Flying Miss Sheila
Last week's update on Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's endlessly revolving staff door elicited a personal testimonial to The Insider from a recent defector.
According to Lee's former Capitol office executive assistant and events scheduler Rhiannon Burruss, the congresswoman's abrasive ways not only drove off staff members but irritated Continental Airlines staffers to the point where one suggested she fly on a competitor instead.
Burruss, who had 15 years' experience working on Capitol Hill, was one of five employees in the congresswoman's D.C. office to quit this spring. She lasted a little more than a month. Her predecessor as scheduler, Mary Sykes, lasted 14 months before bailing.
When she applied for the job, Burruss received plenty of warnings from other congressional staffers, ranging from "don't return their calls" to "don't work there in your lifetime." Burruss needed the job and disregarded the advice. "I thought, how bad can she be?" says the former aide.
Burruss says she received her first indication all was not smooth sailing when an angry Lee called her from Alabama, where she had rented a car to participate in a re-enactment of the historic civil-rights march on Selma organized by a Washington, D.C. group, Faith and Politics. When Lee and Houston office director Gerald Womack flew to Montgomery, the congresswoman discovered that a white male colleague had been personally chauffeured to the event by a Faith and Politics staffer.
Lee immediately called Burruss and chewed her out for not getting a similar arrangement. Lee wondered aloud about whether the white congressman had gotten the VIP treatment because of his race and then, Burruss says, yelled at her over the phone, "You don't understand. I am a queen, and I demand to be treated like a queen."
Burruss recounts another incident where she had scheduled Lee to appear at an 8:30 a.m. Washington breakfast sponsored by the Houston Housing Authority. Shortly after 10 a.m., a furious Lee called Burruss at the office and accused her of making "a fatal error," by embarrassing her in front of constituents. Lee claimed when she arrived at 8:45 the breakfast was already over, and therefore the aide had listed the wrong time.
Burruss later talked to Lee's staff driver, Matt Eggers, and learned the congresswoman hadn't left her apartment until after 9 a.m. that day, and was nowhere near the scene of the breakfast until well after that time. When Burruss complained to Lee's chief of staff Leon Buck, she says he shrugged and commented: "I told you she lies."
In early March, Burruss got a phone call from Rebecca Cox, a Continental Airlines governmental affairs vice president at the airline's Washington office. According to Burruss, Cox bluntly declared, "We have been dealing with the congresswoman for three years now, and we are tired of her bad behavior. Something has got to happen."
As an airline Gold Card carrier with plenty of frequent-flier miles, Lee routinely upgrades her airline seats to first class, not an unusual arrangement. But Lee had come to expect other deluxe perks not always available in Continental's non-hub cities, Cox explained.
She then described an incident the previous month when Lee boarded a flight at National, and found the menu did not include a seafood special she had wanted.
"She screamed at the top of her lungs at least a minute," Burruss quotes Cox as telling her. "She embarrassed the flight attendants and the passengers in first class. And she embarrassed herself."
According to Burruss, Cox claimed Lee declared, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Where is my seafood meal? I know it was ordered!"
When Burruss asked Cox what could be done, Cox asked that her message be relayed directly to Lee, and then joked, "We have already given her the Delta Airlines schedule."
Cox was not available to comment, although a Continental source confirms Cox did call Burruss and discuss problems in dealing with Lee. According to Burruss, Lee routinely demands three first-class reservations on the carrier for Monday and Tuesday when she is in Washington, and then decides at the last minute which one to use. The airline was fed up with the arrangement, and began reducing the reservations to coach class, a development that infuriated Lee when staffers told her they could not guarantee her first-class seats. That conundrum had led to the resignation of Burruss's predecessor, and it contributed to Burruss's own departure as well on March 23.
"I told her I was not able to guarantee her the three first-class reservations," says Burruss, and Lee responded by suggesting that if she couldn't, she should consider alternative places of employment.
"That won't be necessary," answered Burruss, who then uttered what must be one of the most frequently used two-word sentences in Lee's congressional office: "I quit."
Lee Brown's Administrative Siberia
After getting pushed out of his Houston Parks and Recreation directorship last month, Bill Smith will be pushing a pen in the Department of Public Works traffic-management and maintenance section for the rest of his career as a city employee.
According to public works spokesman Wes Johnson, Smith will continue to be paid at his director's annual salary of $98,365.02, making him one of the highest-paid nondirectors in the city until he officially leaves the bureaucracy for good, June 30.
At public works, Smith temporarily joins fellow administrative refugee Lenoria Walker, who lost her affirmative action directorship after describing Councilman Joe Roach as a Republican midget. Walker now earns $62,500 as a division manager, though she is the only person in her division. She reports to assistant director Waynette Chan, a Brown intimate who also returned to public works at $85,541 a year after losing out in a power struggle to become the mayoral staff director.
Brown is also looking for a new mouthpiece, after canning communications director Nick Rivera last Wednesday after less than two months on the job at an annual salary of $75,000. Officially, Rivera resigned.
The mayor had offered the position to a host of veteran flacks, including the Harris County Psychiatric Hospital's Geri Konigsberg and Rice University's Mike Cinelli, and been turned down by both for salary and job-security reasons. He then settled on Rivera, a former marketing director at a Spanish-language television station, who was largely unknown in news and public-relations circles here. The mayor quickly became disenchanted with Rivera's lack of experience and savvy.
Don Payne, Brown's personal spokesman, is now the only body left in Brown's communications office as the search begins anew for a director.
Possibly the least-inviting party in Houston last week was the going-away bash hosted by Channel 13 management for Mary Ellen Conway, the station's former medical reporter, who had effectively been persona non grata with station news management for two years.
Conway's job at KTRK had been on life support after she provided damaging testimony against the station and investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino in the libel case brought by state representative and former mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
After management removed Conway from the medical beat late last year, she cleaned out her desk but continued on salary while considering a retaliation lawsuit. A KTRK source says that after a failed mediation effort, the reporter finally worked out a settlement agreement with KTRK bearing a payout of approximately $300,000. Conway also reportedly insisted that Channel 13 honor her years of service with a champagne going-away party, and management dutifully complied with the fete last Friday.
Conway nemesis Dolcefino did not attend her bash and, according to one reporter, diplomatically stayed away from the station during the non-event. Dolcefino had staged his own one-day walkout from Channel 13 several weeks ago when an investigative piece on Rockets commentator Calvin Murphy was temporarily spiked. The story ran the following week, and Wayne returned to the KTRK fold, at least for now.
The same cannot be said for Alvin "At Night" Van Black, the former acerbic radio talk-show host who became 13's on-the-scene entertainment reporter, and former news reporter Thom Dickerson, who produced a popular outdoorsman segment. Contracts for both were not renewed last week; Van Black cited medical reasons for leaving the station. Neither had a going-away party, at least as far as we know.
Know something and want to share it? The Insider is ready to listen. Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483, fax him at (713) 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houstonpress.com.