One thing you can say for University of Houston Chancellor-President Art Smith: He's a prolific writer, and he can churn out page after page in his defense, even when the verbiage serves not to bolster his case but rather to drag the school into deeper legal water.
Last year Smith issued an unusual open letter defending his general counsel from sex discrimination charges and blaming a cabal of women employees and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the controversy. According to a labor lawyer not involved in the case, Smith's rambling missive simply widened the university's legal vulnerability in the continuing case.
Last week, after the Insider and the Houston Chronicle published allegations that Smith's administrators fired campus police chief George Hess because he reported a star football player's misdeeds to the district attorney, Smith struck again. In a five-page, single-spaced response addressed to the UH community, the chancellor served up a curious melange of admissions and denials, then capped it off with his customary shooting of the messenger.
"The news media are not serving their readers well by reporting unsubstantiated allegations by disgruntled employees or by linking totally unrelated events into a fictitious web of conspiracy, no matter how intriguing or dramatic they may sound."
Unfortunately for the chancellor, several of the key denials in his response are contradicted by impartial witnesses, leaving his own veracity very much in question.
In his missive, Smith denied that his decision to take the police out of the loop for reporting white-collar crime on campus had anything to do with Hess's investigation and subsequent report to the district attorney on football player Mike DeRouselle's forgery case. The athlete received a deferred sentence for check forgery in 1996, then forged a university book invoice and sold the texts for $700. Smith claimed he and his top administrators were unaware of DeRouselle's previous forgery when they decided to handle the matter in-house and away from law enforcement and the court system.
After denying that his administrators ever attempted to keep Hess from reporting DeRouselle to the district attorney, the chancellor flatly denied that Hess was ever terminated. "Has the university fired Chief Hess? No, not at any time," declared Smith. "Claims that he was somehow 'reinstated' are therefore groundless, since he was never terminated."
Hess recalls that a week after DeRouselle was sentenced to a jail term by Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, his immediate supervisor, Associate Chancellor John Martin, told him in a November meeting that he was being fired. The campus assistant chief, Frank Cempa, attended a later meeting between Hess and Martin, where the chief's termination was discussed. Cempa kept handwritten notes, which Hess's lawyer turned over to the Insider. They back up Hess's account and refute the chancellor's assertion that Hess was never fired.
According to Cempa's notes, written shortly after the November 9 meeting, "Chief Hess asked Martin when would he get his letter regarding his termination....Martin acted surprised that Hess had told me of his firing." Martin then told Hess he "should go out in a dignified manner due to his being a long-standing good performer."
Hess's attorney Glenn Diddel contends Chancellor Smith is flat wrong in saying Hess was not told he was fired.
"Obviously Mr. Smith, though he was quick to hop into his diatribe, didn't bother to talk to anybody," retorts the lawyer. "He didn't bother to talk to Hess, and he never talked to Cempa." The lawyer figures Smith was unaware that the Cempa notes existed when he issued his statement and didn't realize "you now have a highly credible witness who corroborates what Chief Hess has said, to the word."
Diddel finds it curious that while Smith, general counsel Dennis Duffy and Vice Chancellor Randy Harris have all spoken to the media, the man who actually fired Hess, Associate Chancellor Martin, has not been heard from. "Hess got Martinized," says Diddel with a chuckle, "but where's Martin? This is the guy, who, if there was any basis for Smith's defense, should be trotted out. Nobody's heard one word from him at all."
Diddel says that Smith is also wrong in claiming that top administrators, including current athletic director Chet Gladchuck, were unaware of DeRouselle's previous criminal record. According to the chancellor's letter, "it is vital to any understanding of the handling of DeRouselle's case in late 1998 and early 1999 that his previous conviction in 1996 for a felony was not then known by any of the University administrators principally involved."
Diddel says in fact Hess met with Gladchuck shortly after the director was hired in 1997 to brief him on law enforcement problems with the athletic department. One of the first topics was DeRouselle.
"Gladchuck was told by Hess that the football coach [at the time Kim Helton] was not very cooperative, and they had a problem with a player named DeRouselle, who had been convicted of problems before." Diddel says assistant chief Cempa and another UH officer were present when Gladchuck was briefed on DeRouselle's history, including his previous conviction.
If the matter ever goes to court as a wrongful termination suit, Diddel says, he expects to call Cempa and other officers to back up his client's account.
Currently Hess retains his $88,000-a-year state-paid post, though the UH administration is not dealing with him and instead is routing all communications through Cempa. Although Smith insists that Hess has not been terminated, he vows in his missive to move forward with the reorganization of the UH bureaucracy, including the police department. How long the standoff will continue is anybody's guess.
"The concern that obviously comes up," says Diddel, "is that the administration is undermining the effectiveness of its own police force by building a wall around the senior person in the line of command."
On the other hand, all that insulation probably makes Hess the safest person on the UH campus these days.
Ringing Chris's Bell
At-Large councilman and attorney Chris Bell started out his municipal career as one of Mayor Lee Brown's favorite members, but their rosy relationship has soured in recent months. The friction between the two is spurring speculation by the councilman's admirers and the mayor's opponents that Bell could be a challenger-in-training for Brown should the mayor run for a third term in 2001.
After Bell led a walkout of councilmembers late last year in an unsuccessful attempt to delay the approval of an airport parking contract backed by Brown, he found himself deep in the mayoral doghouse and in danger of supplanting Bruce Tatro as Hizzoner's least-liked member on Council.
Brown reorganized the City Council committees last week and used the occasion to strip Bell of his chairmanship of Fiscal Affairs. Instead, former federal bribery-conspiracy defendant John Castillo will take over the revamped Fiscal Affairs and Management Initiatives Committee. Bell was quick to complain that he had been punished for his independent ways.
A Bell political supporter says the two-term councilman is being pressed by downtown players to consider a mayoral bid, and Bell himself does not rule it out. "I'm keeping my options open," says the moderate Democrat, who several weeks ago hosted a dinner at his home for elected city officials. Interestingly, the mayor and three other pro-Brown members found other places to be, while Bell and the conservative corps on Council got along famously.
One observer marveled at how Bell and District E's Rob Todd, G's Bert Keller and F's Mark Ellis seemed so much at ease with one another. "It's scary," says the source. "Like this little brat pack or something."
Bell knows Keller from their college days at the University of Texas, while Todd, Keller and Ellis had just gotten back from a pheasant-hunting trip to Kansas the weekend before, organized by GOP consultant Allen Blakemore and featuring the campfire companionship of religious right kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze and district attorney candidate and prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal.
All that new chumminess between Bell and conservatives likely won't help his relations with Mayor Brown.
"That dinner might have been sort of the last straw," says a colleague. "It was like a shot across the bow. Brown took it as Chris trying to organize Council, and you know this administration has been paranoid about councilmembers getting together [on their own]."
Now the mayor might just have a future opponent to worry about as well.
Don't put the Insider in your doghouse. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.