Editorial note: Sophia Arena contributed reporting to this article.
This election has seen Mayoral candidate Ben Hall assume a diverse range of political positions, often in search of the most support, wherever he may find it. Lines have been blurred between his identity as a Democrat or as a rouge Conservative. Given the strain of running for public office, often assuming such identities, it is invaluable to examine the positions and dealings of Hall the last time he was in the spotlight, his tenure as City Attorney (1992-1994) and the years immediately succeeding.
TEXPATRIATE has obtained a number of news articles from these years that paint a complicated picture of Hall’s career and his personality. Recurring themes have arisen of extremely fungible political allegiances and taking the law into his own hands as well as numerous questions regarding a foggy transition from the City Attorney’s office to private practice.
In 1992, shortly after being nominated to the City Attorney’s office, the Houston Chronicle ran a profile on the young attorney, who was working for Vinson & Elkins at the time. The article described Ben Hall as a very religious man, who attended a “very conservative, fundamentalist church,” and talked almost exclusively on the topic of religion when first meeting Mayor Bob Lanier about the job. In the years since, Hall has continued to remain particularly active within his church and pastoral service, but the words “conservative” and “fundamentalist” have not arisen since.
Perhaps the most peculiar item in the profile was that it was not Lanier, nor Sylvester Turner, that Ben Hall supported in the 1991 Mayoral election. Rather, it was the incumbent Mayor, Kathy Whitmire. Apparently that didn’t make a difference to Mayor Lanier who appointed Hall as City Attorney. Hall has raised several parallels between the 2013 Mayoral election and that which was held 22 years ago, attempting to juxtapose the unpopular Whitmire (who he had supported) with the incumbent Annise Parker. Additionally, it appears that Hall’s core circle of institutional supporters in this election — the African-American community– has not always been a permanent ally.
“Violated the smell test”
Ben Hall’s tenure as City Attorney, and the tumultuous years that followed, were marked by consistent controversy, often involving those close to Hall. In 1994, Hall’s office sought to contract with then-State Representative Ron Wilson (D-Harris County) to assist the City in litigation. The City Council, upon Hall’s advice, hired Wilson and then paid $25,000.00 for his service (although Wilson did say he would work for free) which drew the ire of then-City Controller George Greanias. Lambasting what he called an improper move, Carroll Robinson wrote that the hiring violated “the smell test.”
Longstanding relationships with Hall formed the basis of a tight-knit group of ‘friends with benefits,’ so to speak, when he went into private practice and later founded his own firm. At Hall’s farewell reception as City Attorney during Christmas time in 1994, Wilson, among others, were in attendance.
Wilson’s name also arose in 2000 when Hall sued the Houston Rockets on behalf of a coalition of minority vendors. The attorneys assisting him also included former City Councilmember Gracie Saenz, who herself was nearly implicated in a bribery sting just a few years earlier. The friendship and close business relationship of Hall and Wilson is not newsworthy by itself. Rather, only because Hall was involved in the issue of employment and payment to Wilson while he was City Attorney. The Houston Rockets lawsuit conjured up allegations of impropriety which featured rampant allegations of misrepresentation of the facts and overcharging by Hall. At one point, the chief counsel for the Rockets accused Hall of intentionally prolonging proceedings for the sole reason of increasing his legal fees. No disciplinary action was ever taken against Hall, however, by the State Bar.
“Down the road to fraud”
A 1994 article by the Houston Press entitled “Boss Hall” delineated the many charges levied against Hall during his tenure as City Attorney, mostly involving allegedly unsavory business practices regarding his doling out of minority contracts. However, the arguably most controversial occurrence during his three years on the job was taking the law into his own hands in negotiating a secret settlement in a lawsuit behind the City Council’s back.
Though the exact nature of the settled lawsuit is unknown, Hall’s office, without first getting approval from City Council, approved a $150,000.00 payout to plaintiffs. The act drew harsh condemnation from the public, including two Houston Chronicle editorials bashing Hall’s dealings. The Chronicle editorial board, at that time, lambasted Hall for leading the City on a slippery slope, galloping “straight and unimpeded down the road to fraud, theft, cronyism and other abuses of the public trust.”
When Mayor Lanier learned of the unilateral actions of his City Attorney, he immediately quashed further requests to engage in the same tactics and admonished Hall. That was the beginning of the end for Hall, just weeks later he was out of the job. If Hall is elected Mayor, it is a fair question to wonder if his City Attorney would be given the same privilege, or if the Mayor’s office itself would begin reaching secret settlements in ongoing lawsuits. On the issue of that lawsuit settlement , Sue Davis, spokesperson for the Annise Parker campaign. said “[t]his is another example of Hall believing the rules don’t apply to him. As with not paying his taxes until forced to, Hall does what he wants, no matter what.”
While City Attorney, Hall also awarded contracts that raised eyebrows outside of the sphere of affirmative action. Specifically, Hall gave lucrative dealings to the O’Quinn law firm, led by the renowned late trial lawyer John O’Quinn. The O’Quinn law firm was contracted to negotiate settlements between the City and both Valera Transmission and Houston Lighting & Power, respectively.
After departing the City Attorney’s office, Hall almost immediately began working for the O’Quinn Law Firm. In doing so, Hall became yet another statistic in the cliched ‘revolving door’ of politics. The occurrence flies in the face of recent rhetoric on the part of Hall, who has (in the 2013 Mayoral election) knocked Parker for tolerating the same ‘revolving door’ under her watch as Mayor. Simply put, Hall was a prime example of the behavior he was so eager to eliminate last September on the campaign trail.
“This is another example of Hall’s hypocrisy,” said Sue Davis for the Annise Parker campaign, “He accuses Mayor Parker of pay-to-play corruption—without a shred of proof—yet he resigned as city attorney to take a job with a law firm to whom he had steered a lucrative contract, while bragging about his new salary.”
In the case of Houston Lighting & Power, Hall eventually took the lead in litigating a related case. A class action lawsuit against the utility was originally filed by a plethora of municipalities (including Houston), though most (also including Houston) eventually settled. Amongst those municipalities that remained in the suit, which alleged Houston Lighting & Power underpaid franchise fees to the municipalities, were Galveston, Pasadena and Wharton. The case brought new impropriety charges against Hall, as the utility stated that he “overstepped ethical rules of conduct.” In all fairness to Ben Hall, these allegations as well as the allegations mentioned in the Houston Rockets lawsuit may have just been sour grapes levied against an opponent’s attorney, not an uncommon tactic in civil litigation. Never the less, superiors in the law firm eventually removed Hall from the HL&P case and a judgment against the utility was overturned fully upon appeal.
While these events occurred nearly two decades ago and people do learn from their experiences, many of these same issues have arisen again in this campaign, thus contributing to its relevancy.
Ben Hall’s campaign has so far declined to comment in regard to any and all of the issues.