The Insider

The Gold-Plated Mouthpiece

Here's more proof that HISD Superintendent Rod Paige is hell-bent on proving the school district's critics right.

After voters rejected a $300 million bond issue for school construction and repairs last spring, Paige convened a powwow of HISD trustees and administrators and downtown business types who apparently concluded that the district's problem was not the message it was selling, but its messenger. One of Paige's solutions was to use his discretionary funds to hire a new messenger, at least on a temporary basis. And the new messenger -- a 35-year-old Alabaman named Terry Abbott -- brings some interesting credentials for someone who'll be speaking for an inner-city, mostly minority school district.

Abbott is a onetime wire service reporter and press secretary for former Alabama governor Guy Hunt until Hunt was forced from office in 1993 following his conviction on a felony charge for misappropriating inaugural funds. Abbott joins HISD on an open-ended consulting contract valued at $110,000 annually -- a little better than the going rate for five beginning teachers. He moved into his district office last week and, as you might expect for someone so well-compensated, he's enthusiastic about his new assignment.

"My strategy for dealing with all the media is very simple," says Abbott. "Present facts straightforward. Don't try to hide anything or disguise anything. This is the public's business, and the public has a right to know."

For all you lowly-paid teachers out there wondering whether Abbott, who lacks a college degree, is worth his six-figure salary, the new flack says not to worry.

"My addition is not adding anything to the budget or the number of staff," he explains, demonstrating his skills as an accomplished professional spinmaster.

His role, Abbott adds, is "such an important part of what we're trying to do."

And you thought educating children was such an important part of what HISD is trying to do.

Paige issued a short statement announcing Abbott's hiring but didn't return a phone inquiry from The Insider concerning the terms of Abbott's contract, which was not competitively bid and did not require trustees' approval, according to board president Paula Arnold.

Arnold says the decision to bring Abbott aboard is a reaction to state Comptroller John Sharp's recent audit that repeatedly underlined the district's poor job in telling its story to the public.

But Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, suggests Abbott's contract is more reflective of what Sharp found wrong with the district.

"[Auditors] said cut the size of the PR department, not add a $110,000 a year consultant," she scoffs.

Fallon points out that veteran HISD teachers top out in the low $40,000s, "but we hire a non-degreed person to come in and do PR for $110,000, whose main experience appears to be covering up fraud and governmental indiscretion.

"Apparently the district must be anticipating something."
Abbott had a colorful career as Hunt's media man. The governor maintained a combative relationship with the press, and Abbott functioned as his pit bull, ripping Hunt's Democratic successor, Jim Folsom Jr., for allegedly ordering a search of Hunt's garbage (an accusation Folsom denied).

"They're treating us all like we're a bunch of common thieves," Abbott declared to USA Today.

He also had the job of defending Hunt's decision to fly the Confederate battle flag over the dome of the state capitol. After a local judge banned the display, Abbott said "any decision to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Alabama Capitol, the birthplace of the Confederacy, should be made on a statewide basis, not by a local judge."

And then there was the time a drug informant tried to frame Abbott by claiming the press secretary had met with her three times and tried to buy 11 pounds of cocaine. A district judge sentenced the informant to five years in prison for lying to the FBI about Abbott and ordered her to pay $5,000 to cover his legal costs.

After Hunt sank, Abbott peddled his services as a consultant to a string of Republican candidates. He was brought to Paige's attention by fellow Republican Rob Mosbacher, a member of the Greater Houston Partnership board and prospective mayoral candidate.

Mosbacher says Abbott came highly recommended from journalists who worked with him in Alabama.

"You talk to the New York Times reporter over there and the wire service guys -- he came through with flying colors as being the epitome of a straight shooter, conducting himself very honorably," says Mosbacher.

As for Paige's hiring of an outlander to tame the surly local media bestiary, Mosbacher says, "If you have a reputation of being trusted, and Terry did ... whether you've been here all your life or in Timbuktu doesn't matter."

Of course, the administration of the Timbuktu ISD might not be as intent on shooting itself in the foot as Abbott's new employer.

Two-Paper Town
One of the visionaries who attempted to revive the Post on the Internet last spring before getting swatted down by the Chronicle for infringing on its rights to the dead paper's name is still plugging away. The freshly dubbed Houston Daily News has an office and working phone, and management promises to deliver the first edition of the on-line publication on January 1. Dates for the launch of the cyberpaper have been set before and expired without product, but News president Paul Allen claims it's really gonna happen this time.

Allen says four news hands have been hired to edit sections for the News. They are Sue Davis, a veteran of KTRH radio, Channel 8 and Channel 51; Marene Gustin, a 51 features producer; Scott E. Berrett, a 51 business reporter; and former Post sportswriter Jim Molony.

We can't vouch for Allen's journalistic credentials, but we do know his resume includes a stay in a federal prison in Florida last year for defrauding the Butler & Binion law firm by bribing an employee to sign an inflated truck transport contract.

Allen claims a 13-lawyer partnership is providing the financial backing for the new paper. He declined to reveal names, but he did say lawyer Don Forester, who fronted the previous effort, is no longer associated with the venture.

Allen is promising a mix of audio, video and print in the new medium. That may be helped along by a working arrangement with Channel 51. Allen says he and the news station's owner, Doug Johnson, are working out the details. (Johnson did not return a call from The Insider.)

Allen's isn't the only on-line publication slated to debut in Houston in 1997: Microsoft is launching a chain of entertainment-oriented electronic papers here and in other cities around the country using a "sidewalk" theme.

Chris Hearne, who was publisher of the Press under previous ownership and most recently the publisher of Mexico Business magazine, has signed on with Microsoft to direct creation of Sidewalk Houston. Hearne, who's currently enrolled in the Microsoft re-education camp at the software giant's compound outside Seattle, says Sidewalk Houston will have a staff of up to 20 employees and will hit the electronic streets in the second half of next year.

Unlike the Houston Daily News and its mysterious backers, there's no doubt that Bill Gates is capable of funding the venture indefinitely. Hearne describes the Microsoft start-up as "a massive nationwide campaign," something akin to watching a NASA mission unfold.

Presumably not the final Challenger flight.

Hope They Stock It with Five-Pound Bass
With all the plans to revive downtown, it's understandable that at least one group seems to have slipped into the game under radar. The Cotswold Foundation, a group spearheaded by retired Shell CEO John Bookout, developer-tort reformer Richard Weekley and construction company owner Leo Linbeck Jr., among others, has grand plans for the north end of downtown.

The name "Cotswold" is taken from a bucolic, pastoral area of old England noted for charming urban villages and artist havens. According to a prospectus, the local Cotswoldians want to restore vitality to an area "that notwithstanding some worthy individual projects, has been in economic and social decline for many years."

They are targeting the blocks between Commerce Street south to Capitol, and Louisiana east to U.S. Highway 59, and are proposing "water gardens" on Market Square and Congress, a downtown security force and tree-lined pedestrian walkways.

Gretchen Weis, a spokeswoman for the foundation, had little to say about the details of the project, which will apparently be funded by $12 million in philanthropic donations, plus another $18 million in privately issued bonds presented "as a gift" to the city.

"We are in developmental stages at this point. We hope to make a public announcement in mid-January, but at this point it's really kind of premature to talk about it."

The Cotswold plan has not been approved by either the city or the county, but one governmental type who's seen the proposal is dubious:

"What they wanted to do was shut down Congress, basically, and put wide sidewalks, a lot of trees and a river down the middle of it. I'm not joking."

Our skeptic says it's unclear whether the river would "run straight, or zigzag."

When Cotswold does go public, it's going to have some explaining to do to those who are already involved in redeveloping downtown.

"There's no way that can happen," exclaimed Karen Carr, the economic development director of Market Square, who had never heard of the Cotswold Foundation. "There's no room to build any water gardens."

Uncharacteristically Silent
Among the attendees at lawyer Jim Moriarty's Christmas party last week were an interviewer and camera crew for Dateline NBC, who trailed Sylvester Turner around the gathering collecting video for an upcoming feature on the former mayoral candidate's successful libel lawsuit against Channel 13 and reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

The NBC folks interviewed Turner and his attorney, Ron Franklin, but when they came calling on Dolcefino for a chat, the normally voluble reporter clammed up. Likewise, Channel 13 refused to provide NBC with samples of Wayne's other investigative reports.

Channel 13 attorney Chip Babcock indicates he advised Dolcefino -- whose testimony for the trial of Turner's lawsuit was quite the spectacle -- not to speak with Dateline because the reporter and Channel 13 are appealing the jury verdict against them.

Babcock, who did sit for an interview, admits doubts as to how NBC will treat Dolcefino.

"As a news organization we could hardly object or criticize somebody for covering something," says Babcock on behalf of his clients. "[But] if they've got a take on it and hammer us, I guess we'll be mad."

Just like many of the subjects of Dolcefino's stories, no doubt.

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