If ever there was a good-news/bad-news year for Houston, it was 2005.
Good news: The Astros made it to the World Series. Bad news: Not so's you'd notice, as they got swept in four nerve-racking, frustrating games.
Good news: The city opened its arms, welcoming evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Bad news: The city then almost broke its arms patting itself on the back about the noble effort. Or worse, whining about how the rest of the country didn't properly appreciate just how much we had done. (Stay classy, Houston!)
Good news: Hurricane Rita missed us. Bad news: Now, be fair -- what's so bad about sitting in a broiling car for 18 hours? It's the kind of family time that's just so hard to come by these days.
Good news: At least one of the big-name Enron players served some time -- Lea Fastow, who is now a semi-free woman. Bad news: Every other player in the scandal is still walking around River Oaks or Vail four years after their con game collapsed.
It was that kind of year -- a year of good tidings and bad. It was also, as always, a year full of Turkeys. Men and women who, through incompetence, pride or just plain fecklessness, went the extra mile to make sure we know that turkeys walk among us.
Turkey of the Year
What the New York Yankees were to baseball in the 1950s, Tom DeLay, the czar of Sugar Land, is to the Turkey of the Year competition. Love him, hate him, you have to acknowledge that the Hammer dominates this contest as easily as he pulls money out of lobbyists' pockets.
We didn't want to give it to DeLay this year, we really didn't. But the man just has style.
Indict him? He'll throw a fuck-you smile in his mug shot. Try to bring him to trial? He'll get the state's best criminal-defense lawyer -- a Democrat, no less -- and he'll play the Texas judicial system like a flute until he gets the judge he wants. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle doesn't know what he's gotten himself into.
Can you even name the guy who supposedly took his place in the House leadership? We think it's Bob Placeholder (R-Taking Orders, Ill.) and he jumps exactly as high as the Hammer tells him to.
Just consider the year DeLay had in 2005. It began with what is perhaps Congress's proudest moment, at least for fans of ugly, crazed spectacle: the Terri Schiavo case.
DeLay was in a tough spot. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had staked out a major claim to the Oiliest Politician prize with his bold diagnosis of Schiavo's mental state via a brief video clip. Was DeLay fazed? Not at all.
He proclaimed that removing Schiavo's feeding tube would be "an act of barbarism." His proclamation somehow didn't include any mention that he had taken his own father off life support in 1988. Take that, Senator Frist.
He followed that gambit by noting that judges who ruled against his wishes in the Schiavo case "will have to answer for their behavior." He did this in the wake of two separate incidents where judges had been shot by wild-eyed fanatics. A lesser man might have hesitated before making such comments under the circumstances, but that lesser man would never become Turkey of the Year.
DeLay didn't limit himself to the Schiavo case, of course. He demonstrated his unique feel for the downtrodden in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He quickly made his way to the Astrodome complex for a photo op, as did just about every politico with a pulse.
DeLay was guided through the rows and rows of cots, occupied by desperate evacuees who dared not leave them for fear their few remaining possessions would disappear. He walked among the thousand-yard stares of people who were only beginning to come to grips with the fact their lives had changed forever and their loved ones might not have survived. He made his way to two young victims, kids uprooted from homes they'd never return to, and said -- as only a Turkey of the Year could -- "Now tell me the truth, boys, is this kind of fun?"
Then again, if you're dealing with the kind of guy who thinks Guantánamo Bay detainees have it too easy, maybe he had a point.
DeLay's reign may be ending soon. Not because of Earle's indictments; the Hammer be skating away on those, singing "U Can't Touch This." But DeLay is hip-deep in a mess that has the GOP staying up nights: the investigation into a sleazy lobbyist named Jack Abramoff, about which you'll be hearing much in the coming year.
We decided to honor Our Man while we still had the chance. We had a constituent of DeLay's take advantage of one of the congressman's fine offers. For just $17, you can purchase a three-by-five nylon flag that has flown over the Capitol, along with a beautiful collector's-item certificate honoring whomever you want.
So we sent in a check and a note asking for the certificate to read "On behalf of Sugar Land, thank you Ronnie Earle for your brave indictment of Tom DeLay." We figured it'd be a fine addition to the office walls.
We were told it'd take three weeks to get the flag, but a month and a half went by without word.
We called DeLay's office, and two separate staffers said they'd track down our order. They didn't blink an eye when we read our requested inscription, so we figured we were golden.
Alas, the next day staffer Ben Jones called.
"Unfortunately, we're going to be unable to complete your request," he said, with all the sympathy of a Tom DeLay touring the Astrodome. "Some of the regulations that the flag office has for the personalized certificates restrict political expressions."
What kind of expressions?
"It says political and/or religious expressions are not permissible on the flag certificate so I will be mailing your flag certificate, or your flag request, and check back to you."
Deadline pressures did not allow us to see if a request for a certificate reading "In honor of Tom DeLay, the best and brightest America has to offer" would be okay. So instead we'll just honor him the only way we can.
Thank you, Tom DeLay, the only two-time winner of our Turkey of the Year award.
Sports Turkey of the Year
Remember those glorious days, way back before the 2005 NFL season opened? Fans of the Houston Texans were convinced that 2005 was finally going to be the year. Not a Super Bowl year, of course, but a year when the team would finally grow out of its expansion status and compete for the playoffs. In fact, anything short of making the playoffs would be seen as a failure by some.
Everyone had high hopes. Then again, at some point a movie studio gave the green light to Gigli. Ticket buyers who suffered through Ben Affleck and J. Lo have got nothing on Texans fans this year, though.
The season began with six straight losses. Six straight losses accomplished through a never-changing policy of using the most conservative offensive plans ever, and not really blocking too much to execute them.
Two games into the season, the Texans fired their offensive coordinator. That's probably a pretty good sign that your preseason hopes might have to be adjusted.
After getting pummeled 42-10 by Seattle October 16, team owner Bob McNair called the loss "unacceptable" but said he wasn't giving up on the season. "A lot of things can happen," he told the press.
Among the things that happened was a 38-20 loss at home to the Colts the next week, in a game that wasn't as close as the score made it seem.
Coach Dom Capers is in a world of hurt, although you'd never know it from listening to his weekly call-in show on KILT each Monday.
A typical call:
Caller: Yeah, I just want to say I'm disgusted and this team sucks. I think they made one good block all day!
Capers: Well, you're right -- we did make at least one good block. And what we have to do is build on that good block, because if you can put a bunch of good blocks together, there's a very good chance you're going to--
[Sound of car-radio button being pushed to sports-talk rival KBME]
Also on the hot seat is general manager Charlie Casserly, who's shown an uncanny ability to draft, or sign as free agents, players who seem somewhat taken aback at being asked to protect the quarterback.
So, if you're considering buying stock in the coach and GM, should you take the plunge?
We asked local stockbroker Erik Solis. His analysis:
"Casserly, Capers & Co. downgraded from neutral to sell.
"We are downgrading this company due to its lack of execution, failures in off-season strategic acquisitions, and its dim prospects for future production. Since the company's IPO, shareholders have maintained skepticism toward the management's direction in key personnel and product delivery. We feel that investors should sell all long positions as the hedge-fund community continues short-selling pressure."
Yikes. Surely there must be some hope for Dom and Charlie?
Alas, no: "We feel that a turnaround by management is unlikely given the short time horizon from shareholders," Solis's analysis concludes. "Furthermore, we would let the stock decline further as the season concludes and their service contracts come under termination pressure. Upon that time we would look to purchase distressed debt as well as common shares for breakup value."
Stockbrokers -- heartless vultures. Then again, the cold figures don't lie. The Texans have never scored more than 20 points in a game this season, and they've reached that figure only twice (both in blowout losses).
So far, the season highlight has been the September 18 home game against the Steelers. Apparently at some point in the week prior to the game, someone associated with the Steelers -- it might have been a coach, a player, or a longtime listener, first-time caller -- expressed some slight concern about getting acclimated to the heat in Houston.
A genius-level plot was hatched at Texans HQ: force the Steelers to wear their black jerseys, and then leave the roof of Reliant Stadium open. They'll melt like the Wicked Witch!
Well, the Steelers romped by 27-7. Not that many Texans fans were around to watch the finish. Temperatures inside the airless facility soared over 100 degrees. Sweat-soaked fans mobbed the air-conditioned areas of the concourses or just left for their cars. The Texans' office was swamped with complaints, and the team issued a public apology and promised, in essence, it would never do anything so inutterably stupid again.
The apology didn't mention that the team also didn't plan to win anytime soon, however. Even an a/c system blasting at full power can't hide the stink of the product that's been put on the field this year.
To be fair, the Texans have played a pretty tough schedule so far. And they still have games remaining against the woeful Cardinals and 49ers, so there's a good chance they'll rack up some wins. Just enough wins, in fact, to make sure they don't get a top draft pick.
They close the season January 1 against the 49ers, in what might be a matchup between two 2-13 teams. Now that's good television!
Still, it might be worth it to tune in. It's not likely you'll ever again get to see Dom Capers in Texans gear.
Turkey Agency of the Year
Since time immemorial, at least as it's measured in Houston, Metro has been pushing for a light-rail system (or a monorail, or a hovercraft, or any sort of boondogglish type of people-mover). Houstonians, dismayed at the thought of facing an endless series of elections on the subject, finally caved in and approved a massive light-rail plan in November 2003.
Or they thought they did. This year, Metro announced a few tweaks to the $2 billion plan. Most of the tweaks seemed to involve taking light rail away from poorer minority neighborhoods and giving it to rich white neighborhoods.
Instead of the promised rail lines, low-income neighborhoods would get something called "bus rapid transit." Which apparently is transportation lingo for "buses that look a little bit like trains, if you don't look real hard." (The Metro-loving Houston Chronicle, always eager to spread the agency's party line, helpfully described BRT as anything but a bus, calling it a system "in which rubber-tired vehicles run in dedicated guideways." The vehicles, the paper noted, "would look somewhat like MetroRail trains with tires." So hey, you low-income whiners, what's the problem?)
In one of the amazing coincidences of our times, the neighborhoods that will now be getting rail are represented by John Culberson and Tom DeLay, two Republicans who play key roles in approving federal mass-transit funds. The neighborhoods now getting the Super-Duper Buses are represented by loser Democrats.
Metro's original plan was just too ambitious, and never would have won federal funding, Houstonians were told.
You know, we've all heard of car dealerships offering amazing deals, but when you get to the lot you find there was only one car available for that price. But a $2 billion bait-and-switch, that takes balls.
It seems a pretty clear-cut false-advertising case. Metro ran countless ads during the referendum campaign, with beautifully illustrated and official-looking maps showing where the light rail would be going. Then they, ummmm, made a slight alteration.
It's kind of like National Lampoon's Vacation, when Chevy Chase's character goes to pick up his new deluxe Sports Wagon only to find it hasn't come in. "Now I can get you the Sports Wagon; the only problem is that it may take six weeks," says the car dealer, played by Eugene Levy. "I owe it to myself to tell you that if you're taking the whole tribe cross-country, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster is the way to go. You think you hate it now, but just wait until you drive it."
We know how well that turned out.
So -- where do we go to file a complaint?
"In non-lawyerly language, there are three ways you can have a bait-and-switch complaint," says Dan Parsons, president of the Houston Better Business Bureau. "One, failing to do what you said you were going to do. Two, not having a reasonable ability to do what you said you would do -- like having only one Camaro available at half-price when you've taken out a huge ad the whole city sees. Three, using disparagement to sell up -- 'Oh, you don't what this' -- the thing that was advertised -- 'you want this,' something different.
"Does Metro meet those? On No. 1, yeah, obviously. On No. 2, they're using some of that, saying 'Because of the high cost, we can't do what we said.' And on No. 3, the disparagement, they're using that, too -- 'This original plan won't work; this new plan is much better.' "
But Metro did have some fine print that told referendum voters that the plans might change. Surely that covers them, right?
"Yes, it may have been disclosed, but the question is, was it disclosed enough for the common person to see it or to know to look?" Parsons says. "It's like 'zero-percent financing' in big letters, and then when you look closer it's something else."
States like California, Michigan and New York have consumer protection laws that limit such deceptive advertising, he says, but not Texas. At one time, lawyers in Texas were required to disclose if they were not board-certified in the practice areas they were advertising for. And it was perfectly legal, Parsons says, for that disclosure to be only one inch high on a highway billboard.
Still, it sounds like there's some kind of case here, right? Where do we sign up?
The BBB, it turns out, does not pursue complaints against government agencies.
"You could file something, but you'd just get a postcard from us saying thanks for the complaint and referring you to the right place to be heard, which in this case would probably be the Metro board," Parsons says.
If ever there was a situation to say "never mind," this would be it.
Criminal Turkey of the Year
They make movies about stuff like this -- a death row prisoner (sure, in Hollywood he'd have to be a falsely convicted death row prisoner) comes to the big city for a court hearing, somehow fashions a fake ID and calmly walks out of jail to freedom.
In the movies, the escaped prisoner would then begin a relentless search for the Real Killer. Instead, Charles Victor Thompson went looking for a killer daiquiri.
After four days of headlines about his daring and ingenious escape, Thompson was arrested when he was found drunk outside Daiquiri Unlimited, a strip-mall liquor store in Shreveport, Louisiana.
"It was a textbook example of breaking out and a comic-book example of getting caught," says Brian Wice, a criminal defense attorney and television legal analyst.
Thompson got the death penalty in 1999 after shooting a former girlfriend and her lover in north Harris County. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Thompson a new punishment hearing because his first one included prosecutors playing a tape of him ordering up a murder-for-hire from jail. (Hey, a man's got to keep busy.) He was in Houston for that new hearing -- which again resulted in a death sentence -- when he made his escape November 3.
Thompson had an ID showing him to be an investigator for the Harris County District Attorney's Office. He also had civilian clothes. Investigators believe he had some kind of help from a county employee.
Whether he did or not, it was one hell of an escape: strolling coolly past the guards, then stripping down to his boxers and a T-shirt in order to look like a jogger instead of some homicidal maniac running frantically from the jailhouse.
So if you've got the smarts, the connections, the cojones to pull all that off, how the hell do you end up drunk in Shreveport? Granted, if you're in Shreveport it's probably better to be drunk than sober, but still.
"If it was me, I'd be in Cancún with a drink that had an umbrella," Wice says. "I think that would be an adequate use of my final moments of freedom if I was going to be caught. But Shreveport? If all this guy could think of was Shreveport and getting blitzed on cheap booze, then I have to say I'm very disappointed in the end game."
The Houston Chronicle's lead on Thompson's arrest noted he'd been arrested with little in his pockets and he was drunk. "And," the story continued, "he had arrived at the pay phone outside the Daiquiri Unlimited liquor store on a bike that law officers think might have been stolen."
Oh, Christ -- he's in real trouble now, stealing a bike. Although the Chron did leave open the possibility that Thompson had purchased the thing.
USA Today reported that during his brief stint on the lam, he posed as a Hurricane Katrina evacuee to scam food, clothing and money from various people. So at least he was keeping up with the news while in prison.
Thompson showed that he hadn't lost the sense of style that led him to sign his letters from prison "Chuckster Killer." At a hearing after his arrest, he said he'd waive extradition back to Texas. "I'm not going to waste taxpayers' money in Louisiana," he said, apparently believing that fugitive-hunting cops work for free.
But that wasn't the only bit of panache. He was also asked if he understood his rights.
"Totally," he told the judge.
Fearmongering Turkeys of the Year
Nothing boosts a local news station's ratings better than a hurricane. A killer hurricane, poised to wreak havoc and destruction, right on Houston and the rest of the viewing area. TV stations loooove a hurricane.
What they don't love is when the hurricanes go elsewhere. Sure, you can still show video of people hammering plywood, but if it's in Florida, who cares? So it takes a lot to get the local meteorologists and news teams to finally admit Houston has dodged yet another bullet. Usually a hurricane has to be in the suburbs of Memphis before they give up the ghost.
This was a glorious year to be a weathercaster. Not only did they have the possibility of Katrina hitting Houston -- a possibility that eventually became Katrina hitting far eastern Louisiana -- but they had Rita.
And they loved Rita. They loved Rita like it was a very special gift sent down from the Ratings Gods. They held tightly to Rita, refusing to let her go.
As a result, Houstonians endured Satan's Traffic Jam.
Millions of cars, filled with people scared out of their wits by the Katrina pictures and the doom-laden Rita forecasts, clogged the roads headed west, north and east. (The people heading east were heading into the storm, just to make their lives a little more hellish.)
Eventually, of course, Rita did little to Houston beyond some stray tree damage. And eventually, of course, the forecasters will be right and one day we'll get blasted.
But if there are any people more effective at raising terror and horror than Neil Frank, Tim Heller and Frank Billingsley, we'd like to know who they are.
In fact, we asked a horror expert. Houstonian Bob Willems is the director of such magnificent low-grade slasher films as S.I.C.K. Serial Insane Clown Killer, which concerns itself with, just to be clear, a clown who kills rather than a guy who kills clowns.
"They scared people very much," Willems says of our weathermen, perhaps with an envious tone. "Look at the nightmare they caused on the roads They were all just going for ratings."
We asked Willems how he'd cast some of the main players in Houston's Rita drama.
Mayor Bill White, he said, "should be in Lord of the Rings as a gnome Dave Ward and the Channel 13 crew might star in a remake of Cocoon. Frank Billingsley could either play Norman Bates in Psycho or some other sweet character. Neil Frank could play Frankenstein -- the hair is close to Karloff's original."
My, my. Horror folks can be so cruel.
Willems's movie still shows up and scares folks on various cable channels, but he can only sit back in awe at the subtle ways Frank and the others manipulated viewers during Rita.
Those predicted tracks that took it right up the Ship Channel. The replays of Katrina carnage that somehow didn't mention Houston wasn't surrounded by fragile levees. Those lovingly made animations showing a storm surge taking out the Chase Tower like outtakes from Deep Impact.
How bad did it get? People were evacuating from Conroe. That's like buying snow boots because a blizzard's headed to Chicago.
What's the worst part of all? We're betting there's an encore next summer. You'll need boots, but it won't be for the rain.
(And please, God, if you're reading -- don't let that previous sentence fall under Famous Last Words. Or we'll have a definite Turkey of the Year front- runner for 2006.)
Judicial Turkey of the Year
It's tough being a judge. All that judging, and all. And you know what? You still don't get the best parking spaces.
Sure, you get prime real estate at courthouses, but what about the rest of the time? You'd think a grateful public would say, "Here, O Noble Civil Servant, take the spot right up front." But no -- they give those spaces to the handicapped.
And that chaps the judicial ass of Betty Brock Bell.
Bell is a longtime justice of the peace for the south side of town with a reputation for running things her way. That doesn't always please lawyers, some of whom accuse her of wasting their time while she goes about her seemingly whimsical way of tackling her docket.
Bell's always among the lowest- scoring judges in the annual Houston Bar Association polls; she's also always among the group of people who couldn't give a damn about the annual Houston Bar Association poll.
But being JP in south Houston is a pretty obscure position, so unless you were somehow in her courtroom you didn't give much thought to Bell.
Until this year, when she was indicted for trying to get a handicapped sticker in her mother's name. Her mother who, it turns out, had been dead for nine months -- which, you must admit, is certainly a handicap. Although it seems like a handicap where the problem of parking is pretty much well taken care of.
Bell was indicted not only for trying to get the sticker, which is a felony involving tampering with a government document, but also for lying to the grand jury about it.
You can't say that Bell or her lawyers are lacking in theories about how the judge ended up putting her mother's name on the application. At her trial this month, or in the lead-up to it, the "misunderstanding" has been explained away like this:
1. Bell was getting the handicapped sticker for her aunt, whom she drives to the doctor's office. (How this involves her mother's name isn't clear, unless Bell put it down there for a reference.)
2. Bell was undergoing a series of hip surgeries at the time. (Which apparently addled her so much she thought she was her mother.)
3. The clerk who took the application had been on the job for only a few weeks. (And, we guess, had yet to reach the section of the employee's training manual that says, "DO NOT tell applicants to use their dead mother's name.")
4. According to Bell's attorney, Jeff Gelb, the "misunderstanding" would normally have been cleared up with a phone call "saying the application was done incorrectly, but the office supervisor had a sister who worked for Betty Brock Bell and Betty Brock Bell had fired her sister that same day." (Traumatized from having to fire somebody, Bell applied in her mother's name?)
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5. Bell was conducting an undercover sting operation. (A very, very undercover sting operation.)
The jury didn't buy any of this, and on November 17 found Bell guilty of the state jail felony of tampering. She could get two years in jail or five years' probation; she ended up with two years' probation and a $5,000 fine.
Even before the guilty verdict came, Gelb said he had "good grounds" for an appeal. So it looks like Brock will continue her fight to stay on the bench.
Daniel Day-Lewis is expected to star in the movie version of the tale: In the Name of the Mother.