Seeking Closure in Fort Davis
Maybe it's the thin mountain air, but the foolishness out in Fort Davis last week was not just confined to the house-trailer "embassy" of lien-filing lunatic Richard McLaren and his pistol-packing compatriots in the Republic of Texas. According to a discerning observer of our acquaintance, the sprawling media encampment that assembled with the Department of Public Safety to wait out McLaren provided more than its share of odd and occasionally antisocial behavior.
Innocent bystanders are always in danger wherever such a large contingent of journalists masses, and sure enough, when the daughters of McLaren's wife Evelyn showed up to beseech their mother to surrender, they were nearly trampled by a herd of stampeding reporters and cameramen before they managed to escape into the sheltering arms of the DPS. Then there was the eccentric local who materialized to plead for McLaren's safety but nearly provoked a riot when he fell to the ground crying. Panicked because he had fallen out of their lens sights, the TV cameramen began bellowing "Down! Down!" at the reporters blocking their view of the writhing dervish.
Even more entertaining was the chain reaction of misinformation set off when Houston's Channel 2 issued an early and erroneous report that McLaren had reached an agreement with authorities and would shortly surrender.
"We were all standing out there in the baking sun out here in East Jesus ... uh, make that West Jesus, when Phil Archer broke in with this breathless report," our correspondent reports.
Within minutes, other television reporters were wading in right behind KPRC's "exclusive."
"It was like watching a giant game of telephone tag or something," says our man on the scene. "All these, 'We are hearing reports ... ' and 'I've been told ... ' came from nothing more than [other reporters] standing around watching KPRC do its magic."
Of course, when the surrender did not occur as reported, it was time for a little backpedaling and face-saving. Our man says Archer mercilessly ragged the DPS briefer with a series of questions that ran something like, "Isn't it true, sir, that you had an agreement? Isn't correct, sir, that there was an agreement? Sir, would you say, as we reported, that there was an understanding but it just didn't become a final agreement?"
Finally, a newspaper reporter offered some sotto voce counsel for the desperate Archer: "Let it go, Phil, let it go. It's time for closure."
Since McLaren and his wife and all but two of his associates did eventually give themselves up to the DPS, Archer can always claim to have had the scoop a few days before everybody else.
Other dramas within the drama unfolded like sour laundry. Would Terry O'Rourke, the former assistant Harris County attorney with no background in criminal law, garner as much publicity in his representation of McLaren as Dick DeGuerin did from the Branch Davidian siege?
While he never got a photo op on the order of DeGuerin's motorcycle ride to visit client David Koresh at the Davidian compound, O'Rourke rang up plenty of TV and radio time, along with a glowing Associated Press dispatch headlined "McLaren's attorney described as 'bright, creative' " and built mostly around gushy comments from his wife Michelle and friend and former county attorney colleague Rock Owens. (Before O'Rourke departed Houston for Fort Davis, he had asked Channel 26 to cough up $3,000 to cover his travel expenses and lodging. A source at the Fox affiliate says the solicitation was refused; O'Rourke could not be reached for comment.)
Aside from McLaren's fate, one of the most pressing questions among the media at Fort Davis concerned whether Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino would be successful in breaking down the resistance of a reluctant female print journalist from Odessa whom he was persistently wooing. At last observation, the West Texas journalist appeared to be about as taken with Il Dolce's charms as Sylvester Turner's little sister might have been.
Shaking Hotze's Money Tree
The next primary elections in Harris County are still a year away, but it's not too early for Republican moderates to begin their biennial battle with Christian conservative powerbroker Steven Hotze and his potent money-raising and vote-delivery machine.
This time, however, Hotze's enemies are looking to stop the doctor before he gets in a position to operate. Several weeks ago, an informal and largely anonymous group of GOP activists filed complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging dozens of misdemeanor violations and two felony violations of the state election code by Hotze and his associates.
Members of the ad hoc group, including former county party chair Betsy Lake and former GOP national committeewoman Penny Butler, paid a call on Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes last week to inform him of the ethics complaints and alert him to expect a similar bill of particulars directed to his office later this year.
"I'm a fanatic about obeying the laws, whether it's something in the election code or capital murder," says Lake, who fought Hotze through two terms for control of the local party before she left office last year.
The complaints are under review by Ethics Commission attorneys. Commission staffers do not discuss complaints or even acknowledge their existence until they go before the commissioners, but a source tell us the complaints against the Hotze organization will likely be discussed at the commission's July meeting in Austin. While the commission has the power to levy fines for misdemeanor violations, it would forward felony complaints it deems justified to local law enforcement agencies.
Lake says the action reflects the disgust of moderate Republicans with the fundraising tactics of Hotze and associate Frank Harmon, an attorney with the Crain Caton & James firm. Hotze, an allergist who has long backed religious right causes and candidates, runs several private corporations and a handful of political action committees out of his Katy medical clinic. The PACs receive funds from Harmon's Committee for a Well-Qualified Judiciary. That PAC solicits contributions from Republican officeholders and candidates, leading to charges that it operates as a laundry for money from moderate candidates seeking to surreptitiously buy Hotze's support -- or ensure that they won't face Hotze-sponsored challengers in the Republican primary.
Lake and her moderate cohorts allege that the PACs and their operators, in passing money from the Committee for a Well-Qualified Judiciary to Hotze's PACs and then on to Hotze's favored candidates, violated state campaign disclosure laws by effectively hiding the real source of the funds.
"Conservative Republicans of Harris County [a PAC controlled by Hotze] not only accepted the pass-through contributions it knew to be in violation," alleges one complaint, "it knowingly authorized the political contributions to be made to the Committee for a Well-Qualified Judiciary for pass-through to it."
One of the two alleged felonies involves a $10,000 campaign contribution in 1994 from the Sam Houston Race Park to the Committee for a Well-Qualified Judiciary. The complaint names Harmon and Byron Wade, vice president of track operator the MAXXAM Corporation, as respondents. Under state law, corporations can contribute to campaigns on behalf of issues (such as the pro-stadium PAC formed for last November's ballpark referendum), but they may not give money directly to PACs that then give to individual candidates.
Harmon claims he did not solicit the track's contribution and did not know it came from a corporation. "The bottom line is this: They didn't tell me that [a corporation was involved],"he says. "It did not say that on the check, and I specifically told the person who called [from the track] that we cannot take corporate contributions." Asked whether the track operators knowingly violated the law by contributing to his PAC, Harmon responds: "Those outfits are sophisticated. They know they're not supposed to be giving to people, and I'm sure they would not have intentionally done so."
MAXXAM lawyer Karen Bryant says the track mistakenly made contributions to the Committee for a Well-Qualified Judiciary and others after being advised by a prominent GOP consultant that such donations were legal. When the issue was raised later, MAXXAM apologized to the Ethics Commission and attempted to retrieve the money. While much of the money was recovered, Bryant says Harmon told MAXXAM the $10,000 had already been spent.
Harmon says that because the money came from a gambling enterprise, he steered the money to Associated Republicans of Texas, a statewide PAC, rather than any of the Hotze-controlled PACs.
"I myself am not a supporter of gambling and I don't think Dr. Hotze is," he says, "so I felt it ought to be given to some statewide Republican organization that maybe wouldn't feel that way about it."
The other felony allegation targets a Hotze-controlled corporation, America 2000, for illegally participating in a voter registration effort involving approximately 400 churches in Harris County. The complaint points out that corporations are limited to funding only nonpartisan voter registration drives for shareholders or employees and their families.
Hotze, who's the sole shareholder in America 2000, is alleged to have violated state law by using the corporation's resources in the effort to register the faithful at the local churches. America 2000, as well as Hotze's other companies, including Forrest Marketing and Texas 2000, receives payments from his PACs for political services, including printing and compiling mailing lists.
Hotze did not respond to a phone inquiry from The Insider about the allegations by Lake and company, but consultant Allen Blakemore, who has been paid by Forrest Marketing for political chores he performed for Hotze, says his client believes nothing will come of the complaints.
Neither Hotze nor "anybody in his organization believe they did anything improper," says Blakemore. "We're positive we never tried to hide anything. If we did anything wrong, we did it with the best of intentions."
Some of the GOP activists involved in filing the complaints asked for anonymity because they fear political retaliation by Hotze in future political contests. That prospect didn't intimidate Penny Butler, who is mulling a possible run for party county chair next year against incumbent Gary Polland.
"I think a lot of people would like to see her run," says Lake. "People are looking for a chairman they feel would be good for the Harris County party, and she's on the list."
After Butler's visit to Holmes, she's probably on a few other people's lists as well. You know, the kind Richard Nixon made famous.
At first glance, Vince Ryan would seem to be an unlikely supporter of Helen Huey's mayoral ambitions. After all, the Spring Branch councilwoman with the cast-iron hairdo is a Republican who's made her name crusading against sexually-oriented businesses and low-rent apartment complexes.
Yet when Huey declared her candidacy last week, Ryan was in the crowd egging her on. The Democrat and former councilman even picked up a yard sign which he promptly planted on his lawn on the southwest side of town, leading at least one neighbor to wonder which pod Ryan had been sleeping next to. As it turns out, the pod is called Calame Linebarger Graham & Pena, the delinquent-tax collection firm for which Ryan now serves as managing regional attorney.
Huey is a Calame friend of long standing. As a school trustee, she supported the firm's collection contract with the Spring Branch ISD, and she later championed Calame to collect delinquencies for the city against a Council majority that included none other than Vince Ryan. Calame eventually won the city contract after Ryan came around.
While Ryan acknowledges that the Calame connection is one reason for his support of Huey, he also lauds her as one of the few straight shooters on Council who could be counted on to keep her word.
"And I'll tell you," he confides, "there weren't very many like that."
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Give a Dog a Bone ...
Controller Lloyd Kelley would seem to be ripe for an electoral challenge this year, judging by the ill feelings he's generated with some of his antics and the strong showing against him by no-name opponents two years ago. Some activists have been encouraging term-limited Councilman Judson Robinson III to make the race against Kelley, but Mayor Bob Lanier and his inner circle seem quite happy to let the lapdog snooze on.
The mayor and first lady Elyse were on hand this week as Port Commission chairman Ned Holmes and his wife hosted a fundraiser for Kelley at the couple's River Oaks abode. Joining them were most of the Lanier camp followers, including Billy Burge, Joe B. Allen, Jim Edmonds and Kenny Friedman.
Since Kelley is rumored to be looking for a statewide or federal post to run for next year, perhaps Lanier can persuade him to sign a pledge promising to stay for a full term if he's re-elected. On second thought, maybe that isn't such a good idea.
Contact The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.