January 18, 2008
Feds widening local investigation

We'll see where this leads.

Grand jury subpoenas released Wednesday appear to signal the expansion of a years-long federal corruption probe to major construction projects from former Mayor Lee Brown's administration and the well-connected players who stood to benefit from them.

The corruption investigation first touched Houston more than three years ago, when prosecutors snared two former Brown administration officials in a bribery probe. Prosecutors, who then promised to uncover any related corruption, now appear focused on the deals to construct the $53 million Houston Emergency Center and two Fire Department facilities.

In subpoenas served at City Hall Dec. 18, and released Wednesday, investigators requested numerous documents related to the planning, financing and construction of the three facilities.

Prosecutors are seeking records on the involvement of several people, including Mike Surface, who resigned his Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. post three days after the subpoenas were served; his business partner, Andrew Schatte; and the former boyfriend of a former Brown administration official who worked as a consultant for them, Garland Hardeman.

The city has until next Wednesday to turn over the records.

"Obviously, it involved conduct that occurred before this administration," Mayor Bill White said. "If anybody was involved in illegal behavior at the city of Houston, if I find out about it, they're no longer going to be employed in the city of Houston.

"And that's not all. We're going to give any information we can to prosecutors."

The federal investigation is an outgrowth of a bribery probe than began more than five years ago in a Cleveland suburb.

I'll skip the recap of what has gone on before; suffice it to say that a couple of people (Oliver Spellman and Monique McGilbra) who had been in the Brown administration wound up pleading guilty to accepting bribes from a consultant (Neil Gray, now serving 15 years). We heard some rumblings about this earlier this month, when my question about why Mike Surface resigned from the Harris County Sports Authority was answered.

Schatte's spokesman, Austin-based political consultant Bill Miller, said federal prosecutors have contacted his client and talked to his attorney.

He said investigators' questions involve "trivial" matters related to McGilbra, and that the statute of limitations on the accusations is about to expire.

"They are looking into his activities," Miller said. "He hasn't done anything wrong."


The subpoenas also seek documents on the planning and construction of a training academy and downtown station for the Fire Department.

Hermes Architects, a firm also named in the subpoenas, contracted with the city to develop a master plan for the training academy in 2004, according to city records, but the company did not design any structures in detail.

In fact, neither the fire station nor fire academy structures were designed or built by the companies or people mentioned in the subpoenas, said Issa Dadoush, the city's general services director.

Bill Miller is just about the personification of the establishment Republican Party in Austin. For something that's supposedly a Lee Brown administration scandal, he's one of the last people whose names I'd have expected to pop up. There must be connections to Harris County in there as well, I'd guess. Anyway, we'll see where this takes us.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 18, 2008 to Local politics
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