It's just after 10:30 a.m. inside the cavernous Houston City Council chambers when Council Member Helena Brown, who has held office for only four months, scrunches her small, cherubic features into a scowl and requests the right to speak. The matter before the council involves the construction of a $26-million maintenance facility. Ordinarily, this sort of item would whisk through the city council amid a chorus of yes votes and self-congratulation. But this isn't an ordinary gathering at City Hall, and Helena Brown isn't an ordinary council member.
"Let us see what this is all about," Brown reads from a prepared statement, voice soft and nasally. "This is a company that wants to take advantage of a $30 billion initiative that our president has approved to rebuild schools and outdated buildings, according to Agenda 21."
"What?" gasps Mayor Annise Parker. She's never heard of Agenda 21, which extreme right-wingers like Glen Beck write on chalkboards amid ravings that link the United Nations, President Barack Obama and a slew of shadowy figures in a global scheme to enact worldwide socialistic control under the banner of "sustainable development." Now, Brown, clad in an austere brown blazer, is taking this worldview and connecting it to Houston.
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"This company bluntly talks about their support of UN initiatives," says Brown, who gained office last December from District A following the lowest electoral turnout in recent memory. Since then, she has unleashed a radical and ascetic set of proposals that, often couched in apocalyptic imagery and colorful metaphors, would remake Houston into a libertarian utopia.
She has voted against anything she considers "luxury items" — paying caregivers of the chronically ill, fulfilling city pension obligations and providing emergency medical services, which she says should be privatized. In all, Brown, if given the opportunity to dissent, has voted against roughly 50 percent of city spending proposals.
The Brownian doctrine, perhaps, has been most evident in her staff. With the exception of Charles Prothro, director of special projects, everyone who's ever worked for her has been part-time. No benefits. No vacation. No sick leave. No pension. In the name of austerity, Brown had effectively rescinded every workers' right established over the last 100 years.
This is Brown's first elected office, although she's been politically involved since she was eight, behind the scenes on both local and national campaigns. Her only professional experience appears to have been intermittent receptionist work — which book-ended her real passion as a political and religious activist. As reported in the Catholic News Service, Brown boycotted The Da Vinci Code in 2006, saying it contradicted scripture. "Unfortunately, the release of the film is not simply a local tragedy," she told them.
She launched a private Google Group designed to appeal to the most conservative members among Harris County precinct chairs. She called it "Friends of Freedom," a place where neocons could voice opinions on taxation and government control without fear of public disdain.
Now Brown has commingled maxims found in the Tea Party, the libertarian movement and Catholic zealotry and introduced them to Houston City Council, preaching parsimony and the elimination of almost all taxation. Brown's iconoclasm has galvanized the rest of the council against her and made even its most conservative participants seem moderate by comparison.
Several times since Brown has taken office, Mayor Parker, bristling with the irritation of an overworked parent, has had to quell arguments concerning Brown's would-be policymaking.
But today, Brown, while implying collusion between Houston and the United Nations, will not relent. "This is the United States of America," she informs the audience at City Hall lest there be confusion. "And we don't answer to anyone but the good ol' U.S. of A. We're giving $26 million to non-American initiatives and interest."
Brown's extremism underscores a countrywide and, in fact, a global shift toward fringe politics. There are examples on either end, whether it's the Occupy Wall Street protesters advocating socialism or Tea Party activists mourning the death of freedom. Historically, times of recession give rise to radicals and their ideas, and Helena Brown is Houston's incarnation of that effect.
Certainly Brown isn't the first council member to take on the larger issues, even though Houston City Council is a local body and has little to no sway over the national agenda. But apparently she has done this — whether on impulse or under last-minute direction — without telling her staff ahead of time. Agenda 21 hadn't been discussed in their prep sessions.
"We had no idea who wrote her statements," said Brown's former chief of staff, Leticia Ablaza, who resigned along with the deputy chief of staff and an intern in late-April following a heated office clash between staffers and disillusionment over the councilwoman herself. (Although at least one staff member admires Brown, saying that, if nothing else, she remains committed to her ideals.)
Following a monthlong investigation into Helena Brown involving dozens of interviews and a review of public records and Brown's e-mails, it's become apparent that the councilwoman isn't quite the harmless radical she at first appears to be. She isn't acting alone.
Rather, an outside volunteer "senior adviser" named William Park — a man who popped into her life a few years back — appears to dictate her office, and some say her life. Brown's speeches, laced with demagoguery, aren't extemporaneous. By nearly all accounts, Park plans, if not writes, them.
Former and current staffers say Park has planted a friend on staff to spy on other staffers, sometimes floats racially charged ideas and — most distressing — directs a significant percentage of Brown's votes on City Council, according to interviews with numerous sources familiar with the situation.
What's more, Park has a past. Once the CEO of a local brokerage firm called United Equity Securities, which had offices all over the country, Park was banned from the investments industry on April 25, 2011, by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority which said he failed to comply with the arbitration award — namely that he didn't pay a woman who successfully sued him.
As part of this case, an arbitrator assigned by FINRA ordered Park to pay Sonie Kim, a Los Angeles woman said to be his girlfriend by some, $133,875 in damages and other penalties for federal and state securities law violations: breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent and/or intentional misrepresentation, failure to supervise, and negligence. In April, the woman, who still hadn't been paid, took her case to county court in Los Angeles, and that court entered a judgment in April confirming the arbitration award.
United Equity Securities, meanwhile, was caught up in other litigation in which it sold investments on behalf of Provident Royalties — a company involved in the oil and shale business — to at least 13 people in what turned out to be a nationwide Ponzi scheme operated by Provident.
Seventy-two-year-old Frances Combe, a woman in Pasadena, California, said she had $225,000 vanish after her dealings with Park in this and other investment schemes — her retirement. That matter has not gone to trial yet.
In an e-mail to the Houston Press, Park denied any financial malfeasance: "United Equity Securities never bilked any investors, never had any fines, nor owes anyone any money. I was not banned from the securities industry, much less for any fraudulent activity as there NEVER was any fraudulent activity." He then wrote: "You might want to consider giving your life to Jesus Christ as life is short and find the peace and forgiveness that only He can give you."
That last part is important. It provides a clue as to how Park could become such a dominant force in Brown's life and politics. Helena Brown, 34, was homeschooled and inculcated with Roman Catholic dogmas, which play an omnipresent role in her life, according to several interviews. Her social positions derive from strict, literal interpretations of the Bible, said Bernadette McLeroy, who's known Brown for more than a decade and looks on her like a daughter.
But even McLeroy had never seen Park before Brown got into office.
Besides affirming that they met at a Tea Party rally five years ago, Brown and Park declined to elaborate on the specifics of their relationship at a recent meeting inside an empty H-E-B cafe in Bunker Hill.
Born in southern California, Brown, who ignored all questions following this interview, came to Houston when she was four. Her family, which has four children, settled in Spring Branch in District A. Over the course of Brown's childhood there, the community's demographics shifted dramatically, typifying Houston's overall trajectory toward a Hispanic-majority metropolis. Avenues lined with orderly yards and American flags buttress shopping centers where Spanish dominates.
One aspect of Spring Branch, however, hasn't changed: Who votes, and who does not. Bob Stein, the well-known Rice University political scientist who has studied District A's voting behavior, says the area's voters are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative and subscribe to Tea Party orthodoxy.
That was partly why Brown — who despises taxation — got voter support over incumbent Brenda Stardig, who fell into disfavor with the area's political elite for her support of the so-called "rain tax." Passed in 2010, it will raise $8 billion in drainage fees over 20 years to revitalize Houston's infrastructure. But it also taxed churches, incensing conservatives in Spring Branch.
Around this time was when Helena Brown emerged. The political unknown had up until then operated on the fringes, the far-right campaigns, the online discussion groups, the Ron Paul movement. By every telling, she was utterly disconnected from the mainstream constituents of Spring Branch, moving in similar-minded groups like the "Friends of Freedom," where she theorized communists had infiltrated both the United Nations and the Catholic Church, according to e-mails. After ascending to public office, Brown said she had stopped participating in the radical forum.
So with Stardig's unpopularity, combined with her ineffectual re-election campaign, Brown won a runoff election with 3,042 votes last December — less than 2 percent of District A's total population of 200,000 people.
At the H-E-B meeting, Brown looked exhausted. She had just finished a preliminary budgetary session at City Hall, and still wore the same red blazer festooned with a name tag: "Helena Brown. City Council. District A."
Park, a crucifix-encrusted ring on his right hand, sat next to her. There was a white cowboy hat perched atop his head. Outside, he had parked his camouflaged truck. He had a notepad before him and a thoughtful look on his face, as though confronted with a difficult crossword puzzle. Both of their cell phones — matching Samsung Galaxy Notes — sat on the table. The words "Holy Bible" glowed from the background of Park's phone.
Religiosity is an essential aspect of the William Park ethos. He grew up in and out of Mexico, following his father, a pastor, on missionary work. "He speaks better Spanish than he does English," Brown said, finishing half of her pesto-and-mozzarella panino. Park attends weekly Bible study classes at his Baptist church, and signs his e-mails with a litany of religious passages.
In all, he strikes one as a pious, stand-up guy, someone who can lecture exhaustively on the necessities of integrity, character and honesty in our daily interactions. He seems like you can trust him. Believe him. Maybe even, if the setting were right, give him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Of the many alleged financial victims — we counted 17 spanning numerous dealings — dotting Park's past, the story of a woman named Fran Combe, 72, of Pasadena, California, seems emblematic. She first met William Park in 2006 in Los Angeles. She and her husband, George, wanted to alter their insurance plan with a company called Waddell & Reid, and Park was sent out to help.
Park rolled up to her house in a red truck and talked with the Combes for a long while. During the conversation, Park smiled, displayed a quick intellect and spoke about his family. He also asked if the Combes, who were retired, were interested in investing in a company that would make them a lot of money. The company, called Provident Royalties, was involved in oil and shale exploration near Park's home in Texas and he informed Fran that people all over the nation who invested with him were bringing in incredible returns — 18 percent monthly.
"He said, 'My mother's a retired teacher and has limited funds and I put her in this,'" Combe recalled Park saying. "So I really believed him." She signed a check for $25,000 over to Park's company, United Equity Securities. He was just so likable and smart, and seemed to know everything about investments, Combe said. They couldn't help it.
And just as Park predicted, the returns were indeed incredible. Another check for $4,500 materialized every month in her mailbox. Like magic. Over time, as the retired couple came to trust Park, a change in their relationship occurred. He wasn't Mr. Park, the investment broker; he was William, a friend.
Combe and her husband, George, got a call from Park nearly every month, saying he was in Los Angeles. He'd ask how they were and whether they wanted to join him and his girlfriend, Sonie Kim, for lunch or dinner downtown. Or he'd ask George if he wanted to go golfing. During these occasions, Park would be expansive, pontificating on conservative politics, and recommend books the couple should read. Sometimes, he'd talk about his faith.
But Fran's husband had some concerns. The money just seemed too easy, he said.
"What are you worried about?" Park told him. "Relax and enjoy it. This is a very solid investment. This is what the oil and gas industry is all about — it's paying out." So Fran and George Combe did exactly that, giving him another $75,000 to drop into Provident Royalties. And then they pumped an additional $125,000 into other funds he recommended.
As the years passed, certain things about Park surfaced that did seem strange, however, Combe said. "He's just a rabid, rabid Republican. In 2008, William ran a marathon in Houston, wearing a shirt that was derogatory toward Obama. William hated him. Hated Obama." She added: "People were really disturbed."
Not long after, the notices started arriving. One of the companies the Combes had invested in had gone bankrupt. In one day, the retired couple lost $70,000. Fran Combe called Park.
"Speak to us in plain English!" she remembers yelling at him. "Don't give us this investor jargon. What happened?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I think we can salvage this."
But, of course, they couldn't. That was the last time the Combes ever heard from Park — he just "evaporated." But the notices didn't. They kept coming in the mail, more letters, more losses. Next it was Provident Royalties, which wasn't a shale and oil investor but a nationwide, $485 million Ponzi scheme involving 61 broker-dealers and thousands of unwitting investors. Investors in Provident whose accounts were handled by United Equity Securities lost more than $660,000, according to court files. At the same time, United had amassed $173,200 in commissions.
Gary Skinner, 63, of Oldsmar, Florida, who got taken for $195,000 by Park's company, said: "I'm retired. This hurt big-time." Even Park's girlfriend, Sonie Kim, lost $35,000 to Park, according to a lawsuit she filed against him and won.
Park's legal trouble hit a crescendo in late April 2011 when the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority barred him from the brokerage industry. By that time, United Equity Securities had already disappeared.
While all of this was transpiring, Park, incredibly enough, opened another company, named Park Integrity Productions, and started making movies. Traumatically awful movies. Films like Scouts Honor, which follows fallen Saturday Night Live actor Chris Kattan as his character tries to win a competition in a scout camp. It earned some truly hilarious customer reviews: "(Shaking my head.) It's a big stinking pile of crap. I might have cracked a smile once in a while thinking, OMG, WTH were the producers thinking?!?"
And then, even more confounding, Park posted several amateur promotional videos to YouTube for Scouts Honor that he starred in. These films also aren't funny, but for very different reasons. They show Park, who calls himself a "Texas Ranger," in a brown leather coat and cowboy hat, hoisting a shotgun. In one scene, there are racist remarks. Park, playing the "Texas Ranger," tells a Korean masseuse, "You don't understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?...Oh, you're not Chinese? You all look the same! Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese. All the same."
The period during which Park was making these videos was, presumably, when his relationship with Council Member Brown intensified. But again, even that's unclear. Of the nearly two dozen people interviewed who had connections to Brown — friends, adversaries, political acquaintances, work colleagues and staff members — not one person knew anything about Brown's personal life or her relationship with Park. When Brown was approached about Park's financial history, she said, "I apologize, but I cannot talk to you at this time."
Some of Brown's employees say they don't think she knows about Park, but none of them are sure. In fact, most were unable to relate details beyond Brown's faith or politics. The common refrain: "I didn't feel comfortable asking her."
William Park had found one more person to manipulate.
This wasn't what Leticia Ablaza or R.W. Bray had expected. In the beginning, the dynamic in Brown's office had been "hopeful," said Bray, who was Brown's deputy chief of staff. They swept into office with the same idealism and relative naiveté that infects most people around freshman legislators: They were going to change things. Do right by their constituents. Return all phone calls. Work together.
But it didn't happen that way. Instead, "William Park happened," Ablaza said.
Ablaza first noticed something strange in his relationship with Brown last January at a Spring Branch super-neighborhood meeting, an extremely ordinary civic function that council members attend to meet constituents. At the gathering, Ablaza recalled, Park — not Brown — did all the talking. "It was really odd," Ablaza said. "That he was speaking and she didn't really speak. I can see where people would think, 'Is he the City Council member, or is she?' I could see where someone would say that."
Park circulated business cards there and elsewhere emblazoned with the City of Houston seal. The cards advertised Park as Brown's "chief adviser." City Attorney David Feldman later stopped Park, saying the city emblem couldn't be used on a volunteer's business cards.
Back in Brown's office, mystery begat mystery. One staff member, who requested anonymity, said Brown would agree with their policy recommendations during prep sessions, but later "she'd vote some other way. Or we'd get a call before the meeting saying, 'The vote has been changed.'"
At those Council gatherings, Brown would deliver lengthy prepared statements with graphic imagery that no one on staff had heard before: "How about showing our young people how to free themselves from the slavery of sexual promiscuity...Our nation needs to return to our foundation of Biblical principles being taught in schools, versus the government trying to educate folks on how to plan a family, when they can't even define a family. Rather sterilize our young girls."
At a City Council meeting January 11, Brown ferociously opposed the construction of a $2.3 million bike path, triggering a 30-minute fracas between Council members that Mayor Parker couldn't corral. It ended — like most things involving Brown — in bizarre fashion. She read a statement from her phone that someone appeared to have shot her mid-meeting; it's still unclear who had sent it to her.
"We're going to make Houston start looking like an aging Hollywood actress," Brown said, tripping up and stuttering. "Just racking up bills on excessive jewelry and cosmetic surgery while the infrastructure falls apart and other bills go unpaid. A very sober thought."
What followed would become a familiar arc to Brown's story. The Council ignored the councilwoman, passing construction of the bike paths 16-1. Only Brown dissented.
Brown never explained the behavior, baffling her staff and affording rumors the fodder to proliferate. "We don't know what happened to Helena between meetings with us and City Council sessions," one senior staff member said.
Some weeks later, there was a Galleria Chamber of Commerce gala that Park and Brown both attended along with hundreds of others. Neither Brown nor Park drinks alcohol. Park complained at dinner — over dry, tasteless chicken — that he wanted to refinance city bonds but couldn't get the answers he needed. "I've worked on these deals before. They don't make information public," one attendee, who requested that her name not be used, recalls Park saying.
The woman remembers the night vividly. Park, she recalled, wore a dark blazer, and later entered a discussion about Brown and City Council. He said he and Brown would continue voting against any proposal that compromised their principles. He frankly hadn't expected to be in the position he found himself in. He and Helena had thought Stardig would glide into another term. "We're surprised the election went so well," he reportedly said during the discussion.
Conversation then turned to specific budgetary items. That's when something strange happened: Park began speaking in the first person, as if he were on City Council. "I voted no on those things because I didn't have enough information," the dinner participant heard Park say. "And that's why I voted that way."
During the talk, the source said, Brown approached them several times. Park ignored her repeatedly, so Brown wandered away. That next morning, Park's conversation partner e-mailed a friend: "These people are just completely crazy. He reviews all financial items and tells her where to tag and vote no."
In Brown's City Hall office, Ablaza was beginning to realize there was more to Park than she had at first thought. He appeared in the offices too frequently, seemed to have too much influence. She didn't understand Brown's apparent reticence around him.
One day, Ablaza said, the office telephone rang, and she picked it up. A few minutes passed. Ablaza hung up, and met with Brown.
"That was just the Secret Service," Ablaza said. "They're looking for William Park. What's this about?"
By the end of March, before Brown had served even three months, her office was unraveling. The country was still roiling from the Trayvon Martin controversy, and Park made some racial remarks related to it, which discomforted one staff member, one source said. The source added: "I can guarantee Helena wouldn't tolerate (racism). Not around her. Not even a bit."
On March 23, Brown — without informing any of her employees, according to Ablaza — hired a man named Enrique Reyes, who had worked for Park at United Equity Securities. Reyes had virtually no political experience, and told everyone, Ablaza recalled, that "he would only answer to Brown — or Park." One office staff member said everyone concluded he was there "to usurp Ablaza and Bray's authority."
Reyes, who didn't respond to requests for comment, has numerous connections to Park. He wrote Park's IMDb biography related to Park Integrity Productions, "liked" his Texas Ranger Youtube videos on Facebook, and also oversaw United Equity's financials with the Combes in Los Angeles, according to the Combes.
Internal clashes erupted almost immediately, and Brown's office spiraled into chaos. The councilwoman's employees were convinced Reyes had been told to spy on Ablaza and Bray and report back to Park. Ablaza refused to talk to Reyes. At one point, Reyes saw Bray and Ablaza's husband, Joe, talking over a table full of documents, and told Brown the two were holding "secret meetings," one staff member said. Other instances occurred in which Reyes texted information from internal council meetings to Park.
"Park didn't like Ablaza and Bray," a staffer said. "Ablaza is controversial; everyone knows that." He added: "But remember, these are four huge egos you're interacting with" — Brown, Park, Bray and Ablaza. "Everyone has a different view of what went down."
That much, at least, is evident when dissecting what happened next. Little else involving this story, however — both puzzling and sad — appears to be. The trigger, according to interviews with present and former staff members, was this: One staffer, Bryan Lengoc, 24, got another office member, Sandra Kim, 22, pregnant.
Kim informed the office sometime in late March or early April. One person extremely familiar with the situation said Brown congratulated Kim on her news — twin boys, no less — but then became "upset" that she was pregnant, fretting over the safety of her unborn children.
Kim, sources said, began to worry she would lose her job, so she took the advice of other employees and wrote a letter to the City Human Resources Department explaining her concern. In the letter, she said she thought her position was in jeopardy. (When a public records request was filed for this document, Human Resources reported that it had never received any letter from Kim.)
Panic swept the councilwoman and her staff. Someone in the office mentioned they were nervous that Kim's job would harm her pregnancy, though there's little agreement over who said it or why. Brown's consternation ballooned, one staff member recalled. She said that if Kim had a miscarriage, she would be held liable.
"The fact that Helena wasn't happy about Sandra being pregnant isn't true," one person on staff said. "There was no attempt to fire Kim." Others disagree.
On April 19, Brown called a meeting. All of the office members except Reyes filed into a City Hall conference room. Everyone was quiet as they took their seats. Brown presented them with a document.
"Will you sign it?" she asked.
The document read, "This is to make a written record that comments were made at my office that stress of the office (sic) might be an injury to Sandra's pregnancy. I have advised that Sandra get a medical checkup immediately and that her doctor issue her a medical leave of absence."
Translation: Brown was trying to save herself from a possible lawsuit, conjured somewhere in her imagination. The councilwoman wanted the document to convey that she'd been prudent in considering Kim's pregnancy. The form was passed around. Everyone signed it and left the conference room.
Days afterward, Ablaza, Bray and an intern, Janna Jeffers, resigned from Brown's staff. Brown released a statement saying Bray was pursuing his own political ambitions and implying that Ablaza wanted to be a full-time mom — though that wasn't true.
Reyes took over as the new chief of staff.
It's one of the profound oddities of American politics that in the elections that actually affect the tangible world around us, when pragmatism should trump ideology, when representatives can shape the communities we inhabit rather than dictate platitudes according to party screed, people simply do not vote.
Maybe this is because local matters are boring. Deciding who will pick up the trash or whether a bike path gets built doesn't convey the sexiness of national or even state politics. Mayor Annise Parker doesn't determine whether we go to war or if two men can marry. But she does have power. And so does Helena Brown.
Almost no one the Press spoke to recently in District A had heard of Brown, and the few who had didn't know much, if anything, about her. "Is she that libertarian?" one man near Brown's home asked, then thought for a moment. "I'd heard the name." Another neighbor, Glen Smith, said: "I don't know anyone who knows her and I've lived here since 1957."
There was concern among constituents who were more familiar with her. They worried their community would atrophy under her austerity politics. "How are we going to get anything?" asked Cecil Wahrenberger, who said she voted for Brown because past councilwoman Toni Lawrence endorsed her. "The work's not gonna get done."
But that's misunderstanding what Brown's trying to do. She is getting work done, just in a peculiar fashion. Her votes are indeed meaningless in the context of practical accomplishment, but they have been successful in channeling a greater, national anger among conservatives. She considers spending terrifying and taxation abhorrent, if not an outright sin. So with the unequivocal morality of an evangelical, she's set out on a crusade to eradicate both from Houston, though she fails time and again.
And that's purchased some modicum of admiration. One of Brown's employees who's been with her since the beginning said: "I have respect for her. She is one of the only ones making us aware of certain problems." Paul Kubosh, the local activist who spearheaded the red-light camera campaign against the mayor, donated $2,000 to Brown's campaign, saying he likes her audacity, and adding, "We need more warriors out there."
Last week, during a lunch break at the City Council's budget amendment meeting, while the other Council members ate with each other, Brown sat by herself, phone in her hands. She was slated to propose her one dozen amendments after the break. The amendments encapsulated her larger platform, providing a glimpse into Brown's perfect world.
In this alternate Houston, our ambulances would be run by private companies and taxpayers would no longer fund emergency services. In this Houston, the city would force Harris County to do all of our criminal investigations — for free. In this Houston, the city would default on $220 million in pension obligations to save the metropolis from bankruptcy, which Brown is positive will likely occur sometime next year.
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For a moment, watching Brown submit amendment after amendment to the legislative slaughter — 16-1, 16-1, 16-1 — she seemed almost a tragic figure. During the meeting, other council members made fun of her, snickered among themselves or groaned in exasperation while she presented her amendments. It was deeply embarrassing.
When Brown was done and there was another break, the other members of City Council chortled among themselves or joked with reporters.
Brown, meanwhile, again sat by herself, isolated. Then she picked up her phone and began talking with someone. No one knew who.