Helena Brown, Going Down: The Once-Wacky Rep Starts to Look Shady

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The sharks are circling Houston City Council member Helena Brown.

In her six months in office, the District A rep has gotten way more press than any other city official except the mayor because she is constantly saying awesome stuff. Pensions are expensive? Brown says stop paying them. Energy efficient buildings? Brown sees a U.N. conspiracy.

Helena Brown has heretofore been interesting—and, debatably, important—because she is the un-ironic embodiment of tea party rhetoric: anti-government, anti-tax, anti-compromise, all anti-, no pro-. Other politicians say they want to shrink the government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub. Brown would actually hold it down until the bubbles stopped. She’s also been fun to report on because she’s seemed relatively harmless. Her ubiquitous “no” votes usually stand alone. She used to delay lots of city business by “tagging” it, putting it off for a week, but her fellow council members got sick of that and started overriding her tags, a once-rare breach of etiquette that’s now necessary just to get stuff done.

So Brown has not only embodied anti-government governance in her voting, but in her general inefficacy. She’s not getting any projects approved for her district and she’s not making a difference in the city’s management. She’s just there, week after week, talking.

But a flurry of new press suggests she’s more than a lone ideologue.

First the Houston Chronicle reported, early last week, that Brown “subtracted hours from her staffers’ timecards in apparent violation of federal law,” according to records. “At least six times, Brown deleted enough hours from employees’ reported workweeks that it cost them overtime by bringing their weekly total under 40 hours,” writes Chris Moran. One of Brown’s earliest notable acts as a council member had been to hire an entirely part-time staff so that none would be paid benefits like health insurance or vacation, a move she characterized as fiscal conservatism. But messing with time cards would constitute tampering with a government document, which is a felony.

Then the Houston Press featured Brown on their cover this week, looking at her affiliation with William Park, a volunteer “senior adviser” and disgraced financier who “appears to dictate her office, and some say her life.” The story makes a powerful case that Park, a Bible-verse-spouting one-time Ponzi scheme middleman, is directing Brown’s votes and writing her weird and colorful diatribes. The story also details Brown’s attempt to force out a staff member because she (the staff member) became pregnant, prompting a staff exodus in April.

And just yesterday the Press blog Hair Balls reported that Brown “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.” Not just a little public money, either: expense reports show airfare costing the city $11,000.

Apparently, William Park also went to Asia with Brown. “Brown said she went to Korea to arrange direct flights between Houston and Seoul, but it’s unclear why the council member had to travel to Asia to accomplish this, or whether public funds exclusively paid for Brown’s ticket, or for Park’s as well,” writes Terrence McCoy, who also authored the Brown cover story.

Further, Brown solicited funds from Korean businessmen at a meeting in a government building, in violation of city policy. “During the meeting, one attendee questioned the legality of contributing money directly to Brown in such a setting. Park responded: ‘Councilwoman Brown has very powerful lawyers to help…’” [emphasis mine.]

It appears Brown may bend the law the same way she tries to lay it down: sporadically, ineffectively, and with help. So far, none of this shady business has resulted in charges, but with reporting like this from Chris Moran and Terrence McCoy and a year and a half left in Brown’s term, there’s no telling how—or when—this show’s going to end.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.