In an attempted violation of city law, and in yet another puzzling move by embattled City Council member Helena Brown, the District A representative solicited money from local Korean businessmen late last month for a trip she took this week to Seoul -- though she had already paid for it with public money.
According to chapter 18 of the City Charter, Brown cannot receive direct contributions unless it's during city-sanctioned campaigning months -- February before an election until March afterward. During "blackout" periods, if a candidate or council member gets direct money, said City Press Secretary Jessica Michan, it's a violation of city law. Whether Brown actually got money is unclear -- but she sure did ask for it.
In a recent e-mail, which the Houston Press obtained, Brown said: "The trip to Korea is a costly trip. ... Please make checks out to Helena Brown who will personally be offsetting the costs."
But that wasn't true. Brown paid for airline tickets to South Korea with public money -- $11,000 -- according to her expense report. Enrique Reyes, her director of communication, said last week hotel costs hadn't been charged yet, but declined all questions. Brown's office said the council member returned to Houston today.
Asking for direct contributions under such circumstances appears to break both city law and Harris county policy. Brown not only solicited money during a period when it wasn't allowed, but in her e-mail she also asked all contributors to pay her at a June 28 gathering held at a Harris County building in Spring Branch, a violation of County policy. Meeting organizers are informed before forums that fundraising isn't allowed. "If solicitation for money was happening, that's not right," said Ricardo Guinea, director of the Sosa Community Center, which housed the gathering.
Legality aside, it raises significant concerns over the sincerity of Brown's austerity agenda. Brown financed an overseas adventure on the public nickel, but in just six months in office, she has voted against payment to caregivers of the chronically ill, funding emergency services, and fulfilling city pension obligations.
According to The Korean Journal, Brown's volunteer "senior adviser," William Park, accompanied the councilmember to Asia. Brown said she went to Korea to arrange direct flights between Houston and Seoul, but it's unclear why the council member had to travel to Asia to accomplish this, or whether public funds exclusively paid for Brown's ticket, or for Park's as well. After surveying airfare costs to South Korea, it's apparent, however, that spending $11,000 for a ticket ain't a great deal. Most economy fares hover around $1,600, while first-class tickets usually run more than $8,000.
During the June 28 meeting, one attendee questioned the legality of contributing money directly to Brown in such a setting. Park responded: "Councilwoman Brown has very powerful lawyers to help," reported the Korean publication. Park, a former investment broker, appears to hold signification influence over Brown and her politics, according to a recent Houston Press investigation. Park was banned last year from the finances industry for failing to pay a Los Angeles woman who had successfully sued him over financial law violations.
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Park and Brown's connections were explored in this week's cover story Strings Attached.
Last April, Brown tried to force out one staff member because she was pregnant, says a letter that employee wrote to the Mayor Pro Tem's office. She also deleted hours her staff had worked, according to employee time cards, so it would show they worked fewer than 40 hours per week. All of Brown's staff except one, have been part-time and without benefits, exhibiting Brown's austerity politics.
"Who wouldn't want to receive benefits?" asked Brown staff member, Marni Rainey. "But it's a big issue of hers."
None of the employees received overtime, required under the federal Fair Standards Act, though several of them worked more than 40 hours per week. It's also a violation of city policy, which prohibits managers from tampering with time cards unless there are errors.