Over Their Dead Bodies
On the evidence of the media feeding frenzy over the past week, editors obviously judged that the public can't get enough detail on the mass suicide of onetime Houstonian Marshall Herff Applewhite's millennialist cult. But we know of only one media outlet with the particular promotional genius to hitch its own ratings ride on the suicide comet. That would be KLOL-FM, the home of cut-rate Howard Sterns Stevens & Pruett and professional newsman and amateur astronomer (or is it vice versa?) Chuck Shramek.
Back in November, Shramek posted on the Internet a photograph he had taken through a telescope of the comet Hale-Bopp that seemed to show another large, glowing object hovering in the comet's vicinity. Shortly after the Heaven's Gate believers shed their containers out in Rancho Santa Fe, Shramek found himself being credited in various media quarters with inspiring the belief that a UFO was hiding behind the approaching comet --the spaceship apparently being the ticket to ride for Applewhite and his followers.
Bleary-eyed and pasty-faced, Shramek looked as if he could've used a stiff shot of vodka and a dose of phenobarbital himself when he met the press last week at the Lovett Inn near KLOL's studios. Accompanied by the Mark Stevens half of Stevens & Pruett, Shramek discussed his very peripheral role in the tragedy from behind a table bedecked with promotional signage for his station and in front of a poster of a prim-looking woman being beseeched to "Admit it, you listen" to Stevens & Pruett.
Adding to the tastefulness of the affair was the presence of Stevens, looking very Vegas in a sporty black jacket and puce V-neck and wielding a fat cigar. Stevens's apparent function was to emcee the gathering of 20 or so ladies and gentlemen of the media. His ponderous producer and factotum -- that would be Tubby, for all you NPR listeners -- distributed a one-page statement by Shramek and bore away Stevens's stogie before the cameras fired up.
Once Stevens's smoke was safely out of sight, Shramek proceeded to unspool a sad tale of an innocent "news anchor" for a shock-jock duo who was victimized by overly sensationalistic journalists.
"It's so strange," Shramek related, "to have my phone ringing continuously, and CNN is on the line, or Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel or Tom Brokaw, all trying to get ahold of me, and frankly I was too frazzled, I was too upset, too dazed, to deal with any of 'em."
You got the feeling Stevens wouldn't have let those promotional opportunities go to waste.
Shramek insisted he never theorized that a spaceship might be following the comet. Of course, he did call conspiracy-monger Art Bell's late-night talk show on November 14 to ask whether anybody out there in radio land might be able to identify the mysterious object near the comet in his photo. In Shramek's telling, a wacky professor then called in to expound on the idea that aliens might be joy riding along with Hale-Bopp. After his call to Bell, Shramek said, the posting of his comet photo on his own web page elicited more than 200,000 hits in one week and a hundred e-mails per hour
"[But] I never, ever, ever used terms like 'spaceship' or 'UFO' or 'aliens' to describe what I'd seen or what I thought I'd seen," he maintained. "Of course, I'm upset and I'm saddened by the cult suicide, but no way do I feel like I caused this tragedy."
Still, Shramek isn't willing to let go of the idea that there's something sinister going on with Hale-Bopp, and that for some reason the government and NASA are not "being entirely forthcoming with the pictures of the comet." He seemed hazy as to just what the government might be hiding about the celestial visitor.
"Well, who knows?" he said. "There might be some anomaly or strangeness about the comet. Maybe they were worried news of this might cause some panic or some events to transpire."
When the question was raised as to whether Shramek's newfound notoriety was good or bad for KLOL, Stevens interjected, "I'd say both." Shramek just looked blankly ahead and muttered, "Yeah."
At one point Stevens nudged Shramek, reminding him to mention that he first discussed the comet weirdness "on the Stevens & Pruett Show." Shramek dutifully complied.
And then there was the matter of the Art Bell show. "Maybe you ought to explain the makeup of the audience of Art Bell," Stevens suggested to Shramek. "Lot of conspiracy nuts on there."
That provoked a sputter from Shramek, who is, after all, a Bell listener and caller.
And maybe that was the big news to come out of the KLOL news conference: There's actually a radio show out there that even Mark Stevens can look down on.
Cap'n Benny's Ship of Fools
It's been nearly a year now since news of the FBI's City Hall sting broke, and with no indictments having been returned and the government continuing to maintain its public silence on the operation, several of the protagonists might be excused for getting the idea the storm has blown over.
"Some of these guys," says a knowledgeable observer, "are starting to strut around City Hall like nothing's going to happen to them."
That may be a bit premature.
According to our sources, the feds have now completed their investigation and have drawn up proposed indictments of at least six individuals that will be submitted to the special grand jury that's been considering the evidence. Among that number are expected to be former city councilman Ben Reyes, former port commissioner Betti Maldonado and two sitting members of City Council.
The focus of the sting now temporarily shifts to Washington, D.C., where a high-level Justice Department review team is examining the work of chief prosecutor Mike Attanasio, FBI sting coordinator Ron Stern and others. Not helping move things along is the state of flux inside the Justice Department, where key divisions, including the one overseeing criminal investigations, are without permanent heads.
The review process is something like a mock trial, with the Justice Department's senior prosecutors firing questions at the investigators, testing the case for weak points and holes in the evidence. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno will likely review the work and give the go-ahead before grand jurors in Houston consider indictments. Current estimated time of arrival for the proposed indictments: early May.
So far, the feds do not seem unduly concerned that all the potential indictees are either Hispanic or African-American. That's because investigators are banking that the evidence, when finally unveiled in a public forum, will establish that FBI undercover agents, far from targeting minorities, were directed to specific officials by Reyes.
"We were led by the hand to the people who will be indicted," says one source. "[Reyes] was the captain of our ship."
Ruben on the Menu
If former state district judge Ruben Guerrero wins appointment to the federal bench, he can thank Congressman Gene Green, who pulled out the stops in his support for the well-liked but lightly regarded criminal courthouse denizen.
Green was one of five Democratic members of Congress representing the area covered by the U.S. Southern District of Texas who compiled recommendations on the successor for Judge Norman Black. Green reportedly pushed reluctant colleagues Ken Bentsen and Sheila Jackson Lee into supporting Guerrero by threatening to vote for a non-Houston candidate supported by the two South Texas congressmen in the group, Solomon Ortiz and Ruben Hinojosa.
In exchange for Bentsen's and Lee's support of Guerrero, Green agreed to go along with Houston attorney Keith Ellison as the backup recommendation should Guerrero fail to make it through FBI, American Bar Association and White House screenings.
Guerrero faces partisan hurdles as well. Harris County Republican Chairman Gary Polland has several contacts among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve judicial appointments, and reportedly has vowed to fight Guerrero's nomination. Polland, a fellow criminal defense attorney, reportedly views Guerrero as vulnerable because of his negligible experience in the federal courts.
Whether Guerrero will actually win the appointment is open to question. He lost two electoral bids for district judgeships before being appointed to the bench by Governor Ann Richards in 1993. He lost in the following election, and otherwise has had a legal career consisting mostly of court appointments representing indigent criminal clients and some ad litem appointments in state civil courts.
By contrast, second choice Ellison is a former Supreme Court clerk with federal court experience who represented Democratic members of Congress in the recent redistricting litigation. A courthouse regular says Guerrero was beaming two weeks ago after serving a stint as a visiting justice of the peace and discovering what an easy gig it is performing marriages. His next assignment, if it comes through, figures to be more taxing.
Barr's Blind Date
State District Judge Jim Barr will have to wait until early June to find out whether the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will push for his removal on charges of inappropriate behavior, including jailing a deputy to send a message to lawmen who ignore defense subpoenas and trying out his favorite off-color jokes on female prosecutors.
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Commission director Bob Flowers says special magistrate Noah Kennedy is currently reviewing the court transcripts of the recently concluded hearing in Houston and will not have access to a complete version from the court reporter in time to make findings of fact for this month's commission meeting. The commission meets every other month in Austin.
Exactly what Kennedy has to rule on is uncertain, since Barr did not dispute any of the major factual allegations in the case but only sought to put them in a context that would exonerate his behavior. When the 11-member commission meets in June, it will vote on whether to reprimand Barr or authorize the selection of a tribunal of appeals court judges to consider his removal from office.
Meanwhile, commission lawyers are gearing up for an April 29 hearing in Houston to consider possible punishment for District Judge William "Bill" Bell, who is accused of improper out-of-court contact with lawyers involved in litigation in his court. Though the testimony will lack the salaciousness of the Barr hearing, expect a passel of big-name lawyers, including John O'Quinn and Vinson & Elkins's Margaret Wilson, to testify in this one.
Call The Insider at 624-1483, fax him at 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.