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The Insider

One Publisher, One Vote
Readers of the Chronicle's October 19 editorial backing Rob Mosbacher Jr. for mayor may have noticed that the paper's endorsement was hardly, how shall we put it, ringing.

There may be a good reason for that apparent lack of conviction, other than a general inability to feign excitement over Mosbacher: According to our sources, five of the newspaper's 13-member editorial board voted to endorse George Greanias, with four supporting Lee Brown and four for Mosbacher. But one of those Mosbacher voters was publisher Richard J. V. Johnson, who, in the best tradition of a banana republic despot, unilaterally gave the paper's nod to Mosbacher.

The day after the endorsement, in the paper's weekly Sounding Board column, op-ed page chief Frank Michel gamely tried to explain how the editorial board decides on its endorsements. "We arrive at our decisions as many ways as a deliberative body of 13 opinionated people can," wrote Michel. He didn't explain that one of those ways is the publisher dictating the winner if it suits his fancy.

It all brings to mind that equally tepid Houston Post endorsement of Clayton Williams over Ann Richards for governor in 1990, when publisher William Dean Singleton overrode the all-but-unanimous support of his editorial board for Richards.

The Chronicle's endorsement of Mosbacher included the rather curious declaration that the next mayor "must be not only a staunch defender of the city, but also able to reach out to suburbanites in a way that makes them feel connected but not threatened."

Exactly how former police chief Brown and ex-controller Greanias might "threaten" suburbanites was left unexplained. Most likely, the threatened suburbanites in question are those in Dick Johnson's River Oaks social circle, for whom a black man or a Rice University egghead are equally scary when compared to Robert Mosbacher Sr.'s well-scrubbed little heir from West U.

Newark: Expect the Unexpected
Long before she hooked up with Mayor Bob, Elyse Lanier made her living as a jewelry saleswoman who served as her own mannequin, lunching at Tony's draped in those clanky David Webb chains, earrings and pendants always in fashion among the blue-hair set. Admiring matrons would literally buy the goods off Elyse's neck, ears and jacket.

The mayoral wife's penchant for carrying and flashing the gaudy stuff may have come back to haunt her on October 7, when a team of thieves pulled a bump-and-grind routine on Mrs. Lanier as she and City Hall aide Dave Walden were checking through the metal detectors at the Newark airport. The mayor, having gone on ahead, was not present when one man jostled his wife from the rear. As Mrs. Lanier turned to confront the jostler, an accomplice grabbed her bag off the metal-detector conveyer belt and made off with at least $590,000 in jewelry, according to Newark authorities. The Lanier entourage was preparing to board a Continental Airlines flight to return home from New York, where the mayor had been honored by an association of bond dealers.

Lanier spokeswoman Sarah Turner would not confirm the dollar value of the stolen jewelry or whether it was insured. Since Mrs. Lanier received several consignments of jewelry from David Webb's New York office a few years back, it is possible that the baubles snatched in the heist might not have been from her personal stash.

"It's creepy," Turner said of the Newark robbery. Mrs. Lanier, she added, was "disconcerted for several days afterwards."

In addition to the identity of the robbers and the value of the stolen goods, at least one other mystery remains: Given his reputation, we can't understand why mayoral hatchet man Walden was unable to pursue and kill the bad guys and return the bag between his clenched teeth to Mrs. Lanier.

Houston: Expect the Unexpected
There are also unexpected on-the-job hazards for state appeals jurists, and 14th Court of Appeals Judge John Anderson discovered a new one as he worked late one recent Sunday at the court offices adjoining the South Texas College of Law. While taking a break from his toils, Anderson somehow managed to lock himself in the men's toilet, where he remained for six hours until an HPD officer, dispatched after Anderson's worried wife phoned police, sprang the judge from his cell.

A courts tipster claims the judge unsuccessfully tried to escape by using a stapler to carve a hole in the bathroom door. Anderson didn't respond to The Insider's request to explain the circumstances of his temporary incarceration, or why he might have been packing a stapler in the john.

Waste and Wastewater
As the Greater Houston Wastewater Program closes the lid on its massive overhaul of the city's sewer system, it appears that a not-inconsequential sum of taxpayers' dollars has been flushed down the toilet in ensuring that the program reached the Lanier administration's goals for participation by Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise contractors.

 

The Wastewater Program is a $1.7 billion federally mandated project, privately managed for the city by engineering giants Montgomery Watson and Brown & Root. Befitting such a large undertaking, the Wastewater Program has its own affirmative action bureaucracy, the Small Contractors Development Program, whose mission is to help MWDBE contractors compete for wastewater construction contracts. To that end, Montgomery Watson has billed the city $2 million annually for SCDP's budget since 1993.

According to its promotional literature, the SCDP has "increased visibility" of capable small contractors, helped prepare them for success in getting bank loans and winning contracts and assisted them in arranging nearly $100 million in bonding.

While no one denies that the SCDP has helped some minority contractors obtain wastewater business, several disillusioned former employees suggest that the cost to taxpayers has been totally out of proportion to the program's achievements. The SCDP has routinely exaggerated its accomplishments while giving its employees little more to do than draw their paychecks, according to one ex-employee who spoke at length to The Insider and provided documents to back those claims.

For instance, SCDP officials claim credit for helping small minority contractors secure $845,000 in working capital. But our source scoffs at that assertion, pointing out that $210,000 of that total was a loan obtained in 1993 by a California contractor from a California bank -- without any assistance from the SCDP. And recipients of three loans totaling $220,000, for which the SCDP claims credit, have since defaulted, with one of those companies going into bankruptcy after the owner complained he received bad financial advice from an SCDP administrator.

In order to make its performance record justify the cost to taxpayers, says the former employee, the SCDP pressed local minority contractors to join as members. If they did, any loan or bid they received after that date was claimed as an accomplishment of the SCDP, even though the program may have had nothing to do with arranging the financing.

"It doesn't matter that the winning bidding client had done nothing more than once upon a time filled out an SCDP member application," says the ex-employee, "and it doesn't matter that the client never sought any assistance. If he won a bid, it became a win for SCDP."

The same technique was applied in producing the million-dollar figure for cumulative bonding. Once signed up by the SCDP, any contractor who later was bonded for a project was added to the total as if the SCDP had arranged the bond. Program officials then cited those figures to justify billing the city for services supposedly rendered to minority firms.

Minority contractors are recruited to participate in the SCDP by Prime Pro, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. According to the former SCDP employee, one Prime Pro marketer actually spent time on the office computers this summer designing a fundraiser invitation for Councilwoman Gracie Saenz's mayoral campaign. (A Saenz spokesman acknowledged that the Prime Pro employee did design an invitation for the councilwoman, but the spokesman said the Saenz campaign believed the work had been performed at the employee's home -- not on Wastewater Program equipment and city-subsidized time.)

Prime Pro, which is headed by Aviles Engineering president Don Aviles, can thank its existence in large part to the FBI's investigation of corruption at City Hall, which disrupted plans by former councilman Ben Reyes, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and Reyes's girlfriend, former Wastewater Program employee Rosalie Brockman, to take over the marketing program for minority contractors. When the three became too hot for prime time, Prime Pro was incorporated to provide a Hispanic presence in the Wastewater Program. A.O. Phillips, an African American-owned company, already provided a black component for the SCDP.

Both Prime Pro and the SCDP may live on after the Wastewater Program is completed later this year. Prime Pro officials have lobbied the city to have the firm hired by the Public Works and Engineering Department, and they are reportedly angling to provide minority business recruitment services for the downtown stadium project. The SCDP, meanwhile, has sounded out Metro about getting a life in the transit biz after the Wastewater Program is drained.

The AntiNuchia
Houston Police Chief C. O. Bradford has maintained a low profile since taking over for Sam Nuchia last year, but now Bradford is starting to assert his own style. A few weeks ago he called in the staff of HPD's Public Information Office to inform them that Nuchia's fortress mentality would no longer do, when it comes to police dealings with the local media.

 

Bradford says he's gotten a stream of complaints in the past two months from media types criticizing his flacks' unresponsiveness to reporters' requests for information. The chief decided a lecture to his mouthpieces was overdue after meeting with the management of the city's all-news radio station, KTRH/740 AM, earlier this month.

"I'm not Sam Nuchia," Bradford told The Insider in an interview pointedly arranged without the involvement of his own PR office -- something that would have been unthinkable in the Nuchia era. "I'm a different person, more open, and don't mind talking to the media. I told them in so many words to loosen up a little bit."

The Nuchia-appointed director of the PIO is Jack Cato, who as a Channel 2 reporter and cameraman covered the police beat for years before joining the HPD bureaucracy. Cato claims to be unaware of widespread disgruntlement with his operation.

"I would really like to know about it," Cato said, "because I have not heard about it from anyplace else."

All he needs to do is ask Bradford, who cites gripes from a range of news operations that HPD flacks are slow to respond or prone to play favorites -- to the extent of giving reporters' exclusives to competitors.

Bradford was initially surprised by the complaints, since Cato, by virtue of his background as a reporter, had been expected to improve police-media relations. But Bradford says he's spoken to some news folks who feel news-gathering is "being blocked to a greater extent" under Cato than under his predecessors. That's saying a lot, considering that one of them was Rick Hartley, once described by a veteran cop-shop reporter as a "speed bump on the information highway."

Ring The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or contact him the newfangled way at Insider@houstonpress.com.


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