City Council Fire Sale
With two Houston City Council members among the Hotel Six defendants currently in federal court facing bribery charges, what better time could there be for special interests to curry favor with them? After all, in politics, perhaps even more than in real life, a friend in need can be a friend indeed.
That's certainly the impression one gets from looking at the composition of the committee supporting the John Castillo Legal Defense Fund. A solicitation letter to raise money for the District 1 incumbent is signed by Kenny Friedman, a lawyer close to mayors Lanier and Brown and the representative for the victorious CA One group in the just-concluded "food fight" for the Bush Intercontinental Airport restaurant concessions that just happened to get Castillo's vote.
Another signatory is Chris Pappas, the restaurateur who led the losing Four Families bid against CA One. Rounding out the co-signers are Ed Wulfe, a shopping center mega-developer and major supporter of Mayor Lee Brown, and Leroy Hermes, an architect who does business with the city and contributes heavily to the campaigns of city officials.
"Some people have bought a piece of John's ass for a long time," chortles consultant Marc Campos about the members of the Castillo fundraising team. "Most of the people on that committee have an interest in a vote on City Council."
Campos, who formerly worked for Castillo in his campaign, also observed the irony that "[the feds] are going after Castillo for bribery and selling his vote while the people that need his vote on a regular basis are giving him money for his legal defense."
The letter begins with a quick summary of the legal woes faced by "our good friend John Castillo." The missive then explains that the councilman's lawyer has thoroughly investigated the charges and predicts that Castillo will be vindicated and retain his Council seat. But in the meantime, Castillo needs money.
"You know John, his character and reputation," declares the letter. "His supporters and you know that he has been selfless in his commitment in helping others. Now, John needs us to help him."
Thanks to the unusual circumstances, the pals of Castillo can give unlimited greenbacks. Under state law, there are no limits on the amounts a donor can contribute to the fund. Defense Committee chairman Jorge Casimiro says the goal of the committee is to raise $250,000 to pay Castillo's attorney, Bob Bennett Sr.
Unlike City Council campaigns, where donors are limited to $5,000 per individual and businesses cannot contribute except through political action committees, Castillo's legal defense fund can accept personal, PAC, partnership, corporate and sole-proprietorship checks. The only stricture is the one that got Castillo crosswise with the feds to start with, namely accepting cash contributions in amounts over $100. (Castillo was indicted for allegedly accepting envelopes of cash in exchange for his vote on the downtown hotel project.)
Former city attorney Gene Locke issued an opinion last year that Castillo could form a committee to raise funds for his defense, but Locke likely never envisioned the flock of prospective city vendors that landed in Castillo's corner. They include former Metro chair Billy Burge, Yellow Cab's George Kamins, Hermann Park golf concession operator Andy Schatte of BSL Golf Corporation, Mayor Lanier's former housing adviser Michael Stevens and even Bill Miller, the owner of MEM-Hubble Communications who launched the unsuccessful media blitz on behalf of Four Families.
Miller recalls that Castillo contacted him several months back, when the food fight was just starting to heat up, and asked the consultant to help raise money for his defense fund. Miller gave permission for his name to be listed on the defense committee, but declined to contribute money, reasoning that it would have been "inappropriate" to fork over cash while he had a matter of interest pending before City Council.
Miller did contact his client Chris Pappas on behalf of Castillo. Pappas agreed to be a signatory on the fundraising letter, and also recruited other restaurant owners to participate. Pappas did not return a phone inquiry from The Insider to explain whether he contributed money to the fund while the food fight was in progress.
Councilman Castillo sees nothing wrong with asking his pals at City Hall to help pay his legal bills. And it seems almost all his friends do business with the city. "It's hard to know somebody that at some point or another does not," declares the official. "At some point, you have to ask the people that you've dealt with for years and years and years to give you a hand, and this is what this is."
Since Castillo approached principals in the food fight for help while his vote was at stake, at minimum, didn't that constitute pressure to get them to participate in the defense fund? "I can't get into their heads," replies Castillo, "but I wouldn't imagine why."
City Council Ethics Commission chair Chris Bell had already seen the fundraising letter when The Insider contacted him and says he wasn't happy with the spectacle of City Hall insiders lining up to give the councilman money. But Bell does understand why Castillo is accepting the help. "Obviously, he's in a tough predicament with a very expensive case lying in front of him and he's going to have to find a way to pay his lawyers," says the ethics chief.
Still, Bell views the Castillo fundraising effort as skirting the line. He cautiously allows that "I can certainly see how someone could feel it raises ethical questions."
Attorney Friedman, who has more than 20 years' experience in navigating the murky channels of city electoral politics, retains a remarkably pristine perception of the motivations of campaign contributors and the officials who take their cash. "My observation over the years," says Friedman, "has been that when people make campaign contributions, what they're hoping to buy is access, not necessarily a favor or a particular vote or anything. They just want to be sure if they've got a story to tell that they have an opportunity to tell someone in elective office."
If that's true, wouldn't contributors to a legal defense fund for an elected official also be motivated by the prospect of access, if not an outright vote?
Not necessarily, contends Friedman, who claims folks who give to someone's legal defense are moved more by friendship than greed. "I think [campaign contributions] involve somebody in their professional capacity as an elective official," argues the attorney, while defense funds are much more personal and "people don't give to those things unless they have some personal relationship with the individual involved."
Looking at the roster of Castillo's defense committee, one would conclude that Castillo's friends almost all do business with the city or would love to in the near future.
He's a Stockmaniac
Railroad commission candidate and former wacko conservative Congressman Steve Stockman has spent the whole primary campaign trying to embrace Governor George Bush. But the guv's political bad-breath detector kicked in and he backed away, using a consultant to criticize Stockman in the closing days of the campaign for shoddy campaign tactics against rival Tony Garza.
Several of the tactics drawing Bush's ire included a telephone poll commissioned by Stockman in which the callers just happened to mention to voters that Garza favored "sending money to Mexico" and was supported by gay groups.
Undaunted, Stockman used his favorite ploy, a fake newspaper paid for by his campaign, to get up close and personal with Bush. The front page features the headline "Stockman: Rising Republican Star" above a picture showing the candidate and the governor virtually holding hands and goofily grinning. The inside pages of the so-called Republican News reveal far more about Stevie's personal habits than most people would care to know.
Stockman confides that his favorite movies are Hunt for Red October and Jimmy Stewart classics, and that his favorite food is "a good pizza," a choice that explains his portly silhouette when photographed leafleting polling places in Bellaire last November. When the couch-potato mood overtakes Stockman, he likes "almost anything on the History Channel, the Learning Channel or the Discovery Channel." And of course, his favorite book is the Bible.
For real gluttons for punishment, there's also a two-page color Stockman family photo album, and natch, one of the shots features his wife, Patti, chumming it up with Governor Bush.
High Priestess of the Dead
County Coroner Joye Carter's most recent request to Commissioners Court had some insiders wondering whether she's aspiring to raising the dead.
According to the commissioners court agenda item for March 3, Carter's office submitted a request last week to commissioners court for $650 to send an employee to a seminar later this month on spirituality and healing in medicine. Since Carter's patients are generally quite stiff before they get to her office, Commissioner Jim Fonteno questioned the expenditure. Faith healing does seem a bit outside Carter's job description.
Initially, Carter's chief administrative officer Alex Conforti claimed that the seminar would help Carter's assistants deal with the grief of families whose loved ones wound up in the medical examiner's chilled vaults. But the promotional material for the seminar gave no indication that grief counseling was involved.
Eventually, Dr. Carter herself called The Insider to announce she was pulling the request for the spirituality and healing seminar. She explained that an employee was simply trying to satisfy a requirement for continuing medical education, and had chosen an inappropriate way to do it.
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The M.E., whose administrative woes were autopsied in Steve McVicker's "Dissecting Dr. Carter," in last week's Press, says the snafu is an example of the problems she's trying to correct.
"We don't need that workshop," says Carter, who wants her crew to attend legitimate pathology conferences. "This is what we're up against," laments the coroner. "Any old conference would have done, in the past."
For now, at least, it seems the dead will stay dead at the M.E.'s office.
Got something to say? Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or fax him at (713) 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houstonpress.com.