In 2007, Houston — as always, it seems — proved to be what the Army calls "a target-rich environment" for potential Houston Press Turkeys of the Year.
We had two candidates running for city council who didn't really bother to live in the city they wished to lead; one of them was busted because the swimming pool in his alleged Memorial-area home was so algae-filled it looked more like a pool table than a pool to swim in. (And there, but for the price of some chlorine, went the political career of Jack Christie.)
Turkeys of the Year
We had the folks who run the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. They managed to get the year's single hottest performer — Hannah Montana — to appear at Reliant Stadium. From Baytown to Katy, thousands of hyper tweener girls anxiously counted the moments until their heroine hit the stage.
And when she did, half the people there couldn't hear her. The sound system worked about as well as a Burger King drive-thru speaker. The wonderful, stunning artistry of Hannah Montana (such as it is) was turned into a mushy roar that sounded like a construction site.
Refunds were given, but the tweener tears — and the livid anger of oh-so-patient parents who actually sat through the thing, only to have absolutely no brownie points earned — will never go away.
The Rodeo folks redeemed themselves, however, by opposing the plans of another potential Turkey of the Year: the consortium that — somehow, some way, using a method where all logic is banished — has decided that the decrepit old Astrodome should be turned into a wacky indoor hotel/amusement park. Because if there's one thing Houston needs, it's more empty hotel rooms begging for conventioneers. (On the other hand, what would say "Houston" better to out-of-towners than staying for an entire convention in an anti-septic, air-conditioned-within-an-inch-of-its-life shopping mall?)
We had two government bureaucracies force-feeding billion-dollar plans on the public: Metro, which continues to insist that when voters approved the Westpark light-rail line, they fully understood that "Westpark" meant "Richmond"; and HISD, which came out with what it called the perfect bond package, a bond package they later said was "improved" after they were forced to actually gather public input about it.
In sports, two coaches got shown the door. Astros manager Phil Garner rode his often-unfathomable in-game decisions to a mediocre record while continuing, under front-office pressure, to play Craig Biggio well past his expiration date. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy tried to play coy with management about whether he wanted to return; management made the decision for him.
There was also this, which can only be conveyed by an utterly bare-bones sentence: The Rockets brought back Steve Francis. If you don't follow pro basketball, you have no idea how ridiculous that sentence is.
When it comes to the esteemed judiciary of our area, you had a federal judge who — allegedly, allegedly — liked to get tanked at lunch and then lift up the blouse and bra of a female underling while talking dirty. Oh, and he liked to push her head towards his crotch, too, just in the interest of equal opportunity.
So, while you might think a year without Tom DeLay or Shelley Sekula-Gibbs would be a year without turkeys, you'd be wrong. Very, very wrong.
Turkey of the Year: Priscilla Slade
Texas Southern University usually stays under the radar of most of white Houston, unless there's some crisis over funding. Which means, since we're talking about the perpetually strapped TSU, white Houston hears about it every few months.
But never as spectacularly as this year, when TSU President Priscilla Slade took to a whole new level the concept of having screwed-up priorities.
Overseeing a school with buildings that are falling down, with bureaucracies that can't get financial aid to students in time for them to pay rent, with an already rock-bottom reputation in the Texas Legislature (from which school officials must regularly beg for money), Slade decided to live it up. On the school's dime.
Harris County prosecutors accused Slade of misusing about $500,000 in university funds on luxury items. But the criminal case ended in a hung jury (a retrial is likely), so to be clear, Slade has been convicted of nothing. Also, to be equally clear, she looooves to spend university money, even if her methods of doing so ultimately turn out to be perfectly legal.
Slade's trial, and the months and months of investigations, leaks and ass-covering interviews leading up to it, has been an entertaining eye-opener for Houston. And so Priscilla Slade is, emphatically, our Turkey of the Year. And to honor her, we present this quiz. See how well you know our gal!
1) According to audits, which of these places did Slade not stay in?
a) The Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.
b) The Four Seasons in Austin
c) The Four Seasons in Rome, Italy
d) The Motel 6 in Dallas
2) Slade spent about $2,000 of TSU's money on a statue of an African huntress. The woman advising her on her purchases, Ann Noel of Noel Furniture and Design, told jurors:
a) "Man, I never thought I'd be able to dump that thing off on somebody"
b) "Frankly, I thought I'd discovered the gravy train of all gravy trains"
c) "It's lovely, and it's a huge seller in our Upper-Class Black line"
d) "It was appropriate, because she was such a strong woman"
3) Slade spent $26,000 of TSU money on:
a) A scholarship for deserving low-income students
b) A donation to improve TSU's crumbling infrastructure
c) A sensible VW Beetle
d) A bedroom suite
4) Slade ran up a $100,000 tab at Scott Gertner's SkyBar. This shows:
a) Scott Gertner knows how to treat a lady
b) Slade knows how to put the "fun" in "fund-raising"
c) SkyBar was one overpriced place
d) All of the above
5) Slade spent $13,000 of TSU money on season tickets for the Rockets and Texans. As a result:
a) The Houston Astros fired their liaison to the black community
b) Some low-income youngsters enjoyed outrageously expensive seats, because Slade donated them all to the Boys & Girls Club
c) TSU raised so much money that UT got jealous
d) Slade watched a lot of shitty hoops and football
6) Pilates lessons and "spa days" — charged to the university or not?
a) No way — Someone making $270,000 could easily afford that out of her own pocket
b) No way — What possible link could there be between Pilates and promoting TSU?
c) No way — Jesus, isn't there anything that can't be charged to TSU?
d) Sounds fine to me. If I'm Priscilla Slade.
7) While Slade was lavishing herself with school funds, tuition and fees at TSU:
a) Dropped by 10 percent, just because the school was obviously swimming in dough
b) Dropped by 5 percent, because Slade got a really, really good deal on those Pilates lessons
c) Increased only slightly, because spa days are expensive
d) Increased by 21.5 percent in 2006
8) Slade lived in a 6,000-square-foot home in the ritzy Memorial area. She told TSU trustees that she couldn't live nearer campus because:
a) It's so damn depressing to look at
b) The "right" people don't live there
c) No light-rail service is available for her commute
d) She might be attacked by a disgruntled TSU student (Really)
9) That luxurious Memorial home was eventually bought by:
a) Friends of Priscilla Slade, a political-action committee dedicated to righting outrageous wrongs
b) The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Party!
c) Slade's Pilates trainer
d) Houston Texans defensive lineman Mario Williams
10) At her trial, defense attorney Mike DeGeurin told jurors:
a) "A few hundred thousand here, a few hundred thousand there, what's the big deal?"
b) "Look, I don't believe how lax the oversight is at TSU either, but it is what it is"
c) "If it's high-priced shit, you must acquit"
d) "She was not going to go third-rate"
Answers: All (d).
1-4 correct: You clearly have no concept of what it takes to run a chronically cash-strapped university.
5-7 correct: You may have what it takes to become TSU president, but are you really thinking big enough?
8-10 correct: Welcome, Mr./Ms. President.
Judicial Turkey of the Year: Sharon Keller
Sharon Keller, chief justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals, is a busy woman. Try to keep her waiting, and you do so at your own peril. Literally.
Keller was sitting in her office September 25; maybe she was playing Tetris, maybe she was searching eBay for funny death-penalty-related stuff, we can't be sure. One thing we can be sure of is that she couldn't wait to head home.
Only one thing was detaining her: Some mentally retarded guy was about to be executed, and his lawyers were bitching about it. And she had to sit around until the clerk's office closed at 5 p.m. to see if their bitching would turn into an actual legal petition she would have to glance at before rejecting.
But, as Houston lawyer David Dow relates, he and the lawyers putting together that petition for Death Row inmate Michael Richard were having problems with computer crashes. And when you're trying to put together ten hard copies of a 100-page petition, computer crashes can be unhelpful.
(And before you go saying, "Well, why'd they wait until the last minute?" you should know the appeal they were preparing was based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that morning which blocked a Mississippi execution because of questions about the constitutionality of lethal injection. Which was a different angle of appeal than their original claim — the obviously irrelevant fact that Richard's lawyer had never bothered to tell the judge his client was mentally retarded.)
Dow's office called the Court of Criminal Appeals, pleading to be allowed an extra half-hour to file. According to a complaint they eventually filed with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Keller replied, "We close at five."
Another judge on the court, Cathy Cochran, later told reporters, "There were plenty of judges here, and plenty of other personnel here. A number of judges stayed very late that evening, waiting for a filing from the defense attorney."
But while Cochran may have all the time in the world to sit around waiting for a bunch of legal gobbledygook, Sharon Keller doesn't. (Speculation that she spent the rest of the evening making jokes about "the late Michael Richard" is just that, speculation. But not crazy-ass speculation.)
You really can't blame Keller. Her vision of customer service is deeply ingrained.
You probably don't know it, but Keller comes from the family that owns the famous Keller's Drive-In in Dallas. It's kind of like a local Sonic, except they sell beer.
We called the Drive-In two nights running, ten minutes before they closed, trying to see if they'd take a late order. Both times the phone line was busy for the entire ten minutes.
We called the next day as soon as they opened.
Houston Press: Yeah, hi. I was trying to see if this number actually worked, because the last two nights I called for like ten to 15 minutes and it was always busy.
K: Sir, this is the only business line we have and it's just sometimes, it's really busy. I don't know, I wasn't here last night, but this is the correct number.
HP: All right. And what time do you close?
K: On the weeknights they close at 11:30.
HP: Okay, so I can call at like 11:20 or so and come pick up something?
K: I would take it until at least 11:15; that would be the latest I would call.
HP: 11:15? But what if it was a matter of life or death?
K: See, sometimes if it's — Are you calling for a food order?
K: So it's a matter of life and death over a food order?
HP: Well, you know, sometimes you really need that burger.
K: Well, sometimes — I'm going to tell you now, the winter months are coming and if it's cold at night and there's no business, they do close early at times.
HP: Ah, good to know. Thanks!
So remember, people: Whether you're ordering a burger or trying to keep the state from killing a mentally retarded person, if you're dealing with a Keller, keep your eye on the clock!
Sports Turkey of the Year: Dennis Franchione
How can we put this kindly? It takes a lot to be an embarrassment to Texas A&M football.
Aggies are people who aren't bothered by the fact that a fall weekend in College Station feels like it should be filmed by Leni Riefenstahl; that everyone in the world except them thinks they are a college-football irrelevancy (an especially whiny, self-delusional irrelevancy); and that they are actually proud to be the campus that is home to the George Bush library.
If you're not embarrassed by any of that, it's tough to get you embarrassed. But Dennis Franchione, the one-time-beloved "Coach Fran," has pulled it off. (If anyone could do it, it would be the classy guy who bailed on players of his former team, Alabama, by telling them by phone that, despite earlier denials, he was leaving.)
It's not the fact that Franchione's only managed a barely .500 record in his five seasons at A&M, with no bowl wins. Or that he's never finished better than third in the six-team Big 12 South.
It's his incredible, jaw-droppingly dumb idea to sell inside information via newsletter to big-bucks boosters.
For $1,200, Franchione kept subscribers up to date on:
1) Player injuries that were not otherwise disclosed. Thus possibly violating federal rules on patient privacy, and thus certainly giving valuable tips to potential gamblers.
2) Recruiting updates. Thus probably violating NCAA rules that forbid a coach from publicly discussing specific recruits.
3) Criticism of his current players. Thus making sure the subscribers knew that any problems with the Aggies' record were the result of the dumb players and not the brilliant Coach Fran.
Who would pay $1,200 for such insights? (Besides, of course, gamblers.)
Part of the answer came in the e-mails A&M released in a document dump meant to quiet the storm. One Dallas lawyer, complaining about Franchione's conduct, began his note by saying, "God, Family, Country and Texas A&M Football. In order, those are the priorities of my life."
About two dozen people paid for the "VIP Newsletter," which was actually ghostwritten by one of Franchione's underlings.
An example of what they received:
"One of the main topics of today's meeting — and this obviously is a totally confidential inside bit of information that Coach was willing to share with you that will not be made public: whether defensive end (redacted name) will be in the 105 (number of players on the roster). He has pushed the envelope on academic requirements, and the coaches have leaned toward making a statement by omitting him from the 105..."
"Pushed the envelope on academic requirements" at A&M? That's some impressive pushing.
Was the newsletter worth it to subscribers? Not according to Lance Zierlein, co-host of the morning show at KGOW-AM.
His Five Reasons Not to Pay for Coach Fran's Newsletter:
5) Do you really want to pay $1,200 for "inside info" from a coach nicknamed Franny?
4) I'll give you some free information: Fran won't win many in November, and the passing game still sucks.
3) It's disjointed and poorly written. Just like Fran's offensive playbook.
2) $1,200 might be better spent on slush funds for cornerbacks and linebackers.
1) You could get the same information — plus some great recipes! — from Kim Franchione's newsletter, for only $600.
Franchione is likely gone within seconds of the final whistle of the season, if not sooner. The Aggies are bowl-eligible, thanks to a cupcake schedule, so he may hang on through the end of whatever crummy bowl A&M goes to. But he's a dead man walking.
At least this time, he won't be telling his players "so long, suckers!" over the phone.
Music Turkey of the Year: Mike Jones
Not since Tommy Tutone sang about 867-5309 has an artist done more for a phone number than Houston rapper Mike Jones.
And then, it seems, done less with his newfound fame.
Jones exploded onto the scene in 2005, endlessly exhorting his fans to call him at "281-330-8004, baby" (don't bother; chances are good it's busy).
And since then he's been hard at work...trying to piss his success away as fast as he can.
Jones has thrown around money on Bentleys and bling, which after all isn't the most unusual thing a newly successful rapper might do. But he's also seen fit to get embroiled in a nasty fight with his first label, SwishaHouse, and that's effectively kept him from taking advantage of his 15 minutes in the sun.
Like a lot of young artists, he thought SwishaHouse was screwing him with his contract. (A musical act getting screwed by a label? That's news.)
There's few things duller than the details of a record-label dispute, so we'll spare you. The bottom line is that the guy who exploded onto the scene might be fizzling away into a dud.
Jones has tried to break out on his own, but he's still hampered by the deal he signed. He's moved to get Rap-A-Lot's muscle behind him, but when was the last time you heard any new Mike Jones stuff on the radio? (If you wanted to, that is.)
Some are not all that sad to see him go.
"Bunch of fucking idiots is what it is," says one Texas rap promoter of the Jones-SwishaHouse dispute. "Plus, who the fuck can listen to an entire Mike Jones record without throwing up? He's the most one-dimensional waste-of-time rapper I ever heard. And that includes Vanilla Ice. At least Vanilla Ice can dance."
Tommy Tutone, you may have some company soon in the category of One-Hit Telephone Song Wonders. The new guy will be driving up in a Bentley...if he's saved while he had the chance. So, probably, forget about the Bentley part.
Media Turkey of the Year: Michael Berry
Let's say you're a giant media conglomerate that operates radio stations all over the nation. AM radio is in turmoil these days, so who do you hire to run your AM operations in the country's fourth-largest city?
Someone who has absolutely no experience running a radio station, much less three of them.
City Councilman Michael Berry, who is soon to be term-limited out of office, is now a radio mogul. Since April he's been Clear Channel's AM guy in Houston, a job for which he extensively trained by hosting a talk show.
Berry is no longer giving out interviews about his radio gig to the media, but we talked to him about sports-talk radio for a cover story a while back. Let's just say he's absolutely confident that he's up to the job.
And let's just say your assessment may differ.
Berry oversees KTRH, KPRC and KBME. The latter is sports 24/7, and struggling in the ratings.
The other two are the most famous AM stations in town, pioneers in different ways in Houston radio.
They're still pioneering. In sucking.
KPRC has become "Radio Mojo," and it is exactly as bad as the name sounds. The station, which led the way in radio talk for years, now broadcasts eight freaking hours of Walton & Johnson.
If you don't know Walton & Johnson...well, first thank whatever God you pray to. Then realize that airing eight hours a day of their tired shtick is like XM deciding to put on a 24-hour channel of Gallagher stand-up.
It's not just that their allegedly wacky group of character voices includes a redneck and a lisping gay guy, it's that — if listening to the show is any indication — they apparently haven't had an original thought in years. Last month — in 2007, mind you — they spent a whole segment discussing, and taking as gospel, that idiotic list of people whom the Clintons supposedly have had killed.
KPRC follows this abomination with Howard Stern wanna-be Mancow. We just hope they don't get the bends from diving so ferociously for the lowest common denominator.
And then there's KTRH, long known as the city's leading news station. Back in the day (say, the early '90s) it had up to three dozen people staffing regular beats (City Hall, the courts) and breaking investigative news.
Now there's maybe half that number of people, and they ain't breakin' much. Unless you count rip-and-reading that morning's Chronicle.
"A viable news operation has been slowly frittered away," one KTRH alum says.
Berry has shown a keen eye for spotting potential ethical problems — and then acting like they don't exist. He is, after all, the boss of KTRH, which occasionally covers City Council. Including City Council member Michael Berry. Doesn't bother him.
Not to mention that he now has the station's two legendary anchors, JP Pritchard and Lana Hughes, doing advertisements for clients. Because you want a name you can trust, whether it's telling you about the latest Metro scandal or the wonderful Lasik work you can get from Dr. Jeff Whitsitt.
But maybe Berry's not to blame.
"I do know other people that interviewed for that position, and one of them said when he started to lay out his vision for reviving KTRH, it became clear that Clear Channel headquarters just wanted a yes man who would do their bidding," the KTRH alum says.
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"Maybe Michael Berry isn't the [media] turkey of the year," he said. "Maybe Clear Channel is, and Berry's just the wattle hanging from its neck, going in whatever direction they want."
Bitter? Maybe. But seeing some great radio stations die can do that to a person.
(To revisit our honorees for the past four years, click here.)