Eversole latest in long line of Houston political scandals
Slammed with four federal indictments accusing him of accepting bribes and filing false income tax returns, County Commissioner Jerry Eversole last week could take at least this consolation: He isn't the first local politician to find himself on the hot seat.
Houston's political landscape is littered with careers wrecked or damaged by allegations of wrongdoing, and for watchers of the political scene, the sight of Eversole in cuffs likely rekindled memories of fabled transgressors of yore.
"Brilab," Sharpstown, former City Councilman Ben Reyes and former County Commissioner Bob Eckels — all conjure images of the fallibility of politicians under temptation.
Rice University political science chairman Mark Jones attributed some of the corruption that has tainted local politics to the "freewheeling culture" that pervades the city and state. There is such interaction between businessmen and politicians, he said, that it does not seem strange when an elected official is treated to dinner or lunch.
"Then golf," Jones said. "Then a luxury suite at the game. Then paying off a mortgage. ... It's a slippery slope."
Eversole is among the local pols who have struggled to keep their footing.
In 1993, he was indicted on misdemeanor charges of perjury and unlawful record-keeping. Ultimately, the charges were quashed at the appellate level. But Eversole was back on the hot seat last year as the Texas Ethics Commission levied a record $75,000 against him for campaign finance violations.
Eversole was not the only local county politician in hot water in 1993. That's the year six-term Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay called it quits after being indicted for perjury, accused of lying on a campaign finance report and being accused by a federal convict of accepting a bribe to reroute a county road to boost the prospects of a housing development.
The perjury indictments eventually were thrown out, and no criminal charges resulted from the bribery allegation. Still, Lindsay suffered a battering at the hands of then-County Attorney Mike Driscoll, who filed suit to remove the judge from office. Even that, however, was not enough to keep him out of office, as Lindsay went on to represent northern Harris County in the state Senate from 1996-2006.
Another county icon, Commissioner Bob Eckels, was indicted by Harris County grand juries six times in 18 months in the late 1980s. In 1987, he copped a plea for accepting a one-mile stretch of county road as an illegal gift. He was fined $2,000, and prosecutors put the other allegations on ice.
On the city side, flamboyant Councilman Ben Reyes entered a nolo contendre plea in 1991 on a misdemeanor theft charge stemming from the discovery of a magnolia tree - uprooted when a crack house was razed - that mysteriously appeared in his yard.
Reyes' problems deepened in 1995 when he accepted a cash-filled briefcase from undercover FBI officers in exchange for his help obtaining votes on a city convention center hotel contract. Reyes was sentenced to nine years, but good behavior sprung him to a halfway house after seven.
Houston Port Authority Commissioner Betti Maldonado, also caught in the sting, was sentenced to 51 months in prison.
Trials of City Councilmen John Castillo and Michael Yarbrough and former Councilman John Peavy Jr. - also accused in the case - ended in two hung juries. Charges later were dropped.
Five years ago, Monique McGilbra, former head of the city's Building Services Department, was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. She admitted accepting gifts and cash in return for influencing the awarding of city contracts. Days earlier in a Cleveland, Ohio, court, she had been sentenced to three years in prison for accepting bribes from a Cleveland businessman.
The sentences ran concurrently.
In the same case, former Mayor Lee Brown's former chief of staff, Oliver Spellman, was placed on probation and fined $10,000 for accepting a $2,000 bribe from a Cleveland consultant.
The Bayou City has been the breeding ground for nicknamed scandals, and at least one of them - the notorious Sharpstown stock fraud scandal - rewrote the face of Texas politics.
On Jan. 18, 1971, as Democrats gathered in Austin to celebrate election victories, federal agents in Dallas filed a lawsuit in which Gov. Preston Smith, House Speaker Gus Mutscher Jr., Mutscher aide Rush McGinty, state Rep. Tommy Shannon of Fort Worth and others were accused of accepting bribes from Houston banker-businessman Frank Sharp in return for favorable banking legislation.
Of the public officials named in the legal action, only Mutscher, McGinty and Shannon were convicted. Each was sentenced to five years of probation.
Sharp, convicted of violating banking and security laws, was sentenced to three years of probation.
Smith, named as an unindicted co-conspirator, never was brought to trial.
Political fallout from the scandal was widespread. After the 1972 general election, half the seats in the House of Representatives were filled with newcomers. The 1973 Legislature enacted far-reaching reform laws.
The smoke of Sharpstown hardly had cleared when "Brilab," shorthand for "bribery-labor," blasted across the Houston and state political scene in the early 1980s as federal agents accused elected officials and labor leaders in an insurance-related bribery scheme.
Then-City Councilman Jim Westmoreland was accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe from Deer Park labor leader L.G. Moore and then-Port Commissioner John Garrett. Westmoreland, who consistently denied wrongdoing, was cleared by a federal grand jury.
Moore and Garrett were convicted of bribery-racketeering, fined and sentenced to probation.
The Brilab investigation also netted then-state Pipefitters Local 211 business manager Sherman Fricks and the local's training director Harold Grubbs, who were accused of accepting a bribe to swing a union insurance contract.
Grubbs was sentenced to six months; Fricks assessed probation.
Yet another Brilab target, then-House Speaker Bill Clayton, was accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe to influence awarding of the state's insurance contract. Clayton, who insisted the money only had been a campaign donation, was acquitted of the charge in a 1980 trial.
So how corrupt is the local scene?
It all depends on what you compare it to, said Jones.
"If you reference Chicago," he said, "it'd be more similar. To Minneapolis? More corrupt."
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