The Insider

A Flight Too Far
A flap over the upgrade of airline tickets has cost the jobs of a key deputy to Houston public works director Jimmie Schindewolf and an engineer for Montgomery Watson, the managing partner in the Greater Houston Wastewater Program. Another employee of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department survived the episode with a hand slap -- ostensibly because he played the role of whistle blower.

The Lanier administration would like to characterize the results of the November investigation as an example of quick and efficient internal policing, but Mary Ann Hunt, the public works deputy fired by Schindewolf, claims she was dismissed without cause and wasn't given a chance to defend herself.

"It stinks," says Hunt of Schindewolf's handling of the affair. "Something is very wrong with this picture."

As senior assistant director for public works, Hunt supervised some 2,000 sewer maintenance employees. She and her subordinate, Gary Oradat, and a Montgomery Watson sewer line corrosion expert, Jim Joyce, flew to Germany in late October on a weeklong tour of the country to inspect piping of a type involved in a city lawsuit. They were initially booked on Continental Airlines at coach fare, but Joyce switched them to first-class seats on KLM, resulting in a jump in the ticket price for which Montgomery Watson might have sought reimbursement from the city at $1,200 to $4,000 per ticket. Oradat promptly notified superiors of the situation after the trio returned to Houston.

The city's internal investigators and HPD's Public Integrity Review Group began probing the trip, affidavits were taken from participants and Hunt, who as an assistant director has no civil service job protections, was terminated on November 20. Oradat, reported to be close to Buddy Barnes, a Wastewater Program supervisor, was suspended for five days and then returned to his job. Because Oradat reported the ticket upgrade so quickly, Montgomery Watson never had the chance to bill the city for the additional costs.

Schindewolf and Oradat did not respond to Insider inquiries about the ticket upgrades, leaving it to city spokesman Dan Jones to provide the Lanier administration's take on the incident: "Clearly, director Schindewolf responded immediately, and the city is not out one penny!"

Meanwhile, Montgomery Watson fired Joyce, the engineer who arranged to give the city employees the ticket upgrades.

"From what you've said, that sounds pretty much about right," was all Joyce would say when we outlined the preceding account of events for him. (Interestingly, the Montgomery Watson supervisor who terminated Joyce is Christine Kahr, who's been active in city politics to the extent of joining a handful of Montgomery Watson employees in contributing $1,000 each to Lloyd Kelley's 1995 campaign for city controller. Kelley, of course, is the only elected official independent of Bob Lanier with the power to oversee Montgomery Watson's billings to the city.)

Hunt, it seems, is not nearly as willing as Joyce to go gently into that good night. She claims she's been the victim of false charges, innuendoes and a kangaroo court that gave her no chance to answer her accusers.

According to Hunt, when Montgomery Watson produced the Continental tickets for the flight to Germany, the projected flight itinerary was a disaster that doubled back on itself and wasted precious time on the one-week jaunt. Hunt complained, and Joyce took the tickets back and promised to seek a better arrangement.

When Hunt and Oradat met Joyce at Intercontinental, he had KLM vouchers. Hunt says she didn't look at the tickets, and when she boarded the plane, she found her seat was on the upper deck of the two-level plane. It was a seat assignment she didn't really want, because it required her to climb stairs and she has a bad knee. Once the group was seated, she says, "Gary asked Jim how we got these seats, and he said he used his frequent flier miles to upgrade them." Hunt says she believed all along that the better seats were not costing the city any additional money.

Hunt says Oradat never mentioned the subject during the trip, but upon returning to Houston went immediately to Buddy Barnes and told him about the ticket switch.

"So he's really the one who did it," says Hunt, "and didn't give any of the rest of us the chance to do what was right."

As for Montgomery Watson, Hunt says she doubts the firm would have tagged the city for the increased ticket fare. "If there was a question on this bill, Montgomery Watson would simply not have submitted it. They are a very honorable firm."

Hunt was hired by the city in the final year of Kathy Whitmire's mayoral tenure and was the highest ranking public works holdover from the Whitmire administration. Schindewolf, after being brought back to city government by Lanier, replaced most of the staff and brought in many of his former associates from his days as public works director under Whitmire predecessor Jim McConn. One knowledgeable source suggests that the ticket incident provided Schindewolf with the justification to do a final bit of housecleaning to get one of his own people into Hunt's powerful position.

City spokesman Jones declined to address the issue of what role if any politics played in Hunt's dismissal.

"For a variety of reasons," says Jones, "we do not publicly discuss personnel matters."

For her part, Hunt claims to still be in a state of amazement over her fall from the top of one of the largest department divisions in the city.

"You can check me out nationally, and I check out real good," she says. "I'm 51 years old. I wouldn't throw my career away on a damn ticket."

Exit Julio
Who says you can't rouse City Hall to action? After The Insider informed the powers-that-be last week that planning commissioner Julio Laguarta did not live in the city of Houston, as required by city bylaws, action was swift in coming. So swift, in fact, that The Insider is wondering whether the Lanier administration wasn't already itching to get rid of the Bellaire-residing Laguarta.

Robert Litke, director of the city's Planning and Development Department and secretary to the planning commission, dropped the ax on Laguarta in a rather brusque missive last week. "I was very recently made aware that you no longer reside in the city of Houston," Litke wrote. "As you are aware, the position that you were appointed to on the planning commission requires that the member shall be a 'resident and qualified voter of the city.' Since you do not meet the residency requirement, I am herewith advising you that you are no longer a member of the city of Houston Planning Commission."

Laguarta did not respond to phone messages from The Insider, and he's apparently been mum with the city as well.

Caution: Rodney Ahead!
Elected officials who'd like some free state-supplied signs should follow the lead of state Senator Rodney Ellis, who's taken full advantage of the Texas Department of Transportation's willingness to provide directions to legislators' offices. Motorists who've taken the downtown exit off of I-10 lately have no doubt encountered the first of the four highly visible signs pointing the way to Ellis's state office in the Lyric Centre building on Louisiana Street.

Tx-DOT deputy engineer Steve Simmons says all kinds of elected officials, including members of Congress, can qualify for the green signs, which cost the state about $75 each. Unaccountably, no such signage directs constituents to the downtown office of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who rarely passes on a promotional possibility.

"I'm not so sure she's asked for them," says Simmons, "and that's one of the requirements -- that they must request them."

We won't tell her if you won't.

Star's Chamber
Look for Kathy Whitmire to be back in Houston more often in the coming months. The ex-mayor, who's director of the National Resource Center for Public Leadership at the University of Maryland, is part of a three-member mediation team on sex and race discrimination issues hired by Star Enterprise. Star is a Houston-based joint refining and marketing venture of subsidiaries of Saudi Aramco and Texaco, which recently reached a multimillion-dollar settlement on racial discrimination claims with black employees. Star also owns Texaco outlets and supplies gasoline to stations in Eastern and Southern states.

Joining Whitmire as paid consultants for Star are Benjamin Hooks, the former head of the NAACP, and James DeAnda, a Houston lawyer and retired federal judge.

The panel will meet with Star employees raising discrimination claims "and will seek to assist these employees in reaching an agreed resolution," according to the company. Star spokesman Paul Doucette says the panel was created not because of existing complaints but "out of an abundance of caution to absolutely ensure that we didn't have any kind of a problem." Doucette was aware of only one pending discrimination accusation against Star -- an EEOC complaint by an employee at Star's Port Arthur plant -- and he characterizes Star's record on job discrimination as no different from other major corporations.

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