten to undo Hardin's handiwork.
District Attorney Johnny Holmes says one of Keller's own buddies alerted prosecutors two months ago that the councilman had incurred two moving violations during a trip to a Little League game in Maryland. Those are grounds for revoking the DWI probation. Then Keller's probation worker reported that the councilman had not been working off his community service hours on schedule. That tripped Judge Law's customary hair-trigger revocation of probation for very minor offenses, bringing Keller back into court last week.
There he got another unpleasant surprise. Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam asked Law for a continuance while his office investigates new and unspecified allegations that Keller violated probation terms. Asked whether the alleged infractions included imbibing alcoholic beverages, Diepraam retorted, "We wouldn't be investigating him if he'd done something right."
Meanwhile, Hotze's DWI case has been reset in Judge John Anderson's county criminal court for a hearing December 13. Police arrested the religious-right activist after pulling over his weaving vehicle in Memorial Park early on the morning of October 26. Hotze refused to take a Breathalyzer test and spent the night cooling his heels in an HPD holding cell.
If Hotze's case goes to trial, his supporting cast of witnesses should be as interesting as the offense. Shortly before the arrest, the good doctor had been at a Rainbow Lodge affair honoring a tobacco shop. He shared a table with Councilman Chris Bell, Mark Clark of the Houston Police Officers Union, and several West University Republicans. Also at ringside was Hotze's political Tonto, consultant Allen Blakemore.
All are primed to say that Hotze seemed sober during the festivities. Considering that Hotze was an early, ardent backer of District Attorney-elect Chuck Rosenthal, and Blakemore was the candidate's consultant, the case should provide a good test of the impartiality of justice under the new order.
With the likelihood that the Bush regency shortly will relocate itself to Washington, Democrats are busy dreaming about a resurgence in the Texas elections in 2002. Warming in the partisan incubator and party operatives' imaginations is this rainbow coalition:
- Governor: Laredo oilman Tony Sanchez or Houston plaintiff's lawyer John O'Quinn. Both have the bucks to finance their own campaigns -- and considerable drawbacks. Sanchez would have to explain why he was a Bush pioneer ($100,000 minimum fund-raiser) in the recent presidential race. O'Quinn -- according to party sources he's considering a run -- would have to convince voters he's no longer a perennial candidate for the Betty Ford Clinic. His recent interview with the FBI concerning former state attorney general Dan Morales's handling of tobacco litigation and a grand jury probe of the matter won't help either. And O'Quinn's millions won't necessarily buy voter love. Just ask defeated congressional candidate Phil Sudan, $3 million lighter but not necessarily wiser.
- Senate: Former HUD secretary and San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros to match up with old snaggletooth himself, Phil Gramm. Time has begun to erase the taint of Cisneros's affair with Linda Medlar and subsequent misdemeanor plea for fibbing to the FBI. With the charismatic Cisneros on the ballot, Dems could count on carrying South Texas en masse.
- On the bench looking for a place in the puzzle: Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, Houston City Controller Sylvia Garcia, former Texas comptroller John Sharp and Houston attorney Paul Hobby, who ran a strong race for comptroller in 1998.
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Only in a Place Called Chad
For those still casting about for analogies to the presidential election muck-up, here's an anonymously authored gem percolating through the e-mail ether. Our suggested working title: "Banana Republicans." In an abbreviated version, imagine that:
- We read of an election occurring anywhere in the third world in which the self-declared winner was the son of a former prime minister who had headed that nation's secret police (CIA).
- The self-declared winner lost the popular vote but won based on some old colonial holdover (electoral college) from the nation's predemocracy past.
- The self-declared winner's victory turned on disputed votes cast in a province governed by his brother.
- Poorly drafted ballots of one district, a district heavily favoring the self-declared winner's opponent, led thousands of voters to choose the wrong candidate.
- Members of that nation's most despised caste, fearing for their lives/livelihoods, turned out in record numbers to vote in near universal opposition to the self-declared winner's candidacy.
- The self-declared winner and his political party opposed a careful by-hand inspection and re-counting of the ballots in the disputed province or in its most hotly disputed district.
We would deem such an election to be representative of only the self-declared winner's will to power. We'd wearily turn the page thinking that it was another sad tale of pitiful pre- or antidemocracy peoples in some strange elsewhere.