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The Insider

Armed and Caucasian
Last week we told you of a memo distributed by Harris County personnel director Janie Reyes that included a profile of potential perpetrators of workplace violence. One of the 21 "clues" that could tip supervisors to underlings predisposed to commit on-the-job mayhem was is a Caucasian male in thirties or forties. County Judge Robert Eckels, a known Caucasian in his thirties, returned our call after we went to press to confess that he indeed fits the sinister clue number 17 as well: owns or has access to weapons. "Yep," confirms Eckels. "I have a Browning shotgun I use for bird hunting."

Ice Cream ... and More
When John Peavy Jr. announced his resignation from City Council last week, he said he was quitting because he had been unable to sell his share of a city-franchised ice cream stand at Hobby Airport. Peavy, however, may have a lot more on his mind than that rather paltry conflict of interest. The at-large councilman -- whose resigna-tion won't take effect until a January special election to pick his replacement -- already has acknowledged taking a check for $500 from the undercover FBI agents posing as would-be investors in the city-subsidized downtown hotel project. Peavy had reported the contribution on a campaign finance disclosure, and after the FBI sting went public, said he would return the money. But The Insider has learned that the feds will try to prove that the councilman accepted another $2,000 or more in cash from the undercover agents -- after the February deadline for elected city officials to take contributions. Peavy did not respond to our specific request for comment on the FBI probe.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Gene Locke has given the councilmembers targeted in the FBI sting the go-ahead to take contributions for their legal defense -- but only if they have someone else handle the money. One of the targets, Councilman John Castillo, had asked the Texas Ethics Commission for an opinion on whether an elected city official "may accept contributions to a legal defense fund to pay expenses in connection with a federal investigation of and possible indictment for alleged official misconduct." Castillo wanted the commission to determine if the city law that bars councilmembers from accepting campaign contributions prior to 270 days before the next scheduled municipal election also applied to donations for a defense fund. (If so, that would mean councilmembers who might find themselves indicted couldn't take contributions to pay their lawyers until February of next year, by which time -- and we're speaking hypothetically here -- they might be guests of the federal penal system.)

In June, the Ethics Commission ruled there is no distinction between campaign and defense fund contributions. That seemed to settle the question, but Locke has since come up with an option that will allow Castillo and other councilmembers under investigation to register a legal defense committee with the Ethics Commission, so long as it is run by a third party and not by the official who would use the money. Locke also added a proviso requiring the councilmembers to report defense fund contributions on the annual personal financial disclosures they must file. But that means the public will have to wait until October to learn which interests are trying to curry favor with councilmembers by helping them pay for their lawyers (hypothetically speaking, of course).

Burge Purge Urged
Businessman and affirmative action critic Dave Wilson hung one big scalp on his belt last week, and now he's sharpening his knife with an eye toward bagging an even bigger one. It was Wilson whose complaint led the city's independent Ethics Committee to rule that the aforementioned John Peavy Jr. had a conflict of interest by continuing to operate as a city subcontractor at Hobby Airport. In the wake of Peavy's slow-motion resignation, Wilson is giving notice to Metro Chairman Billy Burge, who's overstayed his legally circumscribed tenure on the transit authority board by more than a year. Unless Burge tenders his "full, complete and unconditional resignation" by the end of this week, Wilson vows he'll go to court to force Commissioners Court to follow the law and appoint a replacement for the little big mayoral crony.

My Sympathies
Criminal District Court Judge Joe Kegans is seriously ill with cancer and resting at home, but Harris County Republican Chairman Gary Polland isn't waiting for her seat to become vacant. To the dismay of some courthouse regulars, Polland is already mentioning assistant district attorney Julian Ramirez as a possible successor for Kegans. "Rather ghoulish," observes one well-connected GOP lawyer. "Highly inappropriate," adds a member of Kegans' court staff.

Polland, however, says his intentions have been misconstrued in the courthouse gossip mill. The criminal defense lawyer says he's not "promoting" Ramirez as a gubernatorially appointed successor for Kegans, but rather is preparing for the possibility that the county GOP executive committee might have to pick a nominee for a special election to fill Kegans' bench should it come open later this year. "I like Judge Kegans and hope she has a full recovery," says Polland, who, meanwhile, acknowledges that he considers Ramirez to be prime judicial material.  

Ramirez, while confirming his interest in a judgeship, diplomatically sidestepped the question of whether he covets Kegans' gavel. "Frankly, I'm flattered that [Polland] thinks I'd make a good judge," says the prosecutor, "but I don't think it's really appropriate to go for that."

Kegans, who was unavailable for comment, is legendary around the courthouse for her thick skin and salty commentary, so she might not be bothered by the premature maneuvering for her bench. "You want sympathy?" the veteran jurist once barked to a lawyer in her court. "Go find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis."

Part-timer
Republican Mike Fleming has left his job as an assistant on outgoing County Attorney Mike Driscoll's staff to devote more time to campaigning for Driscoll's job against Democrat Sylvia Garcia. When he's not out on the hustings, Fleming will work at the downtown law firm of Liddell Sapp Zivley Hill & LaBoon. While Fleming enjoys a reputation as a good lawyer, it's not clear what Liddell Sapp gets out of the deal by hiring someone who may be gone in six months -- other than possible goodwill from a future county attorney. Liddell Sapp partner Frank Calhoun says Fleming approached the firm and asked for a part-time assignment that would allow him to support his family until the November election. He will likely be utilized in taking depositions, possibly on cases for Liddell Sapp's huge inventory of breast implant defendants. Fleming cannot use the firm's name in association with his campaign, Calhoun adds.

Fleming has joined a firm with a storied history, as we learned from a recent bit of puffery in the Chronicle business section commemorating Liddell Sapp's 80th anniversary. "Liddell Sapp has built a firm with representation of very prestigious clients," the story quoted a law firm consultant as saying. At paragraph 11, the piece gets around to mentioning that one of those very prestigious clients is, natch, the Houston Chronicle.

Bad Rap
It's no secret that rap music is loaded with sexually explicit lyrics and themes of violence and misogyny, and that Houston's Rap-A-Lot Records is responsible for some of the raunchiest rap around. Yet Linda L. Ricks said that was all news to her when she took an office job at Rap-A-Lot in the fall of 1991. Ricks lost her job at the record label in December 1992, and thereafter filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her ex-employer, claming to have suffered a type of mental anguish akin to posttraumatic stress disorder from working at Rap-A-Lot.

Other Harris County residents evidently had a better working knowledge of rap. In fact, lawyers had difficulty settling on a jury before Ricks' suit came to trial last month. Of the unusually large panel of 100 prospective jurors assembled in Civil District Judge William Bell's court, almost two-thirds were struck -- most after acknowledging a strong dislike of rap. "The vast majority of the people struck said they would give [Ricks] a head start because of the lyrics in rap music, " said John Zavitsanos, one of the two lawyers who defended Rap-A-Lot and its affiliate, JAS Management. "One said it was the source of fighting in his house, because his kid listens to rap."

Ricks, who is married and in her forties, complained in her suit that her supervisor, Tony Randle, whose possesses a star-shaped gold front tooth and is nicknamed "Big Chief," telephoned her at home in the middle of the night to say that he was thinking of her and to ask her to breakfast. Ricks further charged that Randle made inappropriate comments about her breasts and rear end and said she was insulted by Big Chief's repositioning of his genitals inside his pants. Her attorney, Gregg Rosenberg, conceded to the 12 jurors who were eventually seated that his client wasn't the most aggrieved victim of sexual harassment he has represented, but he argued that Rap-A-Lot did not have carte blanche to create a hostile work environment simply because it traffics in hostility and sexual aggressiveness.

Although the titles of such Rap-A-Lot numbers as the Geto Boys' "Let Your Nuts Hang" were mentioned, the jury was not treated to a sonic sampling of the label's wares during the trial. Instead, the lawyers cited Greek mythology and quoted from such notable 19th-century rappers as Sren Kierkegaard and Rudyard Kipling. After two weeks of testimony, the jury took only an hour last week to reach an 11-1 decision not to give Ricks a penny of the more than $70,000 in damages Rosenberg had requested.  

One young woman who served as an alternate juror apparently liked what she heard during the trial. After the verdict, she told the lawyers that Rap-A-Lot sounded like a fun place to work and inquired whether there were any openings.

Swordfish!
You may recall the story of con man Steven L. Russell, the prisoner who used a telephone at the Harris County Jail to impersonate visiting state District Judge Charles Hearn and order a reduction in his own bail. A detention clerk at the jail fell for Russell's ruse, and a bonding agency secured his release from the clink after lowering his bail from almost $1 million to $45,000. Russell, who had been jailed on charges of stealing $800,000 from a company that handled doctors' finances, was apprehended in Florida a few days later, but his escape has prompted some procedural changes at the jail. According to District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, judges are still able to call a clerk and verbally order a change in a prisoner's bond, but they must also speak with a magistrate before a change will be okayed. "And they're going to arrange some kind of password to insure that it is indeed the judge," adds Bacarisse, "so that this kind of thing doesn't happen in the future."

Bennie Is Leaving the Building
Several helpful tipsters rang us last week to report that former councilman and FBI sting ringmaster Ben Reyes was in the act of appealing property evaluations over at the Harris County Appraisal District. "He's casually dressed and accompanied by a thin, attractive woman," whispered a caller who was giving a live, blow-by-blow report from the scene of the action. If the FBI needs any volunteer agents in Houston, there's apparently no shortage of aspirants.

Report your Ben Reyes sightings to The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mail at insider@houston-press.com.


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