Last week's meeting of the Houston Sports Authority had a larger than usual media turnout, thanks to a protest e-mail circulated by Jack Rains, the HSA's former chairman. In his missive, Rains accused the group of planning to gut an ethics code he had helped craft that requires HSA board members, employees and vendors to disclose any interconnecting financial ties.
"I read the agenda for tomorrow's meeting and was shocked to see a proposal for lowering the ethics standards of [the HSA]," Rains warned. "I urge all current board members to vote 'No' on this proposal."
The ethics code tip proved less than a news blockbuster. HSA counsel Gene Locke explained at the meeting that rather than junking the code, the "housekeeping measure" simply brought it in line with nearly identical ethics provisions in legislation passed by state Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston. The HSA board voted unanimously, with one abstention, for the change, and the issue went unmentioned in news coverage of the meeting.
After the meeting, which he did not attend, Rains credited the public scrutiny he had stirred up with foiling an effort to dismantle the code.
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"I'm sure we raised enough hell, and turned on enough lights, that it became housekeeping."
Effective or errant, Rains's ethics haymaker was a rare public swing in what has become his behind-the-scenes fight against former colleagues. Still seething over his replacement by developer Billy Burge, Rains questions Burge's ethics and the motivations of county officials supervising construction of the $350 million-or-so stadium for Bob McNair's new National Football League franchise.
Jack Morris Rains has the personality of a bulldozer and the six foot one, 280-pound chassis to match. One less-than-admiring official who dealt with Rains as chairman describes him as "a fat, arrogant blowhard."
HSA trustee Jim Jard says the highly emotional Rains is furious that his achievements in negotiating the Astros' Enron Field project earned him not plaudits but a pink slip as chairman. "Jack's a proud person, and he wanted to be honored," Jard says. "So he's bitter, he's mad, and he's upset, not only with the people who didn't reappoint him, but the person who's taken his place."
Rains precipitated his downfall by treating elected city and county officials other than Mayor Lee Brown and County Judge Robert Eckels as nuisances who did not rate serious consultation. "I answer to only two people," Rains once snapped in brushing off a city councilman's request for a meeting. "The mayor and the county judge."
Coleman's bill, passed in the last legislative session, changed all that. It mandated that the HSA chairman be nominated by the mayor, but approved by City Council and Harris County Commissioners Court. It eliminated Rains's sometime-ally Eckels from his nominating role.
Since Rains was already at odds with a majority of the court -- Commissioners Steve Radack, El Franco Lee and Jerry Eversole -- Coleman's bill was a death warrant for the HSA chairman. City councilmembers and commissioners he had long ignored could get revenge by replacing him with Burge.
The 63-year-old attorney-developer contends he was forced from the HSA helm not by his cantankerous personality, but by a cabal of county officials and contractors out to profit from the construction of the new football stadium. He's not about to fade into the urban woodwork and let them get away with it.
Rains, however, has rather tainted credentials as an ethics crusader. During his tenure as chairman he was in the center of controversies over HSA's hiring of the Looper Reed Mark & McGraw law firm where Rains works. There were several instances where the Rains-led HSA appeared to violate the state's open meetings law. Coleman, perhaps the single official most responsible for Rains's downfall, is less than sympathetic to his new posture as a reformer.
"Calling somebody else unethical," says Coleman, a sarcastic edge to his voice, "does not make you ethical."
An HSA board member also finds Rains's ethics crusade somewhat puzzling, considering he never spoke out on the issue as chairman.
"Whether Jack stays or not [as chair], there's either corruption or not," muses the source. "So why would you threaten to expose it only if you weren't reappointed?" The official laughs and continues:
"The only crusading Jack's ever been interested in is when it promotes his own self-interest."
Rains counters he never personally profited from the legal association between Looper Reed and the HSA. He says he used a lawyer from the firm only in a pinch, to negotiate with the Astros after firing HSA counsel Bob Collie for refusing to follow his orders. He notes that it was the Burge-chaired HSA construction committee that was accused of conducting clandestine meetings. Rains boasts he brought the baseball stadium in under budget and without scandal.
At the same time, Rains says that he, as chairman, forcibly prevented HSA member Burge from exploiting business ties with HSA contractors. At issue was Burge's proposed partnership last year with Enron Field contractor Brown & Root in building the downtown county jail.
"It is no secret that I told Billy he was not going to use Brown & Root as his partner on the jail deal.And that if he did I would call for his resignation," says Rains. "He can do whatever he wants to, but to involve Brown & Root is just outrageous."
Burge eventually partnered with Dallas-based Manhattan Construction to win the jail deal. The drawn-out process involved several rounds of bidding that tipped the selection to his Ayreshire-Manhattan joint venture. After Burge's ascent to HSA chairman, Manhattan became a prime contractor in building the new football stadium. That created a connection between the chairman and an HSA vendor that Rains finds as questionable as the Brown & Root link.
If Burge did not actively push for Manhattan to get the football stadium project, he certainly went along with it, Rains says. "That has nothing to do with my heart or my head. Those are just facts and, in my mind, a prima facie conflict of interest."
Rains says Burge also pushed for Mitsubishi as a contractor to work on the stadium's retractable roof -- at the same time Burge had ties to another Mitsubishi-controlled subsidiary. That claim is backed by an HSA board member who asked not to be identified.
"If Jack's got a tin ear about conflicts, Billy's got no ears. Billy had a relationship with Mitsubishi and tried to get them in on the roof deal. It's like, 'Billy, don't send memos from their office in New York while you're lobbying for them.' "
This source also believes Burge won the chairmanship by promising county officials they would be allowed to manage the construction of the football stadium, with its millions of dollars in potential business for their supporters.
"Billy sold out. When he went to get the nomination, the first thing he told [commissioners] was, 'Sure y'all can build it.' Jack would have fought that."
Burge defended his business connections with stadium contractor Manhattan as conforming with the HSA code of ethics.
"I was not on the committee that selected Manhattan," says Burge. "As chairman, I stayed out of that."
Burge says that unlike his predecessor, he has "empowered the committees to make decisions to bring them to the full board, versus as Jack ran the board, when the chairman dictated the way the committees are going."
Burge denies he "sold out" to get the chairmanship by agreeing to let the county rather than the HSA manage the football stadium construction. He explains that because the stadium will be built on county property, its officials had a right to a role overseeing the construction. Despite his antipathy for Rains, Representative Coleman agrees with the former chairman that Burge should not be a partner with an HSA vendor.
"Billy Burge shouldn't be able to do it, just like Jack Rains shouldn't be able to do it," says Coleman. "The board should be looking at those issues, because it goes not just to the [integrity of] the chair, but the whole body."
An HSA board source says Burge's winning ways with the elected officials who appointed him shouldn't protect him from the same rough treatment that Rains received.
"Billy's the nicest guy in the world," says the trustee, "but if he's doing something wrong, it shouldn't matter."
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