The Insider

Stockman's Stapp Infection
When it comes to providing constituent services for campaign contributors under fire from federal agencies on pollution and sexual harassment allegations, Congressman Steve Stockman is a real blue-collar kind of guy.

Take the convoluted case of Stapp Towing, a Dickinson-based tugboat and barge operation accused by federal agencies of repeated spills of fuel into area waterways and the sexual harassment of young male crew members by a former tugboat captain who is the brother of company CEO Bruce Stapp. After receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from members of the Stapp family in 1994, including young children of company officials, and from Stapp employees, Stockman rolled up his sleeves and went to bat for the troubled company in the hallways of power.

Stapp officials deny that the company is pollution-prone or that the sexual harassment claims by its former employees have merit. And Steve Stockman has taken those denials to heart. Over the last two years, the Friendswood congressman and his subordinates have devoted an inordinate amount of energy to the company's cause, attending Defense Department review hearings after the government suspended the company's fuel hauling contract, meeting on behalf of Stapp in Stockman's office with an Air Force general and attending a Small Business Administration review in Houston in an attempt to get the company re-certified for government business.

It was Stockman himself who wrote a letter of protest to Gilbert Casellas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, questioning the EEOC's decision to sue Stapp on behalf of the young men who claimed sexual harassment while working on Stapp vessels. The congressman demanded that Casellas reveal his "reasons for this maneuver," since federal appeals courts thus far have held that same-sex sexual harassment is not covered under federal employment law. "I question the motives of any agency that would use this kind of judgment in the handling of a legal matter," the congressman went on to declare. "The Stapp case illustrates how the heavy hand of governmental agencies leads to citizens' distrust of government."

But a review of Stockman's relationship with Stapp and his attempts to keep the beleaguered company feeding at the federal trough suggests that the real heavy hands in the case belong to none other than Stockman and his staff, rather than the federal agencies he's criticized, and puts the congressman's motives in the matter up for question as well.

Stockman's efforts on behalf of the company eventually came to naught when Stapp was denied a fuel-carrying contract with the Defense Department, and the EEOC has been unfazed by the Stockman intervention and continues to pursue its sex harassment lawsuit against Stapp. But based on the documentation, it's clear Stockman went all out to help a campaign contributor who also happens to be an accused polluter and sexual harasser.

According to Karen Schools, an attorney with the Defense Fuels Supply Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Stapp Towing had been a spot contract jet fuel transporter for the Defense Department when its performance was called into question in the fall of 1994. The Defense Logistics Agency documented 12 fuel spills by Stapp between January 1993 and the fall of the following year, compared to only one spill for another company under federal contract.

An agency memo issued in March of last year summarized Stapp's record: "It is clear that Stapp has a chronic and persistent history of spills, and that the carrier has failed to take measures designed to prevent such pollution incidents." According to the memo, "Stapp Towing has displayed an indifference to the environment and safety of personnel with frequent leaks into both the air and water. The company has not been cooperative in its response letter in improving its pattern of poor performance. This lack of cooperation is evidenced by the long list of performance problems described in this memorandum."

The Defense Fuels Supply Center temporarily suspended Stapp from eligibility for spot fuel contracts in late 1994. According to Schools, the company sought an injunction against the action in a Texas district court, but it was not granted.

During the same period, Stapp began seriously cultivating Stockman. Stapp president John Stapp and Hoyt McBryar, the company official in charge of its "regulatory compliance quality program," ponied up $1,000 each for Stockman's campaign fund, as did Carolyn and Elizabeth Stapp. Melissa and Stephanie Stapp, listed as employees of Stapp Towing, also were listed as contributing $1,000 each. Their contributions created problems later when it was discovered that they are actually the young children of John and Carolyn. The Stockman campaign returned their contributions in June of last year.

In March 1995, Stapp's continued performance problems led the Defense Fuels Supply Center to request a high-level "carrier review board" session to examine the company's eligibility for contracts. Stockman then requested that the head of the Defense Fuels Supply Center, Air Force General Leon Wilson, meet with him and Congressmen Robert Dornan in Stockman's congressional office.  

Following the meeting, Wilson wrote Stockman that in accordance with the wishes of Stapp officials, the review of its performance had been moved forward to a more agreeable date. But the general disputed Stapp's claims that the review itself was unwarranted.

"Based on my review of Stapp's performance," the general wrote Stockman, "I believe there was sufficient cause for the review board process to go forward. I am enclosing documentation ... which details numerous Stapp oil spills involving thousands of gallons of fuel."

The review board met in New Jersey with Stockman aide Jeff Fisher present. It put Stapp in non-use status for 90 days, but suspended 60 of the penalty days and instead placed the firm on probationary status for that period. Schools, the lawyer with the Defense Fuels Supply Center, says another large spill by a Stapp vessel in May of last year led the Defense Department to reimpose the penalty.

Then the Defense Fuels Supply Center decided to cancel the practice of spot contracts and instead negotiate long-term pacts with fuel carriers. Stapp Towing immediately put in the low competitive bid but was rejected. "Government inspections found that Stapp was not a responsible carrier," explains Schools. "The contract officer didn't feel comfortable that they would be able to perform satisfactorily because of those oil spills and failure to comply with safety and other regulations."

Because Stapp qualifies as a small business under federal regulations, company officials then turned to the Small Business Administration to try to get a second opinion that might have led to a certificate of competency and reconsideration for the fuel carrier contract. Once again, Stockman staffers accompanied Stapp officials to an SBA hearing in Houston, but the agency declined to issue a certificate. Stapp then took the matter to the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., where yet again a Stockman staffer tagged along. The court found against Stapp and the contract dispute ended, according to Schools.

Back in 1994, when Stapp's fuel spill problems were just coming to light and contributions began flowing from company figures to Republican candidate Stockman, then making his third run for Democrat Jack Brooks' 9th District seat, a sordid sexual drama was playing out aboard the company's vessels, according to allegations in EEOC documents. A 21-year-old tugboat deck hand named Michael Cheyenne Halloran was assigned to the tug "Louise Stapp," captained by William Howard Stapp. Halloran, a muscular, redheaded former Marine, swore in an affidavit he was washing the tug deck when the captain approached him and asked, "Do you know what I would like to do?" Halloran says he asked what, and the captain responded, "I would sure like to wash you down." The sexual overtures continued over the next four months, claimed Halloran, with more direct actions by Stapp, including pulling down Halloran's pants and touching his genitals, buttocks and other parts of his body, and at one point trying to climb into bed with him.

"Even though I told him to stop, he would continue to touch me in a sexual manner," Halloran alleged in his affidavit. Halloran says he complained to company officials, but that the company retaliated against him by assigning him to trips captained by William Howard Stapp, and reported him to the Coast Guard for failing to take a drug test, a charge that was later dismissed. Eventually, Halloran says, Stapp just stopped assigning him to its crews.

Two other Stapp crew members also joined in the EEOC complaint, one making similar allegations of sexual harassment during trips onboard vessels captained by William Howard Stapp and the other providing supporting testimony. But despite the graphic and specific nature of the claims, somehow, Steve Stockman seemed more concerned about the EEOC's actions against Stapp than the allegations against the captain by the young crewmen.

In his September letter to EEOC chairman Casellas, Stockman complained that the agency had filed suit against Stapp and then contacted the media before notifying the defendant. "I am greatly concerned," wrote Stockman, "that a government agency would allow the release of a Civil Action notice to media outlets before notification reaches a defendant." Actually, Stapp had been notified an EEOC investigation was proceeding and had declined to cooperate in a confidential settlement process. The media did learn of the actual filing of the lawsuit before Stapp was notified.

In his letter, Stockman also offered a summary "that has been brought to my attention" of previous U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rulings that same-sex harassment is not actionable under federal equal employment statutes. The letter would seem to put Stockman in the position of claiming that allegations of forcible sexual advances by a predatory homosexual captain against young sailors trapped on a tugboat does not constitute sexual harassment.  

Claire Gonzales, the EEOC's director of communications and legislative affairs, replied to Stockman by pointing out that federal courts have drawn distinctions between claims of harassment between heterosexuals of the same sex and those "where either the victim or oppressor, or both, are homosexual or bisexual." According to Gonzales, the distinction provides a reasonable basis for distinguishing the Stapp case from the other appeals judgments Stockman cited.

Houston attorney Rick Brass, who represents Stapp, claims the EEOC action is "improper" and accuses the agency of pursuing the case simply to establish a precedent regarding homosexual sexual harassment. Brass also dismisses as "ridiculous" the allegation of retaliation by Stapp against the complaining employees and says John Stapp reacted quickly to remove William Howard Stapp from his position once a specific allegation of "offending activity" by the captain was brought to the company president's attention.

As for Stockman, Brass says he was unaware of the congressman's involvement in the case, even though non-lawyer Stockman's complaint to the EEOC's Casellas echoes Brass's argument regarding the applicability of federal law to same-sex sexual harassment. Brass, however, says he knew Stapp officials were going to contact their congressman for help, and he views Stockman's intervention as a perfectly legitimate service on behalf of a constituent.

Neither Stapp officials nor Stockman, who's battling to keep his seat in a December 10 runoff with Democrat Nick Lampson, responded to inquiries from The Insider regarding the company's contributions to Stockman, the fuels contract dispute or the sexual harassment case.

Harriet Ehrlich, the director of the EEOC's Houston office, suggests that Stockman's allegiances in the Stapp case are a bit skewed.

"I would hope that public officials would try and stop this gross behavior," says Ehrlich, "instead of going to bat for the wrongdoers.

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