The Insider

Money Changes Everything
Listening to officials of the Houston Police Officers Union endorsing ex-chief Lee Brown's bid for mayor last week, you might have flashed back to 1984, George Orwell's onetime futuristic novel in which history gets rewritten daily and official attitudes and pronouncements change constantly, depending upon the ally du jour.

Leaders of the police employees group, who back in the 1980s routinely denounced the then-chief as "Out-of-Town" Brown and a stooge of the rank-and-file officer's archenemy, Kathy Whitmire, suddenly fell all over themselves praising Brown's empathy with street cops and predicting how sweet life could be for Houston's finest with Brown running City Hall.

So what gives? Had HPOU's leadership mysteriously fallen under the sway of some heretofore-unseen powers of charisma that Brown had been secretly hoarding? Hardly. To hear them tell it, they had been beguiled and bought with a promise from the candidate that he would make HPD competitive in salaries with the top police outfits in Texas within four to five years.

According to Hans Marticuic, HPOU's firebrand president and one of the union officials who broke bread with Brown at the behest of state Senator John Whitmire, that would require a 14 to 18 percent pay increase for Houston officers to raise HPD from its current pay ranking of 24th in the state.

So now Brown is 61 Riesner Street's darling, at least to the 3,650 members of the HPOU. (The smaller police union, the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, has not endorsed a candidate and has its hands full with a disciplinary dispute over its president's controversial memo suggesting members crack down on scabs during the Teamsters strike against UPS.)

Makes you almost, but not quite, feel sorry for Rob Mosbacher, who tried to win over the cops several months ago by going out on a limb and promising them a 5 percent pay raise this year -- a figure that now looks more like a tip when compared to what HPOU believes Brown has pledged. And for his pains, Mosbacher was criticized by several of the other candidates for failing to specify where he'd get the funding for the salary hike.

Brown claims the only commitment he made to the union was to make HPD salaries competitive with those of other departments, and that that has been his position since he was Kathy Whitmire's chief. Pressed by The Insider as to what constitutes a competitive salary, Brown refused to specify numbers and said, "I'm not giving you a direct answer, because I don't know what I'm going to do right now."

Brown promised to conduct a survey when he becomes mayor that would measure HPD salaries against those in other cities that compete with Houston for police officers and recruits. He added that the cost of living in each locale would have to be figured into the formula to determine a level that would make Houston competitive with other markets for law enforcement personnel.

Either Brown made some specific commitments to the unionists that he won't talk about, or the HPOU leadership is reading a lot of specifics into the candidate's generalities.

In either case, it's amazing how money changes everything. Former HPOU (or HPOA, as it was known until several years ago) president Mark Clark, at one time Brown's harshest critic, was among those officers to undergo the instantaneous conversion and get down with the former Mr. Out of Town.

"Yeah, I criticized the fact he traveled quite a bit," admits Clark. "But he did bring about an image change [for the police department]; he did do a lot of things that put Houston on the face of the national map in the areas of policing, and he deserved proper credit for it." Sounds a bit like Elyse Lanier explaining why high humidity is good for your skin.

Grasping for silver linings, Marticuic has discovered that despite the bitterness between the police and Kathy Whitmire, in some ways Brown was more attuned to cops' concerns than was Mayor Bob Lanier's first chief, Sam Nuchia. And unlike outsider Brown, Nuchia came up through the HPD ranks.

"I will say this for Brown," says Marticuic. "During his tenure as chief, he may have been gone quite a bit and done some other things that basically we didn't care too much for, but he did go in front of Council on numerous occasions and tout the need for salary increases for us. We never got that from Nuchia."

Even with the alleged salary deal, it took a little effort to get the men and women of HPOU to cozy up to Brown. "This position of ours wasn't necessarily the most popular position with all the members," admits Marticuic, who allows that he had to do some persuading to get a majority of his officers to endorse the HPOU board's recommendation. "But circumstances, times and players change somewhat. Everything's so fluid."

The matchmaker between Brown and Marticuic's union was Senator Whitmire, who's gone from being a potential candidate himself to being one of Brown's more effective boosters. Whitmire has close ties to police and firefighter groups and routinely carries their legislation in Austin. He endorsed Brown the same day as the HPOU.

The lawmaker, who's the ex-brother-in-law of former mayor Whitmire, says he developed a close working relationship with Brown back in the '80s, when Mayor Whitmire's sour relationship with the Harris County legislative delegation mirrored her contentious personal ties with the senator. Whitmire remembers his sister-in-law as an obnoxious know-it-all whose presence made family holiday gatherings a trial by ire. She, meanwhile, long resented his unwillingness to donate a kidney to her late husband, the senator's brother, who died of diabetes complications. Perhaps not surprisingly, the senator found the soft-spoken Brown far easier to deal with than the mayor.

"Lee Brown came to Austin and sat in my office, both of us anticipating it being a combative relationship, but it was nothing of the sort," recalls Whitmire of a meeting in the mid-'80s. Whitmire says one factor in his own decision not to run for mayor this year was that he didn't want to campaign against "someone I respect and like." Of course, the early polls didn't show Whitmire making much of an impression in the race, either.

According to Marticuic, Whitmire is serving as a guarantor of the commitments made by Brown to bring Houston police salaries to the top of the state scale. "We as a group and as police officers have a long-term relationship with the guy," Marticuic says. "John assured us that Brown would keep his deal with us."

Brown is often tweaked for his bland demeanor, but Whitmire figures the lack of personal animosity between the former chief and the officers made it possible for them to bond. "You won't find many people who are easier to like than Brown," he says.

Mark Clark agrees, and says he's always regarded the chief as a decent and honorable man. "When I was president and dealing with Brown a lot on things, my frustration was not with Brown personally, it was with the fact I could not get him to bust Kathy Whitmire's tail the way I knew it needed to be busted," remembers Clark. "And what he kept telling me, and I didn't want to accept, was that that was just not his style."

Senator Whitmire says he'll make an effort to woo the HPPU leadership to back Brown, but he has no plans to assist Brown in getting an endorsement from Kathy Whitmire. "I think I'll leave that one to Lee," he says.

Busting Brown's Tail
Lee Brown may be winning over law enforcement types in Houston, but one legendary figure in the New York City police pantheon -- Frank Serpico, the former NYPD officer who was shot while uncovering a nest of corruption in the department in the early 1970s and has been the subject of a blockbuster book and movie -- has nothing good to say about him.

Blaming Brown for a lax management style that allowed bad cops to flourish while Brown was New York's police commissioner in the early '90s, Serpico took a swipe at the mayoral hopeful during a panel discussion on police abuses led by lawyer Johnnie Cochran on his Court TV show, Cochran and Company, on August 21.

Serpico launched into a denunciation of the way police investigator Sergeant Joe Trimboli's investigation of a ring of cocaine-running cops was covered up by New York police officials from 1988 until another police agency caught the rogue officers in 1992. Serpico recounted writing a letter to President Clinton, ask- ing him to present Trimboli an award for his heroism.

"Is Clinton interested in this?" Serpico asked Cochran heatedly. "No! Clinton, who does he appoint as his drug czar? Lee Brown, former New York police commissioner when all this corruption was going on. So how are we going to correct it if the people at the top are not interested and not supporting the good guys?"

Confronted with the Serpico sound bite, Brown snapped, "He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. ... I'm offended he would say something like that."

During the same Cochran and Company, former New York mayor David Dinkins jumped to Brown's defense, claiming the corruption Serpico blamed Brown for not stopping had taken root in previous administrations.

Bag It, Mr. Ed!
Councilwoman Martha Wong also has been staying up worrying about things that get past the rest of us, like what happens when the horses of HPD's mounted patrol obey the call of nature. Wong recently wrote Chief Clarence Bradford requesting that the beasts of burden be outfitted with manure bags to catch their excrement before it hits the pavement.

Regretfully, the chief informed Wong that "manure bags are used for horse- drawn carts and carriages only." Bradford explained that a survey of other police agencies revealed that the bags could pose a danger to the horses if they are required to run or climb steps during the performance of normal duty: "If the bag or other attachment becomes tangled, it can cause the horse to fall, injuring both horse and officer."

Always eager to please, Bradford did add that he will have the mounted patrol equip each of their vehicles with brooms and buckets and will respond "to any citizen complaint about manure from our mounted patrol horses."

It sounds like a reasonable measure to deal with the verbal output of certain city officials as well.

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