Bruce Tatro's tenure in the northwest Houston District A Council seat has been marked by nonstop political feuds since he took office in 1998. Outwardly mild-mannered in a Clark Kent style, the bookish Tatro has a behind-closed-doors temper that has generated plenty of bad vibes and rapid staff turnover.
He and predecessor Helen Huey had repeated verbal and written skirmishes during his first term, and he continues to hold the unofficial title as Mayor Lee Brown's least favorite councilmember, after numerous testy Council table exchanges between the two. His frequent Lone Ranger stance in opposing ordinances has led colleagues to dub him "Dr. No."
Now Tatro has taken on the Houston Police Officers' Union, which achieved archenemy status with the councilman's office when it threw its support -- and PAC money -- to his unsuccessful opponent, Toni Lawrence, in last fall's municipal elections.
Union mailers accused the councilman of pro-Nazi sentiments because he defended former death camp guard John Demjanjuk in a Chronicle op-ed piece. His support for the public display of the Confederate flag likewise brought union charges that he was hostile to minorities, something the union itself has been accused of in the past by minority officers.
Last month Tatro sent an interoffice memo to Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford concerning the police union's use of legislative leave, which allows its leaders paid time off to lobby legislators and conduct other union-related business.
"I request that HPD provide my office with documentation of both billings to and remittances from the various police organizations that applied for and received legislative leave from 1990 through 1999," the memo read. Tatro sent an identical request to Fire Chief Lester Tyra. A Tatro aide says Bradford did respond to the request but that nothing has been forthcoming from Tyra.
HPOU Governmental Relations Director Mark Clark accuses the councilman of using his city office to pursue a political vendetta against the union.
"What's he's trying to do is cause us some grief. What it gets down to is a little councilman who gets very angry and then he wants to use his office to show people that he's got the ability to inflict pain."
Clark also claims Tatro has tried unsuccessfully to get local news reporters to investigate the HPOU's use of legislative leave by its members. The HPD public information office recently received open-records requests along the lines of Tatro's memo from KTRK Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino and KPRC Channel 2's Tony Kovaleski. Obviously somebody has been seriously shopping the legislative leave story.
"It's all Bruce trying to get somebody to listen to him," contends Clark. "Somebody, anybody."
The truth is a bit more convoluted than that. Earlier this year an unknown party circulated a package of documents at City Hall, fronted with a cover sheet accusing Clark, HPOU President Hans Marticiuc and other union members of abusing the leave policy. Because many of the documents came from within the police department, the source may have been members of the HPOU's labor rival, the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union.
"These officers are employees of the City of Houston whose primary responsibility is to provide public safety to its citizens," stated the document. "Initial intelligence indicates that Mark Clark has turned his position into a fulltime job." It notes that in a nonlegislative year Marticiuc took 153 days of legislative leave and Clark took 201.
The package also includes the union's reported expenditures opposing Tatro in the last campaign, including $20,800 to a New York City consultant for "political mailouts against Tatro." It also includes payroll sheets documenting Marticiuc's and Clark's leave requests.
"About two months ago we got information that [the HPOU] had a couple of officers that had literally been on the city payroll while they were doing full-time union work," says Tatro. "Which means the taxpayers are paying for an officer that's doing private business effectively while he should be on duty."
According to Tatro, that packet of accusations and documents is what piqued his interest in the legislative leave issue, not any desire for revenge. But he admits the rough treatment he received from the HPOU political action committee during the election may have made him more inclined to delve into the matter.
"I was just shocked at the aggressiveness with which they pursued it. I thought it was pretty raw," Tatro says. He claims that during the election several HPOU members even escorted opponent Lawrence to a campaign function while in uniform on city time.
Tatro says he wants the police department to closely examine the legislative leave issue to see whether the HPOU officials are abusing the state law to become full-time unionists.
"You can't be full-time on legislative leave, and you can only take legislative leave during a session or a Council meeting," says the councilman, who adds that he hopes to put together evidence of the violations to be investigated in-house by HPD Internal Affairs. "If we've got taxpayers paying for police and they're not doing any police work, then that's substantive, and that needs to be pursued and looked into."
Clark replies that the union officials are bargaining agents for the primary police union and that legislative leave includes a wide range of duties representing members. He argues that the state law authorizing such leave is open to a wider interpretation than Tatro is giving it, and that the work he, Marticiuc and other union members do while on leave fits within the law's definition. He notes that Bradford supports the leave policy and that the union repays the city for work hours taken as leave.
As for the union claim that he's planting stories in the media, Tatro laughs. "You called me. If I wanted to break something or leak something, I'd have been calling you. If there is nothing there then I'm not going to say a word, because it would be stupid of me to sensationalize it."
Clark isn't buying that and says Tatro is obviously pursuing a vendetta. He notes that the last time he tried to mend bridges with Tatro, the councilman publicly snubbed him and refused to shake his hand.
"It's not unexpected to us that he would use the office for personal retaliation, but it doesn't deter us," declares Clark, who doubts he'll be drinking a brew with Tatro anytime soon at Enron Field. "I would hope he would be professional about it and get back on track and work with us but if he doesn't, he'll just be one vote against 14."
For Dr. No., that's not an unfamiliar position.
Sarofim II Heads for Divorce Armageddon
Pencil in May 22 as Dirty Laundry Day at the Harris County Family Law Center.
That's when the latest generation of Sarofims, Chris and Valerie, take off the gloves and commence what could be the most raucous divorce and child custody trial in recent Houston history. Fittingly, it will be refereed by a judge who has become something of a personal specialist on marital infidelity.
The latest Sarofim family fight follows the messy split between Chris's father, billionaire Fayez Sarofim, and ex-wife Linda Sarofim Lowe. As devotees of divorce well know, that settlement spun off yet another legal action by Lowe, against her attorney and onetime beau Earl Lilly. Appropriately, Lilly now represents Valerie in the current contest for millions plus custody of the couple's daughter, Gillian. Both sides allege illegal drug use and child neglect on the part of the other.
Caught in the middle of the mess is former mayor Bob Lanier's adopted daughter, Courtney, who took up with Chris when he split from Valerie.
When last we visited the case [see "Sarofim II: The Next (De)Generation," November 18, 1999], Lilly was predicting a private settlement to avoid acute public embarrassment to both parties. He now reports that cooler heads have not prevailed, and a divorce donnybrook seems to be around the corner.
"I cannot believe this case did not settle," says Lilly. "We spent an inordinate amount of time, [brought] in a special judge and tried desperately [to settle]. Now, the acrimony is so thick, with all kinds of accusations back and forth" The lawyer says the parties could not even get past the custody issue, so a money settlement was never worked out.
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The judge in the case, Annette Galik, could probably give Chris and Val some tips from personal experience. Not only did Galik come through her own affair with a married doctor (see "No, No, Annette," October 1, 1998), but she recently played a bit part in another big-bucks divorce, that between River Oaks oil and gas millionaire Hal Kuntz and his wife, Vesta.
Although the Kuntzes divorced last year, the couple continue their legal fight over the financial settlement. Hal then commenced a relationship with Galik, and that led to unexpected complications in Judge Doug Warne's court. Case mediator Ruby Sondock, a pal of Galik's, had to recuse herself when Vesta made an issue of the Galik-Kuntz relationship, a twist that had courthouse insiders in stitches.
Maybe they should just change the name of the building from the Family Law Center to the Family Love Center.
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