For just a moment, it seemed as if there might be at least one good man laboring at Congressman Steve Stockman's political sweatshop-cum-residence when I dropped in last week for an unannounced visit. Several raps on the front door had summoned a lanky young African-American volunteer named Booker T. Stallworth. Despite being confronted by a stranger with a press I.D. card clipped to his shirt pocket and a bulky Sony tape recorder and microphone slung over his shoulder, Stallworth flashed an all-American smile and graciously motioned me in. Judging by the fallout generated by those two or three steps forward, I might just as well have landed on the front lawn of Stockman's Friendswood home in a black helicopter.
Once inside, my rather limited tour of the Stockman compound lasted about two minutes before I was ordered out by an officious young Stockmanite who refused to identify himself and displayed a distinct aversion to cameras. No physical contact, shouting or foul language occurred during the brief encounter. Yet within two hours of my visit, Stockman's Capitol Hill office began spewing press releases at taxpayers' expense that accused me of trespassing and forcing my way into the congressman's residence and physically assaulting his campaign workers.
"This is outrageous!" Stockman was quoted as huffing in one "updated" release (headlined "Stockman Stalked by Trespassing Reporter"). "I have called the Harris County Sheriff's Department, the Capitol Hill police and the [U.S. House] Sergeant-at-Arms' office. I am pressing charges for trespass and assault and battery."
Stockman's office even suggested that I had terrorized the congressman's wife, Patti Bullock Stockman, assuring the world that she "was unharmed" after my visit. That insinuation was especially outlandish, given that I never laid eyes on Patti Stockman (who, incidentally, has a $58,000-a-year job at the Johnson Space Center that presumably would have required her presence on that weekday afternoon).
Stockman himself hastily caught a plane back from D.C. "to address the emergency," according to his congressional flack Cory Birenbaum, and while in flight called a talk-radio station in Beaumont to beat the drums about the alleged home invasion. Birenbaum told another reporter that Stockman already had complained to Friendswood police, one of whom, the spokesman related, declared that he "would have shot the son of a bitch dead." But the chief of the Friendswood force told another local reporter that his department hadn't heard from Stockman.
The Stockman press releases alerted area media outlets, whose reporters were soon sorting through the lies produced by the Stockman propaganda machine and writing their own stories about the incident. Birenbaum tried to peddle one whopper that I had crashed the Stockman-Newt Gingrich rally at a Galleria-area hotel last month by falsely claiming to be a reporter with the Associated Press. The only problem with that was that the A.P. reporter and I had both bantered with Birenbaum at the event, and clearly identified ourselves to him. I had received a press credential to the rally after displaying my Houston police press I.D., which bears the name Houston Press in large, hard-to-miss letters.
The lies continued later, when volunteer Stallworth filed a complaint with the Harris County Sheriff's Department falsely claiming that I had pushed him and shouted and screamed during my visit. (The recording I made of the incident shows the conversation never broke a sonic sweat.) The sheriff's department punted the complaint to the district attorney's office, where Johnny Holmes' top assistant, Don Stricklin, was investigating at press time.
In retrospect, Stallworth's dissembling probably explains what a seemingly nice guy like him was doing hanging with the Stockman gang. By inviting me into Stockman's political nest, though, Stallworth did prove that he hadn't absorbed a central tenet of the congressman's bag of far-right beliefs: that the three major evils in America today are Bill Clinton, Big Government and the Liberal Media. Who knows? If the affable Stallworth would open the door to a reporter, he might have ushered in Slick Willie and Hillary as well. As would soon become apparent, Stallworth is a touch of normalcy -- if not total truthfulness -- in the highly overheated realm of Stockmania.
The congressman's home is nestled on Whitman Way in the Heritage Park subdivision behind Baybrook Mall. A sign posted at the entrance to the subdivision bears the stern warning that "deed restrictions will be enforced," but the restrictions have either lapsed along with the phone number on the sign, or they don't apply to a thriving for-profit political consulting business.
Photographer Nicole Fruge and I drove to Friendswood to do some on-the-scene investigation of Political Won Stop, a business registered in Brazoria County that operates out of Stockman's residence and has received $126,000 in payments from the congressman's campaign since January. One of the listed principals of the firm, Chris Cupit, just happens to be the Republican nominee for tax assessor-collector of Jefferson County, a position that has been vacated by Democrat Nick Lampson, who is now running for Congress against Stockman.
Cupit apparently has no official campaign office of his own in Jefferson County, raising questions about whether resources from his and Stockman's campaigns are being commingled in the rather cozy spaces of the Whitman Way residence. That would be a violation of federal election law. And The Hill, a D.C.-based weekly that covers Congress and first reported on the Political Won Stop operation, has questioned whether Stockman's campaign keeps the appropriately legal "arms-length" distance from the consultants, whose phone number is the same as Stockman's and who presumably use the facilities available to others in the Stockman household.
Press calls to the house and Cupit and partner Jason Posey (who had identified himself as a Stockman "volunteer" to The Hill) went unreturned, so the only option seemed to be an on-site inspection. After I followed Stallworth into the living room of the Stockman domicile, I met several volunteers who claimed Cupit was not there. But the 1995 Saturn that was reposing in Stockman's driveway at the time is registered to Cupit.
The front of the intensely claustrophobic house, where windows might otherwise be found, is sealed by planking, and the only vista to the street is a pinhole in the worn wooden front door. It hardly seems a residence fitting for a U.S. congressman, even one whose employment history prior to his 1994 election was rather spotty.
The living room, cluttered with campaign signs and literature, opens on the right into a garage office, where Political Won Stop apparently does its work. A hallway on the left presumably leads to some sort of sleeping quarters, where Patti may or may not have been crouching in fear while I was in the front room.
Upon my entry, Stallworth summoned a dark-haired young man from the garage office, who proved far less friendly. "You'll have to leave," he announced in a rather whiny, nasal voice. (The following day, the Press called Chris Cupit at his home in Groves and discovered that he possess a whiny, nasal voice identical to that of the man who ordered me out of Stockman's residence. But perhaps everybody who works for Stevie whines. On the phone, Cupit flatly denied being present at Stockman's house during my visit. Before we could ask what his car was doing in Stockman's driveway, Cupit said he had to go but promised to call us back shortly. He never did, of course.)
At the Stockman compound, the Cupit sound-alike denied that Political Won Stop operated out of the house, but tried to change the subject when I reminded him that Stockman's own campaign finance filings list the company as based there. "I know, but we have rights, too, and you've got to honor our rights," he whined. He seemed especially terrified that photographer Fruge, who was just outside the front door with her camera, might get a shot of his face. He tried to close the front door, and another volunteer then slammed it shut and pressed his back against it, barring any exit. I asked the head whiner what he was so afraid of. "We're not afraid of anything," he insisted, rather unconvincingly.
After being ordered once more to leave, I replied, "Well, fine, open the door. And don't hide too much. You guys are pathetic." And with that, my alleged "invasion" of the congressman's castle was over. Minutes later, several young Stockman volunteers drove up, and I asked them to locate Chris Cupit for me. Once inside the house, they didn't come back out before Fruge and I departed.
Fruge took a few more shots of Fort Stockman from the street while I went to interview neighbors. Birenbaum would later claim she took photos through the windows of the Stockman abode. The problem with that particular lie is that there are no windows accessible from the front yard to take photos through.
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A woman who lives next door to Stockman seemed surprised to learn that the bustling political office also housed a U.S. congressman and his wife. "No, I do not know him," said Hanan Zadeh, when asked if she had had the pleasure of meeting Steve Stockman.
Zadeh -- who, unlike the boys next door, did not hesitate to identify herself -- seemed unperturbed by the continuous stream of people coursing in and out of Stockman's alleged residence.
"We know this is just temporary for election time," she explained. "It's not a problem."
But depending on how the money paid by Stockman to Political Won Stop is actually used, it could be a big problem for the Freshman Prince of Friendswood in the not-so-distant future.