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Some Very Special Friends

When Harris County Commissioners appointed first assistant county attorney Michael Stafford to replace his resigning boss, Mike Fleming, last week, they picked an up-and-coming politico with cozy ties to county special interests. So cozy that he received $100,000 in campaign loans last year that he never had to repay.

Why? The fab four of developers, Michael Surface and Andrew Schatte, engineering-architect giant Leroy Hermes and lawyer Robert Collie, chose to forgive the personal loans. They merely converted those notes into contributions to Stafford's defunct campaign for district attorney, six months after he came in fourth behind eventual winner Chuck Rosenthal.

Surface and Schatte are partners in the Keystone Group, a development company that also provided office space for Stafford during the short-lived primary race for D.A. Hermes's firm -- Hermes, Reed, Hindman -- is a major player in county construction contracts, while Collie's Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton does extensive legal work for public agencies here.

According to sources, Surface organized the loan and recruited the other participants. He's chairman of the powerful five-member Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which has an annual operating budget of $1 million and the responsibility for supervising construction of the new pro football stadium and expansion of exhibition space at the site.

As county attorney, a role he officially assumes this week, Stafford will be responsible for overseeing county contracts and lawsuits. Had he won the race for district attorney, he would have been responsible for criminal investigations, including probing alleged breaches of the public trust.

Stafford has been tied by a campaign umbilical cord to outgoing county attorney Fleming since they ran against each other for the post in the 1996 GOP primary. Stafford came in third, then endorsed Fleming in the primary runoff against Mickey Lawrence.

At the time, rumors circulated that Fleming got the endorsement by promising Stafford a top county job, an arrangement both denied. Fleming defeated future city controller Sylvia Garcia and promptly made Stafford his first assistant.

Since then, Fleming has not been subtle in backing Stafford's political aspirations. When his assistant declared for district attorney, Fleming threw his own campaign organization and clout behind Stafford. Fleming directly contributed nearly $10,000 from his campaign as well as $3,519 of in-kind gifts such as stamps, signs and event costs.

Stafford also was heavily supported by westside County Commissioner Steve Radack, who put his vaunted campaign sign brigade at Stafford's disposal, as well as $4,000 of in-kind contributions.

For the past several months, reports from county sources indicated that Fleming was angling to secure a high-paying job with a major Houston law firm, and that Stafford was a done deal as his successor. It finally became public last month: Fleming announced he was joining the downtown firm of Bracewell & Patterson, in order to better support his wife, Natalie, and their burgeoning brood of six kids.

Stafford will stand for election to county attorney in next year's GOP primary. There are already rumblings in Republican circles that he'll have at least one major challenger. And, as in the D.A.'s race, the contributions are likely to be an issue. Former Houston Sports Authority chair Jack Rains charged during that campaign that county special interests were pouring in money to Stafford to try to buy the chief prosecutor's office.

"It does not surprise me at all that people who are employed by the county and contract with the county are supporting the county insider, Mike Stafford," Rains said at the time. "That's the way the clique operates."

Likewise, several county sources see Stafford as beholden to the special interests who have been so generous with campaign loans and cash, and now expect favorable treatment and protection. It's an inference Stafford dismisses.

"I know the people involved, and they wouldn't do that. And I certainly would not do that at all," he says.

Asked why businessmen would contribute such large amounts of money to a dead campaign for D.A., Stafford replied, "I think they think I would make a good district attorney, and that's why they did it." He didn't explain why contributors would think he could make a good D.A. after he already had been resoundingly defeated months earlier.

Surface, Schatte, Collie and Hermes co-signed a loan for Stafford's campaign from Bank of Tanglewood on March 8 last year, shortly before the primary election. They made contributions to forgive the loan on September 3. Campaign records indicate Collie forgave only $5,000 of his $25,000 share, though Stafford says the loan was totally canceled out. Not one of the four returned calls to The Insider concerning their motives in forgiving debts to Stafford's moribund campaign.

Unlike municipal, judicial and federal candidates, county office-seekers have no time restrictions or monetary caps on campaign contributions. Businesses can't contribute directly, but political action committees formed by companies can give unrestricted amounts to candidates at any time.

Not all of Stafford's district attorney campaign debts have been paid off. He says he still owes $57,000 to Dave Walden, his campaign strategist, who had been chief of staff to former mayor Bob Lanier. Walden waived a fee for his campaign work, so the debt comes from Stafford television ads that the consultant paid for out of his own pocket.

"I think I could have done a better job," says Walden, explaining why he did not charge Stafford. "The first thing I would have done is kidnap Johnny Holmes and put a damn gag in his mouth. That was about the only way we were going to win."

Holmes had promised to stay out of the race. His unexpected backing of subordinate Rosenthal was widely viewed by election analysts as a decisive factor in the outcome.

Walden agrees with Stafford that contributors' generosity was not linked to expectations of favorable treatment by the candidate.

"I think they really, truly thought he'd be a great D.A.," says Walden. "They've known him and had a personal relationship with him for some time now. I don't think any of them expected to be indicted and needed to be real friendly with him."

So why isn't Walden forgiving Stafford's $57,000 debt to him?

"I like him," chuckles the consultant, "but I don't like him that much."

Perhaps more to the point, Walden doesn't have any contracts Stafford will be overseeing in the near future.

Tied to the Rail

The Houston Chronicle editorial page has long served as lead cheerleader for Metro's plans for a light-rail line between downtown and the Reliant Astrodome.

But even the Chron's pro-rail fervor seems mild compared to that of editorial writer James Howard Gibbons, as seen in his February 26 op-ed piece headlined "Mr. Todd's wild, costly ride must end." Gibbons bashed City Councilman Rob Todd for suing to stop the project, suggesting the action was motivated by Todd's plans to run for county commissioner. State District Judge John Devine, whose pro-Todd ruling was overturned in an appellate opinion last week, drew an equally tough judgment.

"There is no evidence that Judge Devine is in league with the plaintiffs," wrote Gibbons, "but he seems to share their partisan aims and their contempt for the plain meaning of the law."

One elected official and several rail opponents were quick to call The Insider. They charged that when it comes to bias and hidden agendas, Gibbons's hands are far from clean.

Gibbons's wife, attorney Cassie Stinson, is a partner in the firm of Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, which represents Metro in a range of legal matters. Metro spokeswoman Julie Gilbert confirms that Stinson, who works in the real estate section of the firm, has done legal work for the transit agency. Gibbons and Stinson also live in the 1700 Hermann Drive high-rise. That location, one anti-railer hinted darkly, was right next to the proposed light-rail route, which he could ride to work to the Chron every day!

"I would have thought Gibbons had the obligation to recuse himself from writing about light rail when he was so directly affected by a direct financial benefit," says David Hutzelman, organizer of the Business Committee Against Rail. "He was the one calling for Judge Tony Lindsay to recuse herself because [her husband and state Senator] Jon Lindsay had spoken against rail in the past."

Gibbons responds that he's written in support of rail transit for two decades but has been married for only 13 years.

"My wife has worked for Metro for 18 years, and Metro has never had a rail system. Her practice is not affected one way or another by the rail system. If they don't have a rail system, they'll have transitways or bus barns or whatever."

Gibbons says that it never occurred to him that there was any need to divulge his wife's connections to the transit agency, but he adds, "I'm not ashamed of having people know that, and most people do know."

If they didn't before, they do now.

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