Strange Currents

Two weeks ago, the Independent Electrical Contractors endorsed Bruce Tatro in the upcoming runoff for the District A seat on City Council. While the endorsement was unlikely to have much impact beyond the IEC's membership, it did open the door on one of the weirder tales to arise in this otherwise dull election season.

In making its endorsement, the nonunion trade association snubbed Tatro's opponent, Dave B. Wilson, who is making his third bid for municipal office by promising to end the cronyism that's flourished under outgoing Mayor Bob Lanier.

Wilson, who owns a company that installs electric signs, was president of the IEC board when Lanier clobbered him in the 1995 mayor's race. Wilson won a measure of redemption a year later, when a complaint he filed with the city's Ethics Commission led to the resignation of Councilman John Peavy, whose subcontract to sell yogurt at the airport was deemed a conflict of interest under the city charter. Wilson then launched a campaign for Peavy's at-large seat, but failed to make the runoff in a special election eventually won by Chris Bell.

But so far, Wilson's feisty portrayal of an angry white male has played well in District A, which is on the northwest side of town. As a loose cannon with name recognition, Wilson has a decent shot at beating the lesser-known Tatro on December 6. And the ever-colorful Wilson smells victory: After finishing a close second in the first-round election on November 4, he immediately pronounced his baby-faced opponent "dead meat."

But before he can satisfy his bloodlust, Wilson may have to revisit his role in a long-dormant scandal that involved the 1994 indictments of Bobby Love and Max Langham, the two highest-ranking officials in the electrical inspection division of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department.

In resurfacing just two weeks before an election, the Tale of the Missing Legal Defense Fund may smell like your garden-variety political dirty trick. And that may indeed explain why a chain of events that began five years ago is suddenly relevant to a Council race with limited appeal outside of Spring Branch and the rest of northwest Houston.

Fortunately for Wilson, it's not the kind of story that can be boiled down to a 30-second radio commercial, and there seems to be more than enough culpability to spread around among the cast of characters. And while not exactly the kind of thing you want to be associated with when running for office --especially while hammering the incumbent mayor for alleged ethical shortcomings --Dave Wilson carried out his duty with extreme loyalty to the cause and may, in fact, be the only person involved in the tale who has nothing to hide.

"I've taken a bad rap on this whole deal," Wilson says. "I worked my ass off to make that association grow. Those ungrateful bastards...."

It all began just before Christmas 1992, when an electrical contractor gave $50 checks as gifts to Love, the chief electrical inspector, and Langham, his second-in-command.

Other inspectors who also received checks turned them over to their superiors in the public works department, leading to an investigation by the Houston Police Department's Public Integrity Review Group. The PIRG findings were referred to the district attorney's office, and in April 1994, Love and Langham were indicted under a law that prohibits public servants from accepting gifts from city contractors. They were charged with a Class A misdemeanor and faced up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Three months later, the Independent Electrical Contractors, led by board president Dave Wilson and executive director Bob Wilkinson, hosted a fundraiser to help Love and Langham defray their legal expenses. The city's chief building official warned the inspectors that they would be violating city ethics rules if the funds donated by contractors whose work they checked were used to pay for their defense. Still, the Electrical Legal Defense Fund grew to $33,555.

Nearly two years later, on February 9, 1996, Love and Langham pleaded no contest and were fined $100. Minor traffic violations are punished more harshly, suggesting that the city employees enjoyed the benefit of some nifty legal counsel. Who paid for it was a question that wasn't asked, at least not beyond the confines of the public works department. When Love and Langham returned to work after a three-week suspension, that appeared to be the end of the matter.

It was not, however, the end of the Electrical Legal Defense Fund, which surfaced as a point of contention in a developing feud between Bob Wilkinson and Dave Wilson. According to Wilson, he resigned as IEC's president in late 1995 after board members refused to investigate his assertion that Wilkinson was mismanaging the IEC's operations. Wilkinson counters that Wilson deceived a five-member committee set up to manage the defense fund, made unauthorized expenditures and refused to offer an "adequate accounting" of how the fund's money was spent.

The mutual mistrust deepened until Wilkinson accused Wilson of absconding with the $33,555 fund. Wilson denied doing so, but at the same time he was reluctant to show that he'd paid Love and Langham's legal bills -- since the inspectors had been warned that use of the contractor-donated money for that purpose would be an ethics violation.

"I'm the one who kept this whole thing covered up," Wilson says. "I let all the insinuations pass that I had embezzled this money because I didn't want those two guys to get fired."

But a few months ago, with his reputation on the line, Wilson finally gave one of Love's electrical inspectors a crude handwritten accounting of the fund's expenditures. Wilson also provided photocopies of about a dozen checks --including three cashier's checks totaling $23,100 to attorney Jim Skelton.

Just as Wilson feared, the copied checks and handwritten record turned up at the PIRG unit, which along with the city legal department opened another investigation into the possibility that Love and Langham had once again accepted illegal gifts. Wilkinson, however, refused to believe Wilson's accounting methods, and even today says he's not convinced the defense fund was ever spent on legal fees.

"He gave the same crap to us, and we don't believe any of it," says Wilkinson. "We got a letter from the lawyer saying he was paid by Bobby Love and Max Langham. The lawyer said he didn't get any money from Dave."

Sure enough, when contacted by the Press, Love faxed over a personal check made out to Skelton for $750 and dated February 14, 1996, less than a week after the case was closed. Love also sent along a September 22, 1997 letter from Skelton that said Love and Langham "never accepted any money" from the IEC fundraiser. Moreover, Skelton wrote, "during the time that I represented them, no money was paid to me from any outside source or person. Mr. Love and Mr. Langham paid me with checks from their personal accounts."

Apparently, Skelton's explanation was good enough for Melvin Embry, the city's chief building official. Embry says that when Wilson's documents came into the hands of PIRG investigators, he advised Love and Langham to obtain confirmation from Skelton that they had paid for their own defense. Embry says the matter was also investigated and dismissed by the loss-prevention unit of the public works department.

Finally, Embry received a letter from the district attorney's office that said no charges would be filed based on the latest PIRG findings.

"It was investigated by PIRG, turned over to the district attorney and, as I understand it, there was not enough information to prosecute," Embry says. "I kicked it over to our loss-prevention group to see if any policies were broken, and they couldn't prove anything. The attorney has written a letter saying he did not receive any funds in their behalf other than what Bobby and Max paid him, and I've got the canceled checks. Right now, unless there is something else that comes to me, I don't have anything else to go on."

Most of the players in this charade seemed pretty comfortable with the notion that Dave Wilson -- when faced with the choice of pocketing $33,555 or violating city ethics rules by using the money for the inspectors' defense -- took the cash.

And though they've been confronted by contradictory evidence, no one felt the need to call Jim Skelton to ask the obvious question: Did you, as Dave Wilson claims, receive some $23,000 from the Electrical Legal Defense Fund?

When the Press posed the question to him last week, the attorney replied, "After the case was over, yes."

"There was a big flap over what to do with the money," Skelton continued, "and they decided that since the money was raised for the lawyer, it should go to me. So, yeah, they paid me some money later."

(Skelton himself has had some court-related problems of late. In 1995, the attorney admitted he lied when he told Steve Garza, a former HPD officer convicted of federal drug charges, that he had filed an appeal in his behalf. Garza filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas. In August, Skelton was disbarred by default when he skipped an evidentiary hearing on Garza's complaint.)

Skelton admits his letter to Embry on behalf of Love and Langham was somewhat disingenuous, though he believed it was in the best interests of his clients.

"I'm trying to protect Bobby and Max," Skelton explained. "I don't want them to get into trouble, because I think they're real decent guys. That's the reason I wrote the letter."

But those sentiments could come back to haunt Love and Langham. When told of Skelton's comments last week, Embry referred the matter to the city legal department. Assistant city attorney Connie Acosta acknowledged that the city's investigation had been "stuck" because of the lack of cooperation from those involved. Maybe now, she said, "I can complete this investigation and take some appropriate action. The timing bothers me, but that's not insurmountable."

With Election Day fast approaching, Dave Wilson wonders if he'll be able to say the same thing. Until then, he can only hope the voters treat him more kindly than his fellow electrical contractors have.

"We were all doing things to help those guys, and then they all turn on me and try to fry me," he says. "I'm not worried about my enemies, it's my friends that worry me.


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