As its boosters like to promise, when the Super Bowl comes to town it brings with it big money. In January 2004 the golden goose touched down in Houston and there were fortunes to be made.
Cindy Kutch was here to grab a piece of it. She'd spent 15 years in the special events business -- University of Houston graduations, fund-raisers for the Pasadena mayor, the annual Mardi Gras ball in Port Arthur -- and had just recently started her own company.
She thought she'd hit the big time when she signed up her first major client: the Houston Retired Players Chapter of the National Football League Players Association. She'd be staging a three-day Super Bowl party to help retired players mix with celebrities and network for business contacts and second careers.
She says her event was a success, drawing thousands of people. Though Magic Johnson cancelled at the last minute, other sports figures and celebrities including Terrell Owens, Patrick Ewing, Orlando Pace, Robert Horry and Ruben Studdard were able to make it to the Pavillion Mall in the Galleria area.
Kutch oversaw the sound, lighting, staging and decor. She converted the mall's vacant stores into kitschy, music-themed nightclubs and swank VIP rooms. "My job was to make it happen," the 49-year-old says, "to make people go, 'Wow!' "
It was all great, right up to the point where she didn't get paid.
Following Super Bowl XXXVIII, three small-business owners sued the NFLPA and its Houston chapter's politically connected vice president, Charles Taylor, a darling of the Bush family and the Harris County Republican Party. A similar theme runs through each complaint: that Taylor, representing the NFLPA, broke contracts, bounced checks and sunk these companies into debt.
Kutch, who is seeking $50,000 for services she provided, will finally have her day in court early next month, a year and a half after the Super Bowl. Donald Blake, owner of Blake's BBQ on Jeanetta, a sponsor for the event, says he's also owed $50,000. Blake was awarded a default judgment for that amount last year, which has since been appealed. And Ikie Denning, owner of Club Divus located on Greens Parkway, is seeking $18,000 for providing alcohol and liquor licenses, bar supplies and catering services.
"Even though we're little guys out there in the business world, you can't just step on us and keep moving on," says Denning.
Charles Taylor is sometimes mistaken for another pigskin player of the same name who was admitted into the NFL Hall of Fame. But this Charles Taylor's pro career was far from stellar.
Born in Fort Worth and raised in Dallas, Taylor was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1979 after graduating from Rice University with a degree in managerial studies. Plagued by injuries, he was cut early on and picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom he says he played "maybe four" games before hanging up his cleats in 1981.
After football, Taylor took a variety of jobs in investment banking. He also began volunteering his time and donating large sums of money to the Republican Party, which apparently helped pave the way for a series of high-level political appointments.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush named Taylor deputy director of the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Then in 1995, Governor George W. Bush appointed him to the Texas Commission on Human Rights. And in 1997, he served as development director for Harris County under Judge Robert Eckels.
To Taylor, these credentials alone should clear him of any wrongdoing.
"George Bush said I was great -- that can't be taken away from me," he says. "I mean, come on, I've been anointed already. Nobody can attack my credibility."
Shifting gears to last year's Super Bowl party, Taylor describes himself as "the point person" who put together the weekend-long event. He secured the sponsors, hired the event planners, and negotiated and signed the contracts.
Taylor admits there were missteps. But he takes no responsibility for them.
According to Kutch's lawsuit, back in October 2003 Taylor verbally agreed to pay her $66,000 to design the event. Kutch extended her own credit by hiring several vendors, or subcontractors, responsible for everything from lighting to floral arrangements.
Several months passed and Taylor still refused to sign a formal contract. "His bargaining power strengthened with each second that went by," explains Lou Gallio, Kutch's business partner. So 48 hours prior to the big weekend, Kutch delivered an ultimatum: Either sign the contract for $66,000, with the first payment of $50,000 to be wired to her account that same day, or she would pull out.
Taylor finally signed the paper and faxed it back to her. But, without explanation, he crossed out the dollar amounts, reducing the contract to $41,000. And he never wired the money into her account. Instead he wrote her three checks totaling some $31,000, all of which were later returned for insufficient funds.
Kutch, who fulfilled her end of the contract, was now deep in debt and hounded by angry vendors demanding payment. So on the Monday after the Super Bowl, Kutch visited Taylor at his office on Buffalo Terrace, where he tried to make amends.
Taylor "reached under his desk and handed me a bundle of cash," Kutch remembers.
The wad of bills totaled $1,000. Kutch returned to Taylor's office the next day and he handed over an additional $10,000 in cash.
Because she was in such a bind, Kutch says, she accepted the money -- which was still tens of thousands of dollars less than what she was owed. But the under-the-table transaction made her uneasy.
"I got scared," she says. "I felt like suddenly I was in over my head."
Taylor has an explanation for the piles of cash stored in his desk drawer. He says they came from ticket sales. Unfortunately, he adds, the party was a bust. Taylor had projected that revenues from ticket and alcohol sales would exceed $200,000 on opening night alone. Instead, he says, receipts totaled less than $30,000.
Taylor says he knows that Cindy Kutch got stiffed. But he doesn't know for certain by how much. And he doesn't know who should pay. Only that it's not him.
"I don't personally owe her money," Taylor says. "I wasn't putting on a party. The NFLPA was putting on a party."
The NFLPA has worked hard to avoid any culpability, and has effectively stiff-armed Taylor and its Houston chapter.
Following the Super Bowl, the NFLPA decertified the Houston chapter's charter. In a letter dated October 8, 2004, the organization's assistant executive director, Douglas Allen, threatened to sue Taylor and rebuked him for engaging in "foolish and illegal behavior."
According to court documents, NFLPA attorneys say that Taylor misrepresented himself. They say they never granted him permission to represent the NFLPA when issuing contracts for the Super Bowl party. They point to a letter sent to Taylor in November 2003 that orders him to "cease and desist from the use of the NFLPA name and logo."
Taylor dismisses this. He says it's customary for local NFLPA chapters to host Super Bowl parties. He says that the NFLPA's San Diego chapter hosted an official Super Bowl party one year earlier. And anyway, Taylor says that after he received the cease and desist letter he began using a new name, Houston Players of the NFL.
But NFLPA attorneys contend he failed to inform the contractors that he no longer represented the association. Indeed, they say Taylor continued to use a business card that identified him as head of the NFLPA's local chapter.
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Several attempts by the Houston Press to speak to the NFLPA proved futile: A spokesman passed the request on to an attorney, who punted to the assistant director of the retired players association, who sent it to assistant executive director Allen, who was evasive and downright churlish. "What part of 'I don't wish to discuss it' don't you understand?" he demanded.
Amid all the finger-pointing between the national organization and its Houston chapter, Kutch and the other business owners say they've been stuck holding the bag.
Because her business was so new, Kutch says, she couldn't afford to risk her reputation by stiffing her vendors. So she paid them all out of her own pocket. "That's a lot of money just to take away from somebody," says Kutch, a single mother of two with one child in college. "It wiped me out financially."
Looking back, Kutch says she has but one regret: that she even bothered showing up to do her job. "I could have shut the show down, easily," she says. "I wish I would have."