The Insider

My Way, or the Highway
District Attorney Johnny Holmes' office is making waves, if not necessarily friends, on several fronts. While Holmes continues his dogged pursuit of the tell-tale grand jurors who chatted with Chronicle reporter Jennifer Lenhart, his subordinates are trying to housebreak freshman Republican Judge Lon Harper of a nasty (at least in Holmes' eye) habit. According to the DA's minions, Harper likes to call defendants' lawyers and prosecutors into his chambers, beyond public view, to discuss the particulars of cases, including bail and sentencing. That's strictly forbidden, according to the Holmes-authored procedural handbook that serves as the Bible for his assistant district attorneys. Since Holmes contends only his salesfolk can shop plea bargains to defendants, Harper's habit constitutes a challenge to prosecutorial authority. Prosecutors also argue that deals cut outside the view of victim's rights advocates tend to be softer, because they let judges off the hook of public opinion.

The situation reached a head last week when the judge summoned prosecutor Craig Goodhart for one tete-a-tete too many about the merits of a case before Harper's 185th District Court. Once in the backroom, Goodhart refused to discuss the case, and Harper retaliated by ordering Goodhart out of his court. After consulting with division chief Chuck Rosenthal, Goodhart and the other two prosecutors assigned to the 185th took a hike to protest Harper's conduct.

Goodhart wouldn't explain why he refused to get up-close and personal with Harper. "The ethical considerations tell me I can't comment on matters between lawyers and the judiciary that puts the judiciary in a bad light," he said. It's a rather restrained approach, considering that Holmes himself is an avid practitioner of verbal capital punishment.

After Goodhart and his colleagues walked, Rosenthal and colleague Keno Henderson paid Harper a visit in his chambers and told him that the DA's office wouldn't be participating in the behind-closed-door consultations. Judging by Henderson's post-meeting analysis, there's some doubt the message got across. "I think there was [an agreement]," comments Henderson, "but we'll see what happens." Henderson allowed that Harper is not the only judge who's utilized backroom chat in an inappropriate fashion.

Following the walkout, Harper was off to a legal conference and unavailable for comment. His court coordinator declined to say whether prosecutor Goodhart would be welcome back in the 185th when Harper returns. Holmes, meanwhile, says the judge will have to live with the prosecutor, on the DA's terms. "The judges don't have any say over who practices in their court," he says. "No judge is going to tell me who to assign as a prosecutor in that court."

Carolyn Farb, Mainstream Conventioneer
Dolly Madison McKenna has had her share of bruising encounters with the religious right. After her drubbing at the hands of Newt-clone Gene Fontenot in a 1994 Republican congressional primary, McKenna spearheaded a futile effort to organize GOP moderates to "take back" the party and embarked on a quixotic run for the GOP state chairmanship against eventual winner Tom Pauken.Undeterred, McKenna is back with a novel approach aimed at getting "mainstream" voters involved in the nuts and bolts of the political process: public service announcements on television and radio urging voters to attend their precinct conventions after the upcoming party primaries. You might call it a mainstream stealth campaign.

The Sachnowitz & Company-crafted spots include cameo appearances by such average voters as Chronicle publisher Richard J.V. Johnson, sprinter Leroy Burrell, professional socialite Carolyn Farb (who's never met a P.S.A. she didn't want to be in) and Democratic appeals Judge Eric Andell. One television spot features a child singing "My Country Tis Of Thee" while a background voice explains that democracy takes time, "so vote in the primary on March 12, and when the polls close at 7, go back to your party's precinct meeting ...."

McKenna insists the campaign is targeted at voters in both major parties, but it seems tailored to counter the likes of Operation Nehemiah, a program based in west-side churches that helped mobilize the religious right to dominate GOP precinct conclaves two years ago. While the religious conservatives' purpose was to activate a very select audience, McKenna is doing the opposite. "I'm trying to go to everybody," she declares. "If you want mainstream America, you go to the world. I don't have to target."

The Smiling Face of Change
Here's one more indication that 1996 will be the year most of Allen Parkway Village falls and Fourth Ward redevelopment begins in earnest. Insurance giant American General, which has its headquarters and extensive interests in the territory west of downtown, has snagged a familiar, well-scrubbed face for senior vice president. Al Haines, the Houston Partnership's chamber of commerce division president and former city finance and administration chief under former mayor Kathy Whitmire, gives American General an expert in municipal affairs and an ideal media frontman for those touchy confrontations with the tenants of the Fourth Ward. Haines, who joins the company later this month, recently had explored the possibility of becoming chancellor of the Houston Community College System. But the internecine politics of the HCCS board precluded a unanimous vote of the trustees, a pre-condition for the job.

If those confidential memos you come across scream for a wider audience, fax them to 624-1496, or leave a voice message for The Insider at 624-1483.


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