LEST WE TORGET
A trip down memory lane with Jim McConn
Houston mayor Jim McConn's two-year
administration has been punctuated by
charges of wrongdoing and unethical
practices, down to and including that
time-honored political accessory—the
coat. Remember Sherman Adams' vicuna
coat and "Pat's plain Republican cloth
coat" of Richard Nixon's "no-quitter"
slush fund speech in 1952?
In this case it's two coats (suede) for
McConn and one coat (fur) for Margie
McConn. A $300 suede coat was given to
McConn by Jerry Philhps, a figure in the
Jack Key indictment. Another $300
suede coat (apparently that's what suede
coats for mayors cost) was given to
McConn by Harold Wiesenthal, of Harold's
Men's Wear. A $5,000 mink coat was
given to Margie McConn by real estate
developer James McNaughton, who did
business with the city.
One of McConn's first acts as mayor
was to fire women's advocate Nikki Van
Hightower. The move was not unexpected, since he had said before the election
that he would do so. But the manner of
its execution was singularly graceless.
After telling Van Hightower he would
discuss the matter with her again before
taking any action, he announced at an
all-male Rotary Club luncheon that she
was fired. Van Hightower was informed
of the decision by reporters who burst
into her office that afternoon to record
her reaction. The mayor claimed he
apologized to Van Hightower for the
manner of the firing. Van Hightower said
she received no apology.
In 1978, approximately 500 complaints of police misconduct were submitted to the Houston Police Department.
Twenty-four cases against Houston police
officers were either before the federal
grand jury or in litigation. In each of
those 24 cases, no action was taken by
state grand juries other than refusal to issue indictments.
Last December, a three-judge federal
panel enjoined the city from holding further elections until recent annexations
could be shown not to have diluted
minority voting strength.
In January of this year, city council
voted to investigate tax breaks of over
$50,000 gained by $l-a-year mayor's
assistant Bill Wayne. McConn admitted
the city "has lacked a clear, definite
procedure to follow in cases where the
taxpayer also happens to be a city employee." It quickly became apparent that
the city also lacked a clear, definite procedure for paying a mayor's gambling
debts. McConn went to Las Vegas that
month and lost $3,200 playing blackjack and shooting craps. He called city
purchasing agent Jack Key, who arranged
a $6,000 loan to pay the mayor's gambling
debts. McConn later said he didn't know
to whom he owed the $6,000, or if it had
Also in January, the Metropolitan
Transit Authority was looking for bids, at
around $228,000, on 38 new 1979 full-
sized sedans for its administrators. The
cars would have V-8 engines so they
could be used, if necessary, to push broken-down MTA buses off the freeways.
In February, the founders of the National Gay Task Force said that Houston
and Los Angeles led all other U. S. cities
in complaints to their group about police
Also in February, the Houston Fire department announced a change in its polygraph test to screen applicants. The U.S.
Treasury Department had warned city
officials that Houston could lose millions
of dollars in federal revenue-sharing funds
unless it moved to end the "grossly
discriminatory" test, which caused blacks
and Hispanics to be rejected at a far higher rate than Anglos.
That same month, McConn said that
the city may be forced to elect some
council members by district. He reiterated his opposition to any substantial increase in the size of city council.
In April, McConn's campaign records
were subpoenaed, Jack Key was arrested,
and a Harris County grand jury found no
evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the
part of Bill Wayne. McConn said it was
only coincidence that on the same day
Key arranged the $6,000 loan for
McConn, Key allegedly tried to extort
$6,000 from a Houston businessman.
In May, Key was indicted on extortion
charges. The federal grand jury subpoenaed McConn's records on his special
fund for entertainment expenses.
In June, council members McKaskle,
Mancuso and Mann denied any illegality
in the gifts of $1,000 each that they had
received from Houston firefighters.
Also in June, the U. S. Justice Department blocked all city elections until a
single-member district plan could be formulated. City Controller Kathy Whitmire
accused the council of costing taxpayers
thousands of dollars by not taking an
earlier stand on single-member districts.
She pointed out that a 1975 city wide
straw vote showed a majority of Houstonians in favor of single-member districts.
However, she said, the city has spent
"several hundred thousand dollars to defend the present system which has already
been voted against by the citizens of
On June 14, Ben Baldwin and Gebe
Martinez, of KTRH Radio, took the City
of Houston to court, alleging that a 90-
minute closed city council session had
violated the state's open meetings act.
McConn came out of that meeting expressing disappointment that his own 5-5-1
plan had not received much support.
In July, the U.S. Justice Department
restricted the August 11 ballot to the single question of changing the council's
makeup. McConn called that action a
"horror story." One of the items ordered
off the ballot was a city charter amendment to keep the current system, in spite
of the clear ruling from the justice department that the council makeup must be
Also in July, the grand jury reissued a
subpoena for top mayoral executive assistant Gene Gatlin in the continuing investigation of City of Houston contracts and
political contributions to city council
members. The Department of Labor
warned McConn that Houston could lose
about 12 million dollars in federal funds
for local manpower and training programs,
because of the city's poor performance in
the programs. That figure is about 25 percent of all CETA funds scheduled for
Houston this year. (The city ended up
losing $9 million.)
In August, city council was again
tabling a motion on wood shingle roofs
while more than a thousand apartments,
with wood shingle roofs, were burning at
August 11, only 11.3 percent of voters
turned out. They overwhelmingly approved the 9-5 redistricting plan. The justice department later approved, clearing
the way for this November election.
In September, the six Houston city
council members who had not yet testified were scheduled to appear before a
federal grand jury investigating alleged
In October, the city lost $478,000 in
federal funds for a housing rehabilitation
loan program because it did not write the
loans by September 30. It stands to lose
an additional $4.35 million in other federal funds for housing loans, grants and
capital improvements unless the money is
spent by November 28.
October 2, U.S. Attorney J. A. "Tony"
Canales suspended the calling of witnesses
in the federal grand jury investigation till
after the election.
October 2, McConn said that if he is
re-elected as mayor, there is a "good possibility" that the Farm Road 1960 area
will be annexed next year. Three weeks
later McConn joined other mayoral aspirants in promising no new annexations
until at least 1980.
By last week, the campaign was settling into familiar patterns, with Macey
supposedly calling McConn "evil" and
"a thief" and McConn accusing Macey of
"lying." (Or was it the other way