It usually takes a heroic effort to get fired from the Houston Chronicle, especially if you happen to be a high-profile columnist with a substantial following, like longtime sports scribe Ed Fowler. Nevertheless, the unthinkable happened to Fowler last week, apparently because his personal and journalistic style ran afoul of sports editor Dan Cunningham.
Unlike Latrell Sprewell, Fowler didn't try to choke his boss or threaten to kill him. He simply refused to write for Cunningham and demanded he be traded to the news department. A sports columnist at the paper for 17 years, Fowler had not appeared in print for nearly a month before his firing.
Neither party would discuss their dispute with The Insider, though Fowler told friends he was suspended with pay late last month after a run-in with his editor over the content of his final columns. The two tangled in an angry phone conversation, with some blue invective from Cunningham's end leading Fowler to reportedly declare "This is boring" before hanging up on his boss.
By Fowler's account to associates, Cunningham objected to some of the columnist's writing techniques. Fowler's final "Dear Bud" installment on November 17 employed a mock-letter gimmick to skewer the Oilers owner (the subject of Fowler's recently published book, Loser Takes All: Bud Adams, Bad Football, and Big Business), while his whimsical "tomorrow's news today" pieces eschewed reporting in favor of imagination and cutting satire -- two qualities that have never been highly valued at the drowsy daily. With Cunningham considered on the fast track to a top management position at the Chronicle (following in the ruts of managing editor Tony Pederson, who ascended from the paper's sports department), Fowler was not likely to prevail in a collision with his boss.
Fowler was the best-paid writer at the Chronicle, with a salary reportedly in the range of $110,000. After the phone clash with Cunningham and his subsequent suspension, the columnist negotiated with his bosses for several weeks, seeking a transfer to the news side of the paper as a feature writer. But a news column for the often-acerbic Fowler apparently was out of the question, since the paper gravitates toward warm, fuzzy, noncontroversial types like Thom "Wake Me When It's Over" Marshall and Leon Hale. Onetime "minority affairs" columnist Lori Rodriguez proved too spicy for her bosses' tastes and was returned to the reporting ranks. Fowler told associates his effort to move from sports to news was nixed by management, even though he offered to take a pay cut to make the transition. Then the ax fell.
Fowler's last column in the paper, on November 21, was a "tomorrow's news today" satire in which Astros free-agent pitcher Darryl Kile signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters for "one hundred thousand zillion yen." The columnist wasn't far off, since Kile eventually inked with the Colorado Rockies for a similarly outrageous figure. In the same column, Fowler also rehabilitated another sharp-toothed sports type, Marv Albert, who returned to an undisclosed network after intensive rehabilitation on the talk-show circuit. Fowler quoted the new Albert as advising men to "slip into a garter belt now and then. I prefer black, because I find it naughtier than red." Not your typical fare in Houston's leading family newspaper.
A line from Fowler's last letter to Bud was quoted in the upstate New York Buffalo News two weeks ago as an indication of how much Houston misses the Oilers: "It was apparent," wrote Fowler, that "the vast majority would rather read of cockfights in Quintana Roo than the team you operated here for 37 years."
Chronicle management may be hoping the same public sentiment applies to Fowler and his tenure as a columnist.
And You Ask Why We Call Him Weaselboy?
Wouldn't you know it: There was even more damaging dirt out there on City Controller Lloyd Kelley than was revealed before he was ousted from City Hall by Sylvia Garcia in the November 4 election. In addition to trying legal cases while employed by the city, visiting an amusement park with an employee during work hours, publicly calling his opponent gay and hiring a former campaign treasurer for a city contract, it turns out that Kelley had some undisclosed property-tax problems as well.
In late August, Jim Robinson, the chief appraiser of the Harris County Appraisal District, forwarded allegations to the district attorney's office that Kelley and his wife made false entries on applications for homestead exemptions for the house they have rehabilitated in the Woodland Heights neighborhood.
The allegation dates to January 30 of this year, when Lloyd and Theresa Kelley attempted to secure homestead exemptions for their house for the years 1995 and 1996. But according to documents supplied by HCAD, Kelley didn't even purchase the house until October 10, 1996. To qualify for a homestead exemption in a given year, a property owner must own and occupy a dwelling as his or her principal residence on January 1 of the year in question.
HCAD officials denied Kelley's request for the '95 and '96 exemptions before forwarding the forms to the district attorney for possible action. Had the exemptions been granted, Kelley would have received refunds equal to 20 percent of the taxes paid on the property in those years.
In a reply to Robinson, Maria McAnulty of the D.A.'s major fraud division wrote that "in order for the conduct in question to constitute criminal behavior, proof that the false entry in a governmental record was knowingly made is required."
McAnulty suggested that the controller be questioned to see if he or his wife understood that the tax code required them to actually be living at the address to claim a homestead exemption. She also held out the possibility that Kelley might have made an innocent mistake in checking the box on the application for an exemption for 1995, even though he also wrote in the year number. It seems that Kelley, a practicing lawyer and the second-ranking elected official in the city, either knowingly tried to get an undeserved tax break, or else just didn't understand the legalities involved.
The controller then attempted to get a homestead exemption for 1997, even though his home was valued for tax purposes this year at 50 percent value, precisely because it was unoccupied on the date it was appraised by HCAD. A photo of the property taken on January 7, the day the house was appraised, clearly shows it to be gutted and empty and therefore ineligible for the exemption. The request was denied, but Kelley appealed the decision.
In his appearance before an HCAD review panel on November 25, Kelley attempted to support his claim by citing several different cases tried in Texas courts that related to the state property code rather than the tax code. Under the property code, some property can qualify for exemption from foreclosure because of homestead protections in the law. Assistant county attorney Bernardo Garcia, who represented HCAD at the hearing, pointed out that the property and tax codes are separate and that the cases cited by Kelley were irrelevant to the issue of his receiving a homestead exemption for a property he did not occupy at the start of 1997.
Kelley had already dropped his claims to homestead exemptions for 1995 and 1996, but he argued that he deserved the exemption for 1997 because he had intended to occupy the house early this year.
"Just because you get to that date and it's not able to be used ..." Kelley began before being brusquely cut off by Garcia, who interjected, "That's where you go to hell." The HCAD panel unanimously agreed, and denied Kelley the exemption.
Judge with a Grudge
Loose lips must be a trait common to humans with the last name of Barkley, as Judge Jim Barkley is giving his Rockets counterpart stiff competition in the pop-off department. After defense lawyer Mike Fields announced he was running against Barkley in the upcoming Republican primary for the bench of County Criminal Court At-Law No. 14, Barkley tried to pressure another judge's court coordinator and an attorney to back off from supporting his opponent. Just like the fallout from many of Sir Charles's proclamations, the end result was ruffled feathers and bruised feelings.
Fields, a former assistant district attorney and assistant state attorney general, held a campaign fundraiser November 18 at Cody's in the Village. Among those in attendance were Brenda Sims, the court coordinator for Barkley colleague J.R. Musslewhite; defense attorney Marc Carter, a close friend of Fields's; and another party who apparently reported back to Barkley on the guest list.
Within days, Barkley was on the phone to Sims, questioning her about her support for Fields. Barkley and Sims's boss, Judge Musslewhite, have long maintained an arrangement by which each covers the other's docket on alternating Fridays -- in effect allowing both judges an occasional three-day weekend. If Sims were no longer his friend, warned Barkley, he would stop spelling Musslewhite on Fridays.
Barkley followed through on the threat, leading Musslewhite, who is retiring at the end of this term, to recruit fellow Judge James Anderson for his Friday swap-out. Anderson told The Insider he did agree to cover several Fridays for Musslewhite, but could not continue the arrangement permanently because of scheduling uncertainties. Musslewhite did not return an Insider inquiry, but a courts staffer says the jurist was angry at Barkley for mixing politics and court business and throwing his extended weekends into jeopardy.
Barkley, as Barkleys are wont to do, apparently did not leave unwell enough alone. He buttonholed attorney Marc Carter in the lobby of the criminal courthouse and quickly got to the point. According to Carter, the judge informed him that he should be loyal "because I was so good to you when you came out of the D.A.'s office." Carter says Barkley warned him that if he supports Fields, "I don't consider you my friend anymore."
Carter thinks the judge was confused, since he can't remember receiving any court appointments or other shows of favoritism from Barkley. But he did interpret the remarks as a subtle threat.
"I wasn't intimidated," says the lawyer, "but I thought it was inappropriate, and I was concerned about that kind of comment. What happens if I have a client in that court? What does that mean to me now?" As Carter observes, politics can be "nasty" at the courthouse.
Barkley dismisses the complaints as much ado about nothing. "I don't know how this applies to anything to do with Mike Fields," Barkley said of his canceling his Friday coverage for Musslewhite. "As far as being around Brenda Sims, I'm going to avoid that, because I know she's not a friend of mine." Barkley declined to discuss exactly what he had told Sims in their phone conversation.
The judge also denied that his remarks to Carter constituted any sort of threat. "I don't know what the big deal here is," he said. "They are supporting Fields, and so I'm cautious about people that are not on my side."
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The flap over Fields's fundraiser isn't the first involving Barkley's re-election bid. Earlier this year, after Barkley had made it known he would be retiring for health reasons, Marshall Shelsey, a courts administrator and pal of Barkley's, declared his intention to run for the judge's seat. But after assistant district attorney Shirley Cornelius announced that she planned to seek the position, Barkley reversed field and decided to stand for re-election. Cornelius, who would have had to resign her job as a prosecutor to run against an incumbent judge, then decided not to run, and Fields stepped in to replace her.
District Attorney Johnny Holmes says he's not surprised that a judge might use his bench to intimidate political rivals.
"Do I think it exists?" Holmes asks rhetorically. "Yes, I do, but I think it's real, real subtle. If we catch somebody engaging in conduct like that, I think we can do something with it." But since Carter did not record his conversation with Barkley, Holmes figures it would be difficult to make a case against the judge.
The season of giving is upon us, so call The Insider now at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or you can send e-mail to Insider@houstonpress.com.