Desperately Seeking Scandal
Rob Mosbacher landed in his runoff with Lee Brown at a distinct disadvantage: Not only did Brown finish more than 13 points ahead of Mosbacher in the first-round of mayoral balloting on November 4, he also had a double-digit lead over Mosbacher in "voter approval" as measured in the pre-election poll conducted by independent pollsters Bob Stein and Richard Murray. Only half of the voters questioned rated Mosbacher favorably, while almost two-thirds approved of Brown.
For Mosbacher to overcome those margins and win, he and his operatives now must do what Bob Lanier's campaigners were able to accomplish in 1991 against surging State Rep Sylvester Turner: Pin some kind of muddy tale on the front-runner.
Lanier's 1991 team, led by manager Craig Varoga, now works for Brown and will have to prove it can play defense as well as it carried the offense against Turner six years ago.
Time is running out for Mosbacher, though, since most Houston news outlets observe an informal moratorium on running negative investigative stories on candidates within a week of the vote. That gives Mosbacher and his campaign little more than a week from now in which to complete a long bomb.
They aren't likely to wait around for the impartial news media to do the job. Both campaigns have well-paid opposition research teams adept at dropping tips on journalists. A veteran Houston investigative reporter estimates that the cyclical rash of election-time revelations about a candidate's background originates with opposition researchers for the combatants about 80 percent of the time.
Varoga says Brown will likely agree to at least a half-dozen televised or radio debates with Mosbacher. That exposure should help Mosbacher close the gap with Brown, since Mosbacher is a better speaker and is faster on his feet. But in previous debates, the towering Brown has managed to come across as solid, likable and unthreatening -- attributes that will likely get him through his encounters with Mosbacher without severe damage.
So the race will come down to whether Mosbacher can craft a missile to penetrate the Brown boilerplate. In the two weeks since the first election, Mosbacher's troops have tried the predictable, first airing television ads attacking Brown's credentials as a crime fighter during his stays as police chief in Atlanta, Houston and New York City.
Brown countered by using his own supporters from within the Houston Police Department to tout his accomplishments, though his campaign managed to embarrass the candidate with a television commercial featuring an HPD officer who had not actually served under Brown when he headed the department. The officer's choice of an ensemble closely resembling HPD apparel also triggered a police Internal Affairs Division investigation to determine whether she had violated the department's ban on the use of its uniforms and symbols in political ads.
Then came the unpredictable, with Mosbacher trying to capitalize on a Chronicle repackaging of an eight-year-old incident in which Brown received and later returned a wad of dollars and yen during a trip to Japan. Brown and his late wife, Yvonne, made the junket in his role as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Travel expenses were picked up by Agon-shu, a Buddhist sect with unlikely ties to a law-enforcement equipment manufacturer and an international police institute.
Maybe the wandering, barefooted Buddhist champion of law and order in the old TV series Kung Fu was their inspiration. In any case, someone with decidedly more materialistic tendencies decided to stuff the visitors' gift bags with more than $12,000 in cash. Brown claims he discovered the goodies after leaving Japan and returned the money to the Association of Police Chiefs, which sent it back to the happy Buddhists. Brown did not refund the $10,000 value of the trip, an ethics point emphasized both in the Chronicle article and at a news conference quickly called by Mosbacher's press secretary, Howard Opinsky.
Neither Brown nor the International Association of Police Chiefs elected to reimburse the Buddhists for the trip. Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford, one of Brown's successors and a member of the chiefs association, figures all the incident shows is Brown acting honestly by returning the cash. He doesn't believe the chief had any responsibility for repaying the cost of the trip.
"The original deal when the IACP sent [Brown] was that it was going to cover the expenses," says Bradford. While it would be improper for Brown to take his spouse on an expenses-paid trip on taxpayer funds, "an organization like IACP, they can decide what expenses they are going to cover when they want a representative of that organization to go and represent them," adds Bradford.
The portrayals of Brown as a softy on crime and an unethical junketeer failed to have anywhere near the impact of the barrage of personal revelations that brought Turner down in 1991. But then, no one really expected the FBI-vetted former drug czar to provide the fodder that Turner offered Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino, such as male hairdresser Dwight Thomas, who lived at the house that Turner rented for residency purposes and who uttered perhaps the most memorable line of the campaign: "Spain? I know nothing of Spain." It's also a safe bet that Brown has never been associated with a scamster such as Sylvester Clyde Foster, the male model and Turner legal client who faked his death to collect insurance money and later turned up alive in a Spanish prison.
While mostly staying on the defensive, the Brown campaign has tried to call into question Mosbacher's claim to have "a good head for business." Since the November 4 election, Brown operatives have salted a number of media outlets with copies of a set of lawsuits filed in 1994'95 between Robert Mosbacher, Rob's father, and Robert's sister Barbara, a New York City socialite who has made her mark on the national GOP scene as a pro-choice advocate in a party dominated by right-to-lifers.
Robert Mosbacher initially sued Barbara after she tried to back out of a 1991 agreement to reinvest $18 million of her share of the family-owned Mosbacher Companies when Robert reorganized the enterprises. Barbara then countersued, alleging that Robert, the chairman of Mosbacher Energy, and his immediate family, presumably including company president Rob, ran the Mosbacher Companies for their own personal benefit while reducing the value of her holdings.
Barbara Mosbacher claimed she tried to withdraw her $12-million share from the family company accounts but was told by her brother that the other family members did not have enough to pay her. With no other option, she reinvested the $12 million, plus another $6 million in property, in the reorganized Mosbacher companies. According to her court pleadings, Robert led his sister to believe she was investing in proven, producing properties, when in fact many turned out to be gambles on dry wells.
Rob Mosbacher is not named in his aunt's lawsuit, but the thrust of her allegations -- if true -- would appear to cast some doubt on the mayoral candidate's claim that he runs and calls the shots for Mosbacher Energy.
"The Mosbacher Companies are dominated and controlled by her brother," according to Barbara Mosbacher's suit, in which she requested a court-appointed receiver "to prevent Robert Mosbacher's ongoing use of the Mosbacher Companies as his personal piggy bank."
According to the sister, the Mosbacher enterprises in 1993 were burdened with excessive unsecured loans Robert made to himself and other members of his immediate family. She also charged that Mosbacher used company funds to "make unreasonably excessive donations to political organizations."
Her suit asked the court to order Robert Mosbacher to dissolve the Mosbacher Companies, admit he had committed fraudulent and negligent acts in the course of mismanaging the companies, and pay her compensatory damages in excess of $18 million.
The litigation was settled on a confidential basis two years ago, but Barbara Mosbacher's New York attorney, Stanley Arkin, says his client was "very comfortable" with the results.
Barbara Mosbacher could not be reached, and neither Mosbacher Sr. nor Mosbacher Jr. returned Insider inquiries for comment on the suit. But the Mosbacher campaign did fax us a brief statement from Barbara Mosbacher declaring that the suit did not involve her nephew in any way and offering her opinion that he will make "an excellent mayor" for Houston.
All of the above issues would hardly seem weighty enough to influence voters decisively against either candidate -- which still leaves Mosbacher pretty much where he was on November 4, with shopping days until December 6 running out. And unfortunately for Mosbacher, Dwight Thomas and Sylvester Foster are not listed in this year's Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog.
Courtless -- Will Mediate for Food
The Republican judges of Houston's civil courts are not known for their compassion, but one of their former colleagues is hoping they show him a little mercy. William F. "Bill" Bell, recently forced to resign as judge of the 281st District Court by the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission, has dispatched a written plea to his old workmates that suggests Bell's return to the private sector has been less than auspicious:
"Please Help!" exhorted Bell, who has opened law offices in Houston and Laredo since vacating his bench. "Of course, I have no clients, but am available to assist the court as mediator, master, guardian, ad litem or in any other capacity that will help feed, clothe and educate my three boys and new baby daughter." (Bell married his second wife in June and expects the birth of his fourth child any time now.)
"I hope you will think of me when you suggest a mediator," added Bell. "I am very flexible and will work diligently to make sure the attorneys and parties are very happy."
Now how could any judge be so hardhearted as to pass on an offer like that?
So Gracious, So Kind
It's never too early to start whacking at your opponent, especially if you're running in the Republican primary for a seat in the Harris County judiciary. In recent years, the spring primary balloting has been dominated by the political machine of arch-conservative Steven Hotze, and since there are few incumbent Democrats left to target, the conservative Republicans are planning to purge some of their own next year.
One of the bitterest GOP pairings is expected in the race for County Criminal Court No. 7, an open bench being sought by Democrat-turned-Republican Woody Densen and former county and federal prosecutor Pam Derbyshire. Already, Densen is claiming that Derbyshire has employed "unethical and perhaps illegal" tactics against him, while Derbyshire, who has the backing of Hotze and his allies, is busy putting out the word that Densen, to put it politely, is unfit to serve as a judge.
According to Densen, state District Judge Jeannine Barr, who herself will probably face a Hotze-supported challenger, told him that Derbyshire and others had pressured her to cancel Densen's assignment as a visiting judge in Barr's court on two days in late October.
As a Democrat, Densen served three terms as judge of the 240th Criminal District Court before being ousted by Republican Werner Voigt in the 1994 GOP landslide. He has since switched parties and is seeking the county court bench being vacated by the retiring Shelly P. Hancock. In the meantime, Densen has been making a good living as a visiting judge appointed by district judges in their courts -- at least until he decided to make his latest run for office.
Densen says he bumped into Barr at a Republican function after learning she had canceled his appointments in her court. As Densen tells it, the judge apologized profusely and explained that she had been pressured by Derbyshire and conservatives close to Hotze to drop Densen. (Barr did not return a phone call from The Insider for confirmation of that conversation.)
"It's ludicrous," says Derbyshire of Densen's accusations. "I'm astounded that he thinks I have that kind of authority or power."
Derbyshire admits calling Barr and asking why the judge would appoint someone of Densen's reputation to sit on her bench, but she refuses to get specific about what she told Barr.
"I know so much about him, and I don't know whether I can tell you," Derbyshire says, "because I'm trying to do this in a gracious and kind way."
Densen, meanwhile, questions Derbyshire's credentials as a former prosecutor, noting that she's been making her living for years from appointments to represent indigent criminals, primarily in the court of state District Judge Bill Harmon. He's the brother of Republican lawyer and GOP judicial PAC director Frank Harmon, who is closely associated with the Hotze machine.
"Is that something I'm supposed to be ashamed of?" ripostes Derbyshire. "Well, I'm not."
With four months of campaigning ahead of them, just imagine how friendly this couple is going to be by Election Day.
In addition to Derbyshire, Hotze and Harmon are backing challengers to several Republican incumbents. One is Joan Campbell, who resigned as an assistant district attorney to take on Voigt, whose name I.D. no doubt went through the roof after he shot and killed a homeless thief on a downtown street earlier this year. They're also lined up behind former prosecutor Susan Brown, who is set to challenge 185th District Court Judge Lon Harper, and former federal prosecutor Randy Ayres, who plans to run against Jeannine Barr for her 182nd District Court bench.
The jury's still out on whether the Hotze crowd will try to snuff 263rd District Court Judge Jim Wallace by throwing its support to former prosecutor Don Lambright. Wallace had been among those targeted early on for removal by Hotze and company, but apparently he's since shaped up and become more of a Hotze-fearing jurist.
From One Dick to Another
At-large Council candidate Richard Johnson III didn't like an article in the Chronicle last week by reporter R.A. "Jake" Dyer about Johnson's role in pushing a slate of black candidates in the November 4 election. So Johnson, who's in a December 6 runoff with Councilman Chris Bell for the Position 4 seat, wrote a missive to the paper's publisher and his comrade-in-name, Richard J.V. Johnson, pleading for sympathy.
"It is really unfortunate your newspaper will place someone with a record of building bridges of harmony for all people to defend himself that he is not a 'racist,' " wrote Johnson, an aide to Councilman Michael Yarbrough. "Sir, my son, your namesake and mine's, Richard Johnson III [sic], does not deserve to be subjected to an unfounded, partisan, scurrilous and misleading burden that his father and role model is racist, circulates racist literature."
The candidate then allows that publisher Johnson must be a Christian, since he runs "regular quotes from the Holy Bible in your newspaper ... I only request that you use your newspaper and good offices to instruct your reporters/editors that my family, like theirs, deserve better. Our stations in life are not permanent. God is not finished with us yet."
We suggest that Richard Johnson the publisher refer this letter for follow-up action to his favorite charity, the Read Commission.
First We Take Bellaire...
Municipal elections in the Houston area are supposedly nonpartisan, but you'd never know that by the way the Harris County Republican Party managed to deliver quasi-endorsements for favored conservatives. The tactic caused a stink in Houston, where the party sent a mailer to Republican primary voters that gave letter grades to candidates in the November 4 city election. The GOP also stirred resentment in the burg of Bellaire, where party Chairman Gary Polland endorsed the "Bellaire 77401" slate, which won the mayorship and two of three city council seats.
Dan Hayes, a conservative Republican who ran for council on the rival "Bellaire Citizens for Integrity in Government" slate and lost to 77401's Tom Phillips, was incensed that his own party intervened in the contest -- despite earlier assurances that it would not.
Hayes recalls that before the election, the Republican Party sent a questionnaire to candidates that solicited such information as their driver's license and Social Security numbers, and authorized the party to conduct criminal background checks on them. Hayes says that after he and other members of his slate declined to participate on the grounds that the Bellaire election was nonpartisan, he was told by Katherine Tyra, chairwoman of the GOP's candidates committee, that their refusal would be duly noted and that no specific endorsements would be made.
But during the week before the election, Republican households in Bellaire were barraged with automated phone calls claiming the GOP had endorsed the 77401 Slate. Hayes called the county party headquarters, where, he says, a staffer explicitly denied that any endorsement had been made in Bellaire. Armed with that information, Hayes's slate sent out a postcard alerting GOP voters that no party endorsement had been approved.
Then, on the weekend before the election, GOP households received a flier in the mail paid for by the Republican Party and trumpeting Polland's endorsement of the 77401 Slate. Nonplused, Hayes called the party headquarters and was referred to "our Bellaire specialist," who turned out to be Bill Borden, a conservative Bellaire precinct chairman. Hayes, who did not identify himself, asked whether there had been a party endorsement in Bellaire. Borden then stated that the party was endorsing the 77401 Slate.
"I don't know what's going on, but what the party is doing is cannibalizing itself," says Hayes. "There are people in Bellaire who have been Republicans for 30 years who are willing to drop their membership in the party over this."
The election also drew the attention of former congressman and Railroad Commission candidate Steve Stockman, who drove up from Friendswood with a handful of supporters to push 77401 Slate cards at Bellaire polling places. Asked what he was doing so far from home, Stockman told one voter he had received a call for assistance from the slate, "and if I help them, then they'll help me later on."
Call the Insider at (713)624-1483 or (713)624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houstonpress.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.