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The Insider

Driscoll in China
Mike Driscoll has two and a half months left on his final term as Harris County attorney, but don't expect to see much of him before he yields his office to Democrat Sylvia Garcia or Republican Mike Fleming in January. Driscoll, who's been gradually debilitated by Parkinson's disease over the past few years, departed for the People's Republic of China four weeks ago to explore experimental treatments for his affliction. According to a close associate, Driscoll may undergo an experimental, minimally invasive surgical technique to deaden portions of the brain from which the muscle spasms that characterize Parkinson's are triggered.

Driscoll was accompanied to China by a female physician, Chun Yu Tang, who has treated him for the past year, and a long-time friend and subordinate, assistant county attorney Rock Owens. The trio flew out of Houston on September 18 to Detroit, and from there on to Beijing. Driscoll's eventual destination was Anshan, a city of more than a million in the province of Liaoning near Manchuria and the North Korean border. After making certain that Driscoll was secure with friends and medical contacts, Owens returned to Houston. Driscoll may later travel on to the city of Tsing Tao, and according to Owens could return to Houston by the middle of next month, at the earliest.

Driscoll, who makes $104,400 annually, is on public salary during the trip. Elected county officials do not have to account for their time, says first assistant county attorney Marsha Floyd, "as long as their duties are performed and they are in office." The same rule applies to appointed county department heads. Floyd, who has effectively functioned as acting county attorney for some time, adds that she has a phone number where Driscoll can be reached in China if the need arises.

Strange Bedfellows, Strange Sheets?
Kingwood activists battling Mayor Bob Lanier's proposed annexation of their north Harris County community have adopted what might be called the "bigot defense." They're paying good money to Democratic consultants George Strong, Dan McClung and Marc Campos to persuade Houston's black and Hispanic leaders that Kingwood residents are so politically noxious and biased against minorities that they shouldn't be allowed in the city limits.

Strong is handling research and coordinating the Kingwood propaganda effort, McClung is lobbying councilmembers to oppose annexation and Campos is roiling the Hispanic sector with claims that their recent political gains will be undone if mostly white Kingwood comes marching into town. Strong says the money to pay the consultants is primarily coming from a law firm representing Utility District 5, whose president, John Harris, chairs the Kingwood Annexation Strategy Committee.

A fax crafted by Campos and aimed at Hispanic leaders comes very close to characterizing Kingwoodians (Kingwoodites?) as prejudiced. "The Kingwood Voter," the flier loudly declares, "Never Supports Minority Candidates." It goes on to explain that in the 1994 GOP primary, no Hispanic Republican carried a single Kingwood precinct. According to Campos' fax, African-American at-large Councilmen John Peavy Jr. and Judson Robinson III would have lost to white opponents if the 33,000 registered voters from Kingwood had been Houstonians. Likewise, when Gracie Saenz's at-large seat is vacated next year, "it is very possible that the Kingwood community could field candidates ... [who] would be better financed, thus increasing their chances of winning."

Campos acknowledges that his reasons for wanting to stop the annexation are totally different than those of the people paying him for his labors. "I'm being hired to help educate people on the impact this thing will have on voting rights," he says. "And you know what? That's scary." As for the fact that the scary people are paying Campos to scare Hispanics, Campos concedes he's in "a weird alliance." The money, presumably, is not so scary.

Strong rejects the notion that his campaign portrays Kingwoodians as racists. But how should one characterize affluent whites who will not support minority candidates, no matter how well qualified? "I would just call them conservatives," deadpans Strong. "After all, there are black people who won't vote for white people regardless of how well qualified they are, women who won't vote for men and men who won't vote for women. It's the facts of life of how things work, not how they should work."

John Harris also denies he's paying people to make his community sound like a nest of unreconstructed racists. In fact, he claims Kingwood residents are worldly types whose ranks include a high percentage of corporate nomads who have lived in more than one city and, frequently, more than one country. They're "probably more cosmopolitan" than the typical Houstonian, he insists.

Now we know: from a Kingwood point of view, "cosmopolitan" means you hate living in big cities and never vote for minority politicians.

Listen to Your Heart (and Mary Ellen Conway)
The jurors who returned the $5.55 million judgment this week in Sylvester Turner's libel lawsuit against Wayne Dolcefino and Channel 13 had a bit of difficulty afterward articulating precisely what they had found to be untrue in Dolcefino's 1991 broadcasts -- even though they had spent four days wrestling with that question. Juror Rodney, a 30-ish chemical plant worker who didn't want his full name in the newspaper, recounted for reporters how he had reached his conclusion on that issue: "I thought about it a lot over the weekend, and I prayed about it. Technically, in my mind I knew that there was not much that was false. But in my heart, I had questions about the whole broadcast and the circumstances around it. In the end, my heart ruled out over my mind."

Rodney and the other jurors who spoke to the media after the verdict all credited the testimony of Dolcefino colleague Mary Ellen Conway as heavily influencing their decision. "Mary Ellen Conway was the turning point in the trial," said jury foreman Mike Ross, a social worker. "Mary Ellen Conway introduced integrity into the trial for the first time. We found the malice in this case was the way Mary Ellen Conway was treated" by her employer.

Conway is the reporter Channel 13 dispatched to a hastily called Turner press conference following Dolcefino's story on the station's 5:30 p.m. newscast. Appearing with Turner at his law office that evening were insurance company lawyer Jim McConn Jr. and Probate Judge John Hutchison, who both defended Turner against the suggestion that he had been involved in a 1986 insurance swindle. Channel 13 aired no footage of McConn and Hutchison during its 10 p.m. newscast -- an omission Dolcefino and other station employees blamed on a "goof-up" by Conway. But Conway, when called to the stand for a second time in the trial, testified she had overheard Dolcefino saying he had not included the pair's comments on the later newscast because they hadn't "bothered" to return earlier calls from him. The jurors were decidedly unimpressed by Dolcefino's contentious turn on the stand and the very visible presence of such Channel 13 luminaries as Marvin Zindler and Shara Fryer in the audience for the trial's closing arguments. "We felt it was intended a little bit to intimidate us," one female juror said of the attendance of Zindler & Co. "If Mary Ellen Conway had been seated with them," added the juror, echoing a remark by Turner lawyer Ron Franklin in his closing argument, "it would have had more integrity."

The Insider can be reached at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.


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