Scouting a Smear

Attorney Cory Birenbaum shifted uneasily in the witness box as an unusual weekend court hearing unfolded in Houston last Saturday morning. The former press aide to ex-congressman Steve Stockman verbally ducked and weaved under grilling by attorney Richard Ellison, representing District 7 congressional runoff leader John Culberson.

Culberson is asking state District Judge Sharolyn Wood for an injunction to stop a smear campaign. Outside GOP westside polling places on Election Day, laborers handed out pamphlets falsely accusing the Houston state rep and lawyer of tax evasion and disbarment. In fact, the State Bar of Texas briefly listed him as not in good standing when his firm was late in paying a professional license tax, but he was never disbarred.

The pamphlets, styled "The State of Texas vs. John Abney Culberson," gave the impression that the candidate had been charged with crimes. Under a mug-shot-like photograph of Culberson, the pamphlet listed a "case number," actually his law license number. Despite the attack, Culberson was the top vote-getter in the primary and will face Peter Wareing in a runoff next month to decide who replaces the retiring Bill Archer.

The legal action seeks to ban shadowy Panhandle-based political consultant Davis Ford and a nonprofit corporation, Citizens for Platform Accountability, from spreading "these lies," Culberson says. The candidate says he'll file a libel suit and donate any damage award to charity.

At deadline, a ruling was pending in Culberson's case.

Culberson's suit says Ford and the nonprofit were the paid agents who sponsored the pamphlets. In questions at the hearing, it became clear that the Culberson forces believe the mastermind behind the pamphlet blitz, and previous radio ads voicing the same accusations, is Steve Stockman. He was a one-term Ninth District congressman and political consultant for defeated District 7 candidate Mark Brewer.

Birenbaum admitted that the day before the election Stockman asked him for help in hiring poll workers to pass out campaign material. Birenbaum claimed his former boss didn't tell him which campaign was involved. Birenbaum put Stockman in touch with his brother Mark Birenbaum, who works for the Fort Worth day-labor employment firm of Pacesetters. Birenbaum's brother then called Houston Pacesetters rep Linda Bonner.

Bonner testified she called an Arizona phone number Mark Birenbaum gave her for job billing purposes. She talked to a man there who identified himself by three different names during a series of conversations. He told her to have 15 workers delivered to the Rice grocery store parking lot at San Felipe and Post Oak on election morning. The man cryptically warned her to alert the laborers that "they could come across some problems."

Bonner accompanied the workers to the site and found three unidentified men with vans waiting with stacks of the anti-Culberson pamphlets. She testified no one who looked like Stockman was at the lot. Pacesetter employees were soon bombarded with complaints, one from Culberson himself, warning them to pull the workers from the polls or face legal action.

Bonner says she phoned Mark Birenbaum and demanded "what in the hell have you gotten me into." After several poll confrontations between Culberson supporters and the workers, many laborers threw down their pamphlets and walked off the job. Bonner rescued one embattled worker from the polls at St. Anne Catholic Church. She dropped him at a bus stop and gave him the fare to get home.

"It was just miserable -- a real nightmare," she testified. According to Bonner, Pacesetter still hasn't been paid for the debacle. "This is my first, and hopefully the last [campaign] job I accept," Bonner told the court.

Culberson contends the activities by the organization violate laws prohibiting nonprofit corporations from political activities. Ford, the titular head of the group, got a subpoena at his Amarillo home but did not appear at the hearing. Stockman was not called to testify and was unavailable for comment. Culberson said he is convinced that Stockman orchestrated the dirty tricks.

Culberson's attorneys introduced as evidence a Houston Press Insider article ("The Talented Mr. Stockman," by Tim Fleck, January 6) detailing Stockman's consultant relationship with Mark Brewer. Brewer filed a federal campaign report last December listing two $100,000 payments made to General Media Consultants of McLean, Virginia. General media used the same address as the one listed in contributions from Steve and Patti Stockman. Brewer also directly paid Stockman a $50,000 consulting fee.

(Stockman tried unsuccessfully to file assault charges on Press columnist Tim Fleck when Fleck visited Stockman's house in June 1996 to investigate a consulting firm, Political Won Stop, that operated there. Fleck sued for libel but later dropped the case.)

Culberson says there is no evidence that runoff opponent Wareing was involved in the smear campaign, but he's concerned that the perpetrators are now backing Wareing.

"It's clear Stockman and Brewer are behind this, and Mark Brewer and his campaign are endorsing Wareing in the runoff," says Culberson. He points out that all District 7 candidates signed a clean-campaign pledge last year. "If Mr. Wareing adheres to the same standards of integrity as Congressman Archer, he'll disavow Stockman and Brewer."

Wareing spokesman Matt Welch says his candidate welcomes Brewer's endorsement but does not need the assistance of Stockman or his cohorts. "We're going to run the campaign as we have for the past two years, with Peter Wareing at the helm," says Welch. "We're happy to have the support of Mark Brewer, but we're not going to operate that kind of campaign."

E-mail Tim Fleck at tim.fleck@houstonpress.com.

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