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William Park

City says No to some of CM Brown’s expense reports

It’s always something.

CM Helena Brown

Councilwoman Helena Brown hired a private attorney to sit in on meetings with her publicly paid attorney, then tried to bill taxpayers for it.

Records obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal that Brown sought reimbursement for $850 she paid lawyer Kevin Colbert for meetings she had with the mayor and City Attorney David Feldman, whose job it is to give council members legal advice. The fee also covered Colbert’s attendance at a budget meeting.

Feldman denied the reimbursement request because the city only pays for outside lawyers for council members when it would be a conflict of interest for his office to handle the case. Brown declined to comment on why she hired Colbert.

Brown also sought $2,108 in gas money for William Park, a volunteer adviser to the councilwoman on fiscal issues. The request was denied. Feldman said such a reimbursement would violate city policy on expenses for non-employees.

[…]

Brown asked the city to reimburse mileage expenses for Park. The $2,000 request exceeds what most full-time paid council staffers accrued in mileage during the same period. The city does not reimburse its volunteers – including more than 1,200 people who sit on boards and commissions – for expenses related to their service, though the mayor or her designee can approve travel-related expenses in individual cases for what city policy calls “unpaid persons.”

“The very essence of being a volunteer is you’re doing it as a free public service,” Feldman said.

Brown said, via email, “Mileage or gasoline use for city purposes should be a reimbursable expense indiscriminate of who actually incurred the expense; the mileage reimbursement request denial was not disputed due to our focus on more pressing matters.”

There are other things in the story, but this is the main item. One can certainly make the case that the city should reimburse volunteers for expenses related to their service. If you’re giving your time and expertise to the city, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. But city policy is to not do so, which is also perfectly reasonable given the likely expense and the effort needed to verify the requests made by all these people. Given that, I don’t see what Brown’s beef is. Park is a volunteer, volunteers aren’t eligible for reimbursement, end of story. Either hire him as an employee, or don’t submit his expenses for reimbursement. Putting forward a proposal to change the city’s policy rather than trying to get an exception made for this one person is also a viable option.

More on CM Brown’s trip to Korea

Hair Balls recently noted that CM Helena Brown recently submitted an expense report for nearly $11,000 for a plane ticket to Korea; they raised issues about her soliciting donations outside the allowed fundraising period to cover that expense. The Chron picks up the story.

CM Helena Brown

A statement released by Brown’s office Tuesday states that her adviser William Park – who is not a paid member of her staff – sent an email to Korean community leaders saying that if they wanted to sponsor a businessman on the trip they could do so via Brown’s office.

“That statement was sent in error. While CM (council member) Brown could be the vehicle by which private financial assistance of non-city employees could be handled, CM Brown understood full well that this type of situation might be misconstrued as a campaign contribution during the “black-out” period and therefore instructed all potential contributors who communicated to her to deal privately with potential delegation participants instead,” the statement reads.

Brown was in Asia from June 30 through July 7 seeking to increase the number of direct flights from Asia to Houston, according to the statement.

Brown’s statement says she was invited on the trip by Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz, but an email from a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker states that Brown asked to accompany Diaz, who visited Asia in a bid to lay the groundwork for more nonstop flights from Asia to Houston.

Establishing a direct flight from Houston to Incheon is “one of her many priorities of public office,” according to the statement.

[…]

According to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle, Brown charged $10,883.57 to a city purchasing card for flights to Tokyo, Taipei, Beijing and Seoul. The money comes from her council office budget. The charges do not include a return trip fare to Houston, though Brown still can file for reimbursements. It is not apparent from the report whether she covered the expenses of any other travelers.

Diaz was apparently originally scheduled to go to Korea as well, but that wound up getting canceled. Brown went on her own and met with officials there. One can only imagine how those conversations went.

This all raises as many questions as it answers. I guess I’m just stunned that Brown has “priorities of public office” that include spending money on anything. I don’t know how one would square all her anti-government anti-spending rhetoric that we’ve been subjected to with this revelation, but then I think all of that rhetoric is so much palaver. I’m glad it’s not my job to try to make it all tie together. What will the people who support her and actually buy into that baloney think of this?

That Press story on CM Brown

CM Helena Brown

So I’ve thought about that Houston Press story on CM Helena Brown and her relationship with William Park. There’s much to contemplate here, but I’m going to focus on three things.

1. What were they thinking?

I’m not talking about the voters, I’m talking about the three people who served as Council Member in District A prior to Brenda Stardig.

Almost no one the Press spoke to recently in District A had heard of Brown, and the few who had didn’t know much, if anything, about her. “Is she that libertarian?” one man near Brown’s home asked, then thought for a moment. “I’d heard the name.” Another neighbor, Glen Smith, said: “I don’t know anyone who knows her and I’ve lived here since 1957.”

There was concern among constituents who were more familiar with her. They worried their community would atrophy under her austerity politics. “How are we going to get anything?” asked Cecil Wahrenberger, who said she voted for Brown because past councilwoman Toni Lawrence endorsed her. “The work’s not gonna get done.”

I get that the genesis of the Helena Brown story is that Toni Lawrence had a falling out with Brenda Stardig after Stardig was elected in 2009, and this drove her to support Brown. I don’t know, and the story doesn’t say, if Lawrence helped recruit Brown as a candidate or if she just hitched her wagon to Brown once she filed. But it wasn’t just Lawrence who turned on Stardig: If you look at Brown’s 8 day finance report for the runoff, one of her contributors is Bruce Tatro, who was the Council Member in District A before Lawrence. I could swear I saw Helen Huey, Tatro’s predecessor, on one of Brown’s reports, but I can’t find it now. Be that as it may, someone should ask Lawrence and Tatro why they supported Helena Brown, what they know about her relationship with William Park, and what they think about her performance in office so far. Do they still think she’s the best choice to represent District A? Why or why not?

2. Who would run against Brown in 2013?

Whatever the answer to the questions I’ve posed above may be, I don’t doubt that a fair number of District A voters are happy with what they’ve gotten.

One aspect of Spring Branch, however, hasn’t changed: Who votes, and who does not. Bob Stein, the well-known Rice University political scientist who has studied District A’s voting behavior, says the area’s voters are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative and subscribe to Tea Party orthodoxy.

That was partly why Brown — who despises taxation — got voter support over incumbent Brenda Stardig, who fell into disfavor with the area’s political elite for her support of the so-called “rain tax.” Passed in 2010, it will raise $8 billion in drainage fees over 20 years to revitalize Houston’s infrastructure. But it also taxed churches, incensing conservatives in Spring Branch.

Around this time was when Helena Brown emerged. The political unknown had up until then operated on the fringes, the far-right campaigns, the online discussion groups, the Ron Paul movement. By every telling, she was utterly disconnected from the mainstream constituents of Spring Branch, moving in similar-minded groups like the “Friends of Freedom,” where she theorized communists had infiltrated both the United Nations and the Catholic Church, according to e-mails. After ascending to public office, Brown said she had stopped participating in the radical forum.

So with Stardig’s unpopularity, combined with her ineffectual re-election campaign, Brown won a runoff election with 3,042 votes last December — less than 2 percent of District A’s total population of 200,000 people.

Pardon me while I grind my teeth for a minute: The drainage fee does not “tax” churches because it’s a fee, not a tax. Gah.

It’s certainly possible CM Brown could be in electoral danger next year. There’s this story and there’s the time card story and now there’s the amazing campaign contributions story.

In an attempted violation of city law, and in yet another puzzling move by embattled City Council member Helena Brown, the District A representative solicited money from local Korean businessmen late last month for a trip she took this week to Seoul — though she had already paid for it with public money.

According to chapter 18 of the City Charter, Brown cannot receive direct contributions unless it’s during city-sanctioned campaigning months — February before an election until March afterward. During “blackout” periods, if a candidate or council member gets direct money, said City Press Secretary Jessica Michan, it’s a violation of city law. Whether Brown actually got money is unclear — but she sure did ask for it.

In a recent e-mail, which the Houston Press obtained, Brown said: “The trip to Korea is a costly trip. … Please make checks out to Helena Brown who will personally be offsetting the costs.”

But that wasn’t true. Brown paid for airline tickets to South Korea with public money — $11,000 — according to her expense report. Enrique Reyes, her director of communication, said last week hotel costs hadn’t been charged yet, but declined all questions. Brown’s office said the council member returned to Houston today.

Asking for direct contributions under such circumstances appears to break both city law and Harris county policy. Brown not only solicited money during a period when it wasn’t allowed, but in her e-mail she also asked all contributors to pay her at a June 28 gathering held at a Harris County building in Spring Branch, a violation of County policy. Meeting organizers are informed before forums that fundraising isn’t allowed. “If solicitation for money was happening, that’s not right,” said Ricardo Guinea, director of the Sosa Community Center, which housed the gathering.

To steal from Casey Stengel, can’t anyone in CM Brown’s office play this game? This is amateur night. Any halfway competent staffer or supporter would have known about the fundraising blackout period, and simple common sense would have suggested that collecting contributions at a government building might be a bad idea. And let’s all keep that $11K in travel expenses in mind the next time CM Brown votes against some routine appropriation in Council, shall we?

I’m sure it’s true that the people who bother to vote in our odd-numbered-year elections skew heavily in favor of people who like Helena Brown, at least in District A, though stories like these could change that. Still, who could make a successful challenge to her? One possibility is someone with strong conservative credentials but who isn’t crazy. One person who fits that bill is Amy Peck, who ran for District A in 2009. That could make for an interesting matchup if the 2013 race in A is essentially another Republican primary, as the 2011 race was, since Peck could garner the support of some heavy hitters in the Republican establishment. The other is to reach for the old “broaden the electorate” playbook and find someone unlike Brown to try to put together a winning coalition. District A was touted as a “Latino opportunity district” after the 2011 redistricting, after all. (Yes, I know, Brown claims some Latino heritage. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t part of her pitch in the 2011 election.) I don’t have a name to toss out here, but I’m sure such a person exists. These are much tougher campaigns to run since you are by definition seeking the support of habitual non-voters, at least in these elections, but it is a strategy.

3. What else is William Park up to?

The story makes the case that William Park is basically a con man, and that he has an inordinate amount of influence over CM Brown. It’s a pretty short leap from there to wondering what other ways he might find to exert that influence, and whether he might try to benefit from it directly. The story doesn’t go there, possibly because there’s no there to go to. It’s worth keeping an eye on, that’s all I’m saying.

What were your reactions to this story?