Dwight Thomas: An election changer
If you were not listening to Michael Berry last Thursday morning at 8 AM, you missed one of the most fascinating hours of radio in Houston political history. I think of Wayne Dolcefino as the Donald Trump of local media – telling it like it is, unafraid of political correctness, and backed by years of experience. Did I mention that, during his 20 years on KTRK Channel 13, Wayne won 38 Emmy awards for his local reporting?
The 1991 Houston mayor’s race included incumbent Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier and Sylvester Turner. When Whitmire missed the runoff, Lanier and Turner squared off.
Weeks before the election, Wayne received a tip about a man, Sylvester Foster, who supposedly disappeared from a boat in Galveston Bay. In 1991, Houston had one principal television news station – Channel 13. And, Wayne was the go to investigative reporter.
The Texas Supreme Court opinion of Dolcefino v. Turner tells the story:
During the events at issue, Turner was a partner in the Houston law firm of Barnes, Morse, and Turner. In late 1985, Turner’s life-long friend Dwight Thomas introduced him to Sylvester Foster, who owned several beauty salons and a male modeling studio in Houston. In April 1986, Foster discussed preparing a will with Turner. Turner and an associate worked on the will in May and June, making several changes at Foster’s behest. The will placed the bulk of the estate assets, including the proceeds of all life insurance policies benefitting the estate, into a trust for the benefit of Foster’s father, Clinton Foster, with Thomas designated as the trustee and executor. The duration of the trust was eleven years, after which the corpus would be distributed to Clinton Foster; however, if his father died before the trust terminated, the will provided that the corpus would pass immediately to Foster’s girlfriend, Christina Batura. The will was completed and ready for execution on June 16.
In the months before executing the will, Foster was in trouble with the law. In March, he was indicted in Nevada on federal credit card fraud charges. The next month, he was arrested in Nevada for driving Thomas’s car, which Thomas had reported stolen, allegedly as part of a “chop-shop” scheme in which Foster would sell the car, and Thomas and Foster would share the insurance money. Finally, in June, Foster was indicted by a Houston grand jury, also on federal credit card fraud charges. When Turner drafted the will, he knew about the April 8 arrest, but he did not know about any “chop-shop” scheme or either of the federal indictments. Also unbeknownst to Turner, Foster, who already had a sizable amount of life insurance, began acquiring more in May and June. In total, by mid-June Foster had approximately $1.7 million in life insurance, with $875,000 directly benefitting the estate. He also took out credit life on cars and jewelry that he purchased in May and June.
On the evening of June 18, Secret Service agent Jay Bly approached Foster to arrest him on the June Houston grand jury indictment. Foster promised Bly that he would turn himself in the following morning. He did not do so. Instead Foster went the next day to Turner’s office where he signed his will. Turner was not present when Foster signed the will; Turner’s secretary and a partner witnessed its execution. Three days later, Foster was reported to have drowned during a sailing trip. No body was found, but Keith Anderson and Russell Reinders, who were on the boat with Foster, both swore in affidavits that Foster fell overboard. On June 28, Foster’s father, Clinton Foster, and Thomas met with Turner and asked that he probate the will. Turner agreed and the next month sent letters notifying several life insurance companies of Foster’s death. In August, the Coast Guard issued a formal report claiming that Foster “was presumed drowned and lost at sea.” On November 21, 1986, Turner filed an application to probate the will. Three weeks later, Prudential Insurance Company, which had a policy benefitting Foster’s business partner Reinders, intervened to dispute Foster’s death. The parties began discovery and took depositions from many witnesses, including Agent Bly, Turner, Thomas, and Batura.
In July 1987, Clinton Foster’s attorneys moved to disqualify Turner because, as the will’s drafter, he was likely to be a material witness. The probate judge, the Honorable Judge John Hutchison, disqualified Turner until the issue of Foster’s death was resolved. Judge Hutchison also named Richard Snell as the estate’s temporary administrator and instructed him to investigate Foster’s death. Turner later submitted a bill of $28,000 for his representation of the estate, but Snell rejected it.
At Snell’s request, Judge Hutchison appointed Elizabeth Colwell to investigate Foster’s death. Colwell was paid by Clinton Foster’s Kansas City attorney, Carston Johannsen. After searching for nearly two years, Colwell could not locate Foster. Accordingly, on April 12, 1989, Judge Hutchison declared Foster dead. Over a year later, however, the United States Embassy in Spain informed Clinton Foster that his son was alive and in a Spanish prison on drug charges. The probate court then rescinded its declaration of death and closed the estate.
Meanwhile, Turner pursued a successful political career. After winning election to the Texas House of Representatives in 1988 and 1990, Turner announced his candidacy for mayor of Houston in June 1991. To establish residency, Turner shared a house inside the city limits with Thomas. In November 1991, Turner won a spot in the December 7 mayoral run-off with financier Bob Lanier.
On November 27, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, private investigator Clyde Wilson called KTRK anchor Shara Fryer. Wilson told Fryer of a possible connection between Turner and the Foster insurance swindle. Wilson also referred Fryer to two other private investigators, Peary Perry and Bill Elliott. Elliott had been hired by Turner’s estranged wife Cheryl to investigate Turner in connection with their pending divorce. Perry was a former policeman who served on Lanier’s finance committee.
While the story is long, the facts are simple:
- Sylvester Turner’s “life-long friend” Dwight Thomas introduced Turner to Sylvester Foster.
- Turner prepared a will for Foster, an indicted fraudster who “owned several beauty salons and a male modeling studio” in Houston.
- The will put the majority of the assets into a trust for the benefit of Foster’s father and designated Thomas as the trustee and executor.
- Foster then faked his own death.
- Foster’s father and Turner’s “life-long friend” Dwight Thomas asked Turner to probate the will he created.
- The probate judge disqualified Turner from probating the will since he was a witness (as he created the will).
- A year after the probate judge declared Foster as dead, Foster showed up in a Spanish prison.
Six days before the runoff, on December 1, KTRK aired Wayne’s report on Turner, Thomas, and Foster. While the subject of the story was the insurance fraud scam, Wayne also revealed to the public that Turner, a married man, was living with Thomas.
You have to remember there was really just one news station. Wayne runs a story and Sylvester Turner is ultimately defeated. Turner sues Wayne and Channel 13.
A guy by the name of Sylvester Foster was indicted for credit card fraud and was supposed to turn himself in. He supposedly drowns while on a boat with two other guys and two of his friends said he had drowned. .
The drowned man had a lawyer, Sylvester Turner, who was trying to collect on an insurance policy. Turns out the dead guy was alive and well in a Spanish prison.
I believe this is the phrase that forever changed the 1991 mayoral election. This story showed Thomas, an effeminate man, living with Turner. This was just six years after the “Straight Slate” appeared on Houston ballots.
Following his 1991 loss and protracted litigation against Dolcefino and KTRK, Sylvester Turner again ran for mayor in 2003 where he again lost. In the 2003 election, Turner placed third behind Bill White and Orlando Sanchez. Is the third time the charm? Will the past plagues affect Turner in the 2015 race?
Certainly, Wayne’s story was not the only piece of controversy surrounding Turner. Houstonians still remember Turner’s failure to repay his Harvard student loans. His address deception during the 1991 mayoral race: one home in northwest Harris County with his wife and daughter; another home with Thomas; and then another home . . . at the Lancaster Hotel?
This year, you knew that something was up when the police and fire unions were on Turner’s team before the mayoral campaign even began. Anyone who understands the current state of the city’s finances should have been hearing alarm bells with these union endorsements.
There is also controversy within the GLBT community. After purchasing $3,040 worth of memberships to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, the membership voted 142-85 to endorse Turner, which was against the screening committee recommendation of Adrian Garcia. Turner’s money was worth 76 memberships and he won the endorsement by 67 votes.
The criticism against Wayne D’s 1991 report seemingly overlooked the obvious fact that the report showed two grown men, one married, living in the same home. Have times changed? Is 2015 different? Are Houston voters more accepting of Sylvester Turner now as compared to 1991? Or 2003? If so, why? Did voters not support Turner during those elections because they thought he was a crook? Or was it something else?
Today, Sylvester says he has “evolved” on GLBT issues. In 2005, he voted in favor of a ban on gay foster parents. In 2003, he voted in favor of a statutory ban on same sex marriage. Now, he fully supports HERO and no one seems to be talking about why Turner was living with Thomas is 1991.
Is the local media avoiding the issue? Are local political forces tiptoeing through the weeds here? Is the discussion taboo?
During the last three city election cycles, Houstonians elected an openly gay white woman as mayor. Are gay black men treated differently? If so, what does that say about our community itself?
I decided against Sylvester as mayor a long time ago. Not because of any suggestion regarding his sexual orientation but because he is openly supported by all three unions.
In 2009, I voted for Annise Parker because she promised to be a good fiscal steward of our dollar. After the rain tax, I have actively campaigned against her because Houston just cannot afford her “leadership.”
As a longtime political observer, there is no question that the local media is scared of lawsuits. Ironically, media now has more protection than ever against lawsuits since the Texas Legislature passed Anti-SLAPP laws. These laws have changed the litigation landscape and offers protection against lawsuits meant to silence speech.
Political corruption reporting also seems to be taboo. I have written before that Wayne Dolcefino has prosecuted many more politicians for corruption than our District Attorney; so, what does that say about our local media? And, of course, what does that say about our DA?
This is the most important mayoral race in decades, go vote and plan to vote in the December 12th runoff election.