Blood on the Presses
The referendum on abolishing the city's affirmative action program may not have strained relations between blacks and whites as severely as some observers predicted. But it sure did put the city's most prominent African-American newspapers at each other's throats.
In the weeks leading up to the November 4 election (which was concluded after we went to press), the Forward Times and the Houston Defender waged an old-fashioned newspaper war, the likes of which hadn't been seen around town since ... well, since we can't remember when. The weekly papers, both of which are run by female publishers, traded allegations of lying, political cronyism and journalistic prostitution and accused each other of being the tool of white interests.
The war of words got under way with a series of articles by Forward Times news editor Ed Wendt naming supposed African-American insiders who have profited from affirmative action under Mayor Bob Lanier. Among those fingered by Wendt were Defender publisher Sonceria "Sonny" Messiah-Jiles and her husband, Jodie Jiles, an investment banker whose employer, Bear, Stearns & Co., performs work for the city. A county appointee to the Sports Authority, Jodie Jiles is at least on the margins of Lanier's inner circle and for a time even had his own desk and phone in the mayor's office.
The Forward Times characterized Messiah-Jiles's newspaper as a mouthpiece for privileged blacks who had used their political clout and connections to the Lanier administration to benefit from the city's Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, while deserving minority businesses were cut out of the action.
Messiah-Jiles and the Defender responded by claiming that the Forward Times was serving conservative whites who wanted to deprive women and minorities of a fair share of city business by killing the MWDBE program.
The Defender went all-out on behalf of opponents of Proposition A, the ballot initiative to abolish the program, devoting the entire front page of one of its pre-election editions to defending affirmative action. "Black contracts, jobs in jeopardy" warned the lead story, nestled next to an editorial counseling "Vote No -- Proposition A" and a feature headlined "Contracting system helps minorities." Another story reported that Edward Blum, the leader of the anti-affirmative action campaign, was employing "a strategy of confusion." (Forward Times, by contrast, ran a relatively even-handed profile of Blum headlined "Edward Blum's brand of freedom fighting.")
Adding an element of racial rancor to the dispute is the fact that Wendt is white -- a point raised by Messiah-Jiles in a Defender editorial in which she accused Wendt of spreading "inaccurate information" and of "malicious intent to discredit African-American business people."
"The color of a person's skin has nothing to do with being a good reporter," Messiah-Jiles wrote. "However, in this instance, the color of the reporter raises an added suspicion of what his motives are.... Is he seeking truth or trying to deceive?"
The editorial carried the headline "White reporter prostitutes black press and misinforms the black community."
Wendt is a longtime fixture on the Houston journalism scene who's spent most of his career working for the African-American media. His resume includes stints for Messiah-Jiles at the Defender, and there is no shortage of hard feelings between him and the publisher. Some of that dates back to Lanier's first run for office in 1991, when Messiah-Jiles served as a panelist for a televised debate between Lanier and runoff opponent Sylvester Turner. In one of the more memorable recent moments in Houston politics, Messiah-Jiles asked Turner why he was "living with a man," a reference to the Turner associate who stayed in the house Turner was renting to meet the residency requirement to run for mayor. The then-married Turner called the question insulting and not worthy of a reply.
Lanier went on to defeat Turner, and Messiah-Jiles started a public relations firm, the Olivia Agency, which received MWDBE certification from the city and a contract from Metro. Wendt now says he quit the Defender because Messiah-Jiles had become a shill for the Lanier administration.
Both the Defender and the Forward Times mustered a range of backers in their dispute, with some of Forward Times's support definitely coming from the "strange bedfellows" column.
Conservative radio talker Jon Mathews, for instance, frequently praised Wendt's stories and urged his listeners to read the Forward Times, raising the unlikely specter of hundreds of middle-aged and elderly white men foraging out in the city's black neighborhoods for a copy of the usually reliably liberal newspaper. Blum himself embraced Forward Times and displayed the paper at pre-election news conferences, while Lanier criticized Wendt's reporting at an anti-Proposition A event attended by female entrepreneurs who praised the MWDBE program.
Then there was the Wall Street Journal's antediluvian editorial page, which jumped to Forward Times's defense on the Friday before the referendum. In a lengthy editorial that appeared in the paper's national edition, the Journal lauded Wendt, reporting that he "courageously exposed example after example of favoritism in the city's preference program" and had even frightened Lanier's minions into ordering their affirmative action files closed to journalists. (In a somewhat unfortunate slip, the Journal editorialists demonstrated their grasp of local nuance by misidentifying affirmative action critic Elizabeth Spates, who is black, as "Elizabeth Spades.")
Despite these newfound admirers, Wendt and the Forward Times became a lightning rod for criticism from African-American leaders such as Councilman Jew Don Boney and others working to preserve the MWDBE program. The reaction was more than verbal: The 37-year-old Forward Times took a direct hit in its pocketbook as One Houston, the well-funded pro-affirmative action PAC, and the mayoral campaign of Lee Brown both withheld advertising from Forward Times while buying space in the Defender.
Forward Times publisher Lenora Carter did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story, and Messiah-Jiles would only respond in writing to questions that The Insider faxed to her. The Defender publisher wrote that she considered Wendt's stories misleading because they failed to point out the hundreds of minority businesses that have received contracts thanks to the city program. She also addressed the Wall Street Journal editorial praising her competitor: "I do not think it takes courage to write an erroneous article that is imbalanced [sic] and fails to present the facts accurately and fairly," said Messiah-Jiles.
In his articles, Wendt skewered state Senator Rodney Ellis for being a MWDBE participant in a proposal for a food-vending contract at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Although Aviation Department documents later listed Ellis as one of the principals in the proposal, Ellis subsequently claimed that his sister Melody, and not he, was involved. Wendt also named Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee as an affirmative action profiteer, noting that Lee's ESPA Corporation has received engineering consultant contracts in Lanier's sidewalk construction program.
Writer and social worker Bob Lee, the brother of Commissioner Lee and the self-proclaimed "Mayor of the Fifth Ward," struck back in an open letter to the African-Ameri-can media that aimed some particularly pungent rhetoric at Wendt.
"The editor of the Forward Times reminds me of a 'Blanco, toothless pit bull' on a dark-meat frenzy," Lee wrote of Wendt. "A raging white vampire within the black community. An albino jackal of the black media." Lee went on to claim that Wendt himself had benefited from affirmative action when he attended predominantly black Prairie View A&M as "a poor underclass white boy." (Wendt says he actually attended Prairie View with the assistance of the G.I. Bill.)
Wendt argues that repeated mention of his race only proves that his critics are racist themselves. He fired back at Messiah-Jiles in his "Public Inquest" column last week: "All my facts are documented, and the finger of guilt points to you, your husband and the handful of individuals who are putting themselves forward as so-called leaders while raiding the affirmative action program. The public must not be deceived by your MISLEADING black newspaper!"
KCOH-AM's Michael Harris hosts the premier black radio talk show in town, and he often finds himself in the crossfire on controversial issues within Houston's African-American community. In the war of words between the Forward Times and the Defender, he finds the singling out of Wendt as "white" by critics as particularly offensive.
"That's asinine," says Harris, "because we black people have wanted the opportunity to be in major media all the time, so you can't turn around and say a white can't represent black media."
Harris says the Forward Times reports should be judged on their accuracy, not by the color of the reporter who wrote them. He recalls that after Messiah-Jiles asked Turner that inflammatory question in the 1991 mayoral debate, he defended her against a threatened black boycott. He believes the Forward Times deserves the same right to publish controversial material, so long as it is accurate, without suffering economic reprisals. And thus far, he hasn't seen the evidence that Wendt's reports are erroneous.
"When a person doesn't deal with the issue," Harris says of the Defender's invective, "and goes off casting stones, it causes you to wonder about their motives."
PACing It In
With all the fuss over Rockets owner Les Alexander's $15,000 in contributions to Lee Brown's mayoral campaign, you'd think someone would have noticed that Rob Mosbacher reported donations from Enron CEO Ken Lay well in ex-cess of the $5,000 legal limit on individual contributions for city elections.
Mosbacher's finance disclosures list an initial $10,000 contribution from Lay and wife, Linda, and two subsequent gifts from the couple, bringing their total to $16,000. A Mosbacher spokeswoman says, however, that the $10,000 donation actually came from an Enron political action committee that Lay controls, but was erroneously reported as a personal contribution.
Alexander used a bit more imagination in evading the contribution cap. After he and his wife, Nanci, had each contributed the maximum allowable $5,000 directly to Brown, Alexander set up a PAC, for which he was the sole source of funding, to funnel another $10,000 to Brown. The contribution may have been technically legal, since PACs can donate a maximum of $10,000 to candidates in city elections, but it served to expose a gaping loophole in Houston's campaign-finance rules. Nonetheless, Brown's campaign refunded the $10,000 to the Rockets owner after the contribution was revealed by the media.
The Mosbacher camp, meanwhile, plans to revise its listing of Lay's contributions on its next campaign filing, but will not return the money to Lay -- or whoever gave it.
Gonna Get Your Mama, Too!
The giant San Antonio-based law firm Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams has long been known as a collector of politicians as well as overdue taxes. It became infamous over the past decade for the officials it wined, dined and put on its payroll in jurisdictions across Texas where it won contracts to collect delinquent property taxes.
Given that tawdry past, prospects are looking up for the firm as the millennium approaches. Not only is a merger pending that would fuse Heard, Goggan and archrival Calame, Linebarger, Graham & Pena into the undisputed private tax-collection giant of Texas, but Heard, Goggan -- which holds collection contracts with HISD and Harris County -- has just inked a contract with the U.S. Treasury Department that could open vast federal fields of delinquent green to the firm.
Heard, Goggan partner Steve Blair calls the Treasury contract, which excludes tax and student loan debt, "potentially very sizable" but won't attach a specific value. "There is more than $30 billion owed to the federal government in the category of nontax and non-student loan debt," Blair explains. "But there is uncertainty as to how much of it is going to be available to be collected immediately."
Under the contract, federal agencies ranging from Housing and Urban Development to the Agriculture Department will forward accounts more than 180 days in arrears to the Treasury, which will then assign them to private firms for collection within six months. Heard, Goggan is one of ten contractors nationwide to be selected for the work. The work is particularly attractive because the private collectors will keep as much as 26 percent of the debt they collect. By contrast, the state of Texas prohibits private collectors from keeping more than 20 percent of public debt collected, and Blair says the industry standard followed by his firm is 15 percent.
In Texas, Heard, Goggan handles all phases of collection work, from mailing overdue notices and placing follow-up phone calls to filing and prosecuting tax lawsuits. Its work for the federal government will not involve suing debtors, and will consist mostly of "skip tracing, locating debtors, phone calling and making payment schedules," says Blair. The Justice Department will handle legal action against those who refuse to clear their accounts.
Heard, Goggan's merger with Calame is expected before the end of the year, which should make for some interesting personnel mixes. Former Calame staffers routinely used to try to undercut Heard, Goggan in competition for contracts by faxing government officials the voluminous press clips on Heard, Goggan's past brushes with scandal.
Vince Ryan, the former city councilman who is Calame, Linebarger's regional managing attorney in Houston, used to be one of Heard, Goggan's most vocal critics. But Ryan offers a diplomatic spin on the marriage. "This combination will combine our way of doing business with some of their infrastructure, which is pretty impressive," says Ryan.
A lot of politicians who need extra income would probably prefer that the new merged firm keep doing business the old Heard, Goggan way.
A Contribution with Legs
Last week we noted that consultant Marc Campos had signed on with the Lee Brown campaign. It turns out that Campos's services, at least for a short period, were paid for by the city's delinquent-tax collector, the above-mentioned Calame, Linebarger, Graham & Pena, as an in-kind contribution to Brown. Campos says the Brown campaign wanted his services but preferred to have him paid by someone else, at least prior to the expected runoff. He figures the maneuvering had something to do with the fact that he's on the outs with certain members of Bob Lanier's inner circle, and their influence in the Brown campaign made his hiring a touchy subject.
Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houstonpress.com.
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