Even by Houston's offbeat political standards, it was a very strange meeting indeed. In Internet whistle-blower Brenda Flores's humble Spring Branch-area bungalow sat an unlikely confab of political power: Congressman Chris Bell, mayoral candidate and millionaire executive William H. "Bill" White and Metro board member Janie Reyes.
They had come calling on a Sunday afternoon, the day before the municipal election filing deadline, to implore Flores not to follow through on her confessed scheme to recruit another Bill White to run for mayor. In an indication of the weirdness to follow, Flores marched each of her visitors in front of a turned-on television set, later explaining her theory that if they were wired to record the conversation it would cause static on the screen.
White had traveled the globe and met a lot of exotic folks in strange places during his tenure as Bill Clinton's energy department deputy secretary. But he had never before been frisked by a boob tube.
He went to the house on the advice of Bell, who has been friends with Flores since his Houston City Council days. Bell likens her to the iconoclastic "Dustbuster" investigator in the Primary Colors book and movie.
"Sure, she's a little off-the-wall, and prides herself in being that way," says the congressman. "But she's also been a strong supporter and good friend." During the meeting Flores returned the compliment, telling White that Bell "ranks right up there with God and the pope."
The 50-year-old Flores is an Arkansas native of Irish descent, and goes by the Spanish nickname Guera (Blondie). She's a longtime political activist and the creator of the HouSnitch Web page, a forum for disgruntled city employees that displays content ranging from confidential city documents to unfounded allegations against officials. In that capacity she became familiar with Internet databases and search services such as PublicData.com, highly useful in tracking down all the available Bill Whites in the region.
Flores told her guests that Doris Hubbard, a campaign consultant for mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner, gave her $2,700 to find the perfect Mr. Bill on the voter rolls. Hubbard is a longtime political organizer in the Acres Homes community of northwest Houston, a Turner stronghold and the site of previous investigations of alleged fraud in early voting.
Turner campaign manager Don Jones denies that his candidate knew anything about Flores's scheme. He says he believes that Hubbard provided Flores with the money for get-out-the-vote efforts rather than for dirty tricks.
"I am confident that she was not involved in this," says Jones. "If I was going to recruit a black Bill White to run, why would I go to Brenda Flores? Doris knows everybody, and I just can't see her doing that." Hubbard did not respond to a request for comment.
Flores claimed the initial plan she worked out with Hubbard was to recruit a white male to run for mayor who was not a supporter of candidate White, had the same name and did not have a criminal record. She says that even with nearly 90 Bill Whites in the Houston area, it turned out to be an impossible task.
After contacting and being rejected by numerous white Whites, Flores eventually located a disabled 49-year-old black man. When she visited her target and told him he should run for mayor, she recalls that he sat straight up in his seat and exclaimed, "I got to talk this over with Smoky" -- his disabled, older girlfriend.
Flores drove the man to his girlfriend's house and outlined the plan. It was a quick sell. The woman encouraged her boyfriend to run by saying, "Bill, you got to do this. Last time we got Sylvester to the door and a rich white man took it away from him. This time he's got another rich white man trying to take it away from him."
After the bogus Bill agreed to run, Flores says, she paid him $1,200 in cash, using the sham purchase of the straw hat he was wearing as a not very convincing cover for the inducement to file for office. She later got the would-be candidate to sign the filing papers and designate his girlfriend as campaign treasurer.
As the deadline approached, Flores began to regret her involvement and claims she told Hubbard she would not produce Bogus Bill's signed filing papers.
Flores says Hubbard called her house several times, demanding that "the papers" be turned over to the Turner campaign. A recording of one of the calls was murky, and The Insider could not confirm that it was the voice of Hubbard.
In her 90-minute meeting with White and his friends, Flores promised not to go through with the scheme. She claimed she feared for the safety of herself and her children if she did not return the money Hubbard allegedly gave her.
Three days later a White campaign emissary gave Flores a $5,000 check signed by the real Bill out of his political action committee account. It bore a notation: "for information concerning efforts to confuse voters."
Flores says she cashed the check and split the proceeds. She had a friend take one envelope with $2,600 to Turner headquarters and he delivered it to Hubbard. Flores claims she used the rest of White's money to pay off debts incurred in researching the project.
Meanwhile, the bogus Bill skipped town after learning that campaign operatives and reporters were trying to find him, according to Flores. Since he never actually filed for office, Flores, or her recruit, violated no campaign laws.
White says he authorized the $5,000 check out of concern for Flores's safety. Asked whether he might have been the target of a shakedown for cash, White admits the possibility but says Flores was very convincing during the meeting.
"Chris Bell's judgment was that she was genuinely afraid," says White. "The easy thing would be to ignore it, but I couldn't as a human being. I did not want it on my conscience if she had been hurt somehow. So we gave her the money to pay the money back that she took." White noted that Flores, who is suffering from colon cancer, became emotional during the conversation and occasionally cried.
Asked about White's judgment in visiting Flores and paying her $5,000, Turner manager Jones has a hearty laugh. "I'm not even from Houston, and it took me two hours to learn this was not a lady you wanted to mess with. If I'm running for mayor and I supposedly have a bunch of operatives around me, you'd think if he said he was going to go see Brenda Flores someone would have yelled, 'No!'"
Jones also says that White's assumption that Flores was a little old lady in danger of being beaten up by the campaign of a candidate who is black "is kinda racist, but that's neither here nor there."
As for Flores, she used part of her meeting with the candidate to get him to commit to some of her favorite issues, including a measure to protect city employee whistle-blowers from retaliation.
The woman who created the short-lived tempest claims she sincerely regrets what she started.
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"I was not out to hurt anybody," the HouSnitch maven insists, wiping away tears. "I was just angry and I let my personal anger take over. I report about people who do this kind of shit and here I was down in the mud with them."
Media coverage of the Bogus Bill scheme was almost as convoluted as the plan itself. Political consultant George Strong was the first to post stories on the subject on his Texas Political Resource Web page. He found out about it at a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser the Friday before the filing deadline. Strong was chatting with White's wife, Andrea, and asked how the campaign was going. She replied, "Bill's real worried because he heard today that somebody's going to get somebody else named Bill White to file for mayor."
Strong then made a beeline for White to inquire about the details. When he asked about Bogus Bill, the surprised candidate exclaimed, "Where'd you hear that from?"
Strong posted his first item on his Web site the next day, alerting Houston media. Even with the heads-up, the Houston Chronicle held its potential scoop by John Williams for a week, printing it only after both the Forward Times and KHOU/ Channel 11 had produced stories. It seems that epic libel case filed by Turner against KTRK/Channel 13 after his 1991 race has left a lasting impression on Chronicle editors.