In the five years since Ben Reyes left City Council and eventually entered federal prison on bribery and conspiracy convictions, there has been little doubt who took over the title of sleaziest elected Houston official. A fellow councilmember calls the close-quarters view of Councilman Michael Yarbrough "amazing and fascinating."
"He has thumbed his nose at the whole system," says the official. Yarbrough had perfected the game of "tag" -- exercising his right to automatically delay a Council vote one week, as a wake-up call for a contractor to please the "tagger."
"You'd sit there and watch him tag one project after another, and everybody knew that was his game," the councilmember says. "He calls [the contractor] up and jacks with them, and suddenly they are contributing to this or that, if not him. It was such a sleazy way to do business."
Even after Yarbrough was indicted by the feds in the same sting that netted Reyes, the games continued. "Lanier even at one point told him he really needed to cut it out," says the council colleague. "But nothing was gonna stop him."
Nothing but term limits, as it turned out.
The Insider will miss Michael's zany tenure, knowing it will be very hard to find another official guaranteed to supply such a reliable stream of outrageous column copy. Here are some of Michael's greatest moments:
Yarbrough listens to Reyes ask him to lead the effort to win a chunk of the convention center hotel contract for the bogus Cayman Group. "I need a job," Yarbrough tells Reyes, who invites him to the bathroom of Carrabba's for an alleged cash payoff.
Yarbrough is videotaped taking $1,500 in cash from undercover FBI agent Bob Dogium, after Yarbrough confirms he received an equal amount from Reyes.
Yarbrough explains to FBI agents how he solicits cash contributions: "If I came to you and say, 'Uh, I have ten senior citizens I would like to buy some baskets... you could write a check or you can give cash, and I'll just go buy it.' "
According to Michael, people are always asking him, "Say, hey, you got any special projects, or something like that?" Yarbrough explained that he took cash from Dogium because he didn't want to hurt the man's feelings by turning him down.
Michael decides not to file mandatory campaign expenditure reports. The councilman provides the Insider with this pungent description of city campaign disclosure requirements: "They don't mean shit." Yarbrough admitted he withdrew $10,000 from his campaign account without keeping receipts to document where the money went.
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Campaign laws prohibit Yarbrough from accepting municipal campaign contributions in the city's political off-season. So he figures out a new way to raise money: launching a shadowy write-in campaign for Texas agricultural commissioner. Asked what qualifications the inner-city councilman had for the ag post, he replied, "I have an interest and think I can make a contribution."
Actually, it was his supporters who had to make all the contributions.
Widow Brenda Delaney Smith details how Yarbrough allegedly romanced her out of $10,000 in loans, then slapped her when she demanded the money back after they broke up. "He's the kind of person who can whisper sweet nothings in your ear," said the widow. "He is such a con man that you believe everything he says, and I believed him."