• September 22, 2019

Councilman’s abuses mount - Odessa American: City Of Odessa

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Councilman’s abuses mount

A threat to a charity, pressure at courthouse, shouts at City Hall. Can Hamilton fix it?

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  • Malcolm Hamilton at City Council

    District 1 City Councilman Malcolm Hamilton listens to comments during a presentation at the Feb. 28 City Council meeting.

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Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2017 6:00 am

Kathy Goheen Leoffler recalled that Friday in January when District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton visited the Salvation Army, where she works as the office manager.

Hamilton asked to see the major to talk about a complaint he received of a broken washer in the emergency shelter that serves needy Odessans. Instead of waiting, Hamilton left a business card and told a receptionist to have Major Guy Watts call him.

When the major called Hamilton, Leoffler says she was one of two others in the room.

“He said ‘You better a get a washer and dryer in there’ or he was going to pull our city funding,” Leoffler said.

But Hamilton’s threat to the charity was a bizarre one. The Salvation Army doesn’t even get city funding.

“He was being very stern and telling us what we better do when he didn’t even really know the facts,” Leoffler said.

It’s yet another account of the councilman abusing the position he has held for little more than three months. Hamilton has refused to answer questions from the Odessa American since Feb. 22.

Prior to threatening the charity, the councilman tried to use his influence to intervene in the Jan. 6 arrest of a 23-year-old man at the Ector County Courthouse, County Attorney Dusty Gallivan confirmed Thursday.

“It is inappropriate for an elected official as said elected official to influence the outcome of a criminal case,” Gallivan said. “If he was acting in his capacity as the kid’s dad or the victim in the case, that would be totally different. But he was acting in his capacity as an elected official, nothing else.”

MORE ISSUES

As with the threat to the Salvation Army, the account from the Ector County Courthouse described Hamilton invoking his position in an attempt to influence something outside of his purview as a city official.

The majors at the Salvation Army declined to comment for this story. Major Dolores Watts said the charity does not comment on political matters.

But Mayor David Turner confirmed that someone reported the Salvation Army visit by Hamilton to him. The mayor said he did not know details of the encounter and declined to comment on specifics.

In Leoffler’s telling, the major explained to Hamilton that the use of a washer and dryer are not services the charity is able to guarantee. The donated washer was broken and they continue to struggle to replace it.

Watts also invited Hamilton to tour the shelter. But Hamilton said he had to go “out of town next week” and would have to talk to Salvation Army officials once he returned, Leoffler said. That still hasn’t happened.

The episode detailed by Leoffler occurred Jan. 20.

That night, Hamilton would begin a 12-day trip to Minneapolis billed to taxpayers despite only one record of city business on one day of the trip. A day after returning, Odessa police would pull Hamilton over in front of his home, leading to an explosive reaction by the councilman that included him saying “I am your boss” to officers he berated and cursed.

By the time the first OA story broke on Feb. 26, Hamilton was publicly calling for the firing of City Manager Richard Morton, who kept his job after a lengthy closed door session on Feb. 28.

Then Hamilton subsequently followed up with evidence-free allegations of corruption in city government and a conspiracy involving fellow council members and upper level city employees to silence him.

Hamilton wrote in a Facebook post that the OA wrote stories about him because it fell “under the influence” of “a few within the city Government who have something to lose” by him questioning the Odessa Development Corporation, which is part of the city, and the make-up of the board of Grow Odessa, which is a not-for-profit business league that develops industrial park land in Hamilton’s district for economic development and is not funded by taxpayers.

He told a CBS 7 reporter in a text message that Turner, District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and City Manager Richard Morton “are involved an have much to hide. [sic]” Hamilton has yet to show any evidence to back up his claims.

Hamilton also told the Houston Chronicle the week of Feb. 28 that the recent criticism was a form of “character assassination.”

How has it come to this for District 1’s new representative?

And where does he go from here?

IMPROPER INFLUENCE?

The county attorney said he learned of Hamilton’s interference at the courthouse from staff after a reporter contacted him Wednesday evening.

“He intervened, starting asking questions — ‘Why is he getting arrested?’ — this and that,” Gallivan said. “The officer that was involved indicated that he (Hamilton) was throwing his weight around.”

Specifically, Gallivan said Hamilton informed the officer of his position on the City Council and presented him with a business card identifying him as a councilman. The county attorney declined to identify the officer, saying “I don’t want him to get involved in this.”

But Gallivan identified the man whose arrest Hamilton sought to prevent as Joed Amoyaw, and public records show the warrant was issued after Amoyaw failed to show up for a court date about a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge.

Amoyaw would not have faced arrest had he shown up to court when he was originally supposed to, Gallivan said. Regardless, the county attorney said, “Mr. Hamilton has no business sticking his nose into a criminal case where he doesn’t belong.”

The county attorney stopped short of describing Hamilton’s actions as an “abuse of office,” which is a criminal offense in Texas — “but it was pretty close,” Gallivan said.

Defense Attorney Justin Low, who had no role in Amoyaw’s case but had heard about Hamilton’s courthouse visit, said the councilman’s attempt to privately influence the public servant about a court matter could amount to “improper influence,” which is a different criminal offense.

“He is trying to influence the outcome of the proceedings based on something other than the law, which is his status as a city councilman,” Low said. “It’s a Class A misdemeanor ... The elements of the offense appear to be there.”

But Gallivan said he does not believe Hamilton’s interference with the arrest amounted to a criminal act because he was not influencing a “proceeding” as described in the law.

“I don’t see it that way,” Gallivan said. “It wasn’t before a court. Nothing was being determined.”

‘I’M NOT HERE TO BUMP HEADS’

The night of Nov. 8, the just-elected Hamilton pledged to start immediately on an array of projects for his district.

He had campaigned on his ability to communicate fresh ideas for Odessa’s southern district, along with his ability to get along with fellow government officials to pursue citizens’ needs.

“I’m not here to bump heads,” Hamilton said in an Oct. 5 interview. “I’m here to fall in line with what we are already doing and integrate what I would like to see in District 1, integrate that with Odessa, the greater plan.”

Major priorities included economic development and community building through strategies like youth programs in an area he said lags behind the progress of greater Odessa.

He supported the city’s investments in redeveloping downtown, which falls in his district, and wanted to extend those types of investments to south Odessa.

To win his seat, Hamilton beat Jo Ann Davenport Littleton, a community activist who held the seat in the 1990s. Hamilton recieved 1,189 votes compared to Davenport Littleton’s 923.

He was the only candidate to raise money in the race, collecting about $2,000 in political contributions as of Oct. 31 — most of them donations under $50. Donors included two former council members, Jimmy Goates and Bill Cleaver, who represented District 1 after Davenport Littleton.

Another supporter was Gene Collins, a longtime community activist who Hamilton appointed Feb. 28 to the ODC. In a brief interview, Collins declined to discuss either Hamilton’s behavior or reports by the OA, dismissing the newspaper as biased.

Cleaver also dismissed coverage by the OA in a brief interview during the Feb. 28 City Council meeting, saying “he’s great. He’s doing a good job.”

But Goates, a former District 2 councilman who lives outside of Hamilton’s district, was more critical about the freshman councilman’s behavior.

“I backed him originally because like I told you the last time we talked: I felt like it was the time for a younger person to get involved, and I thought his background matched,” Goates said. “But I didn’t realize that he was going to have some personal problems and get in the situation he is in. I think it all can be resolved if Mr. Hamilton just goes back to using his common sense.”

THE SHOUTS AT CITY HALL

In the week leading up to the election, the campaign for District 1 had turned heated. Hamilton described his opponent as ineffective and disliked.

“You might know how to operate inside, but at the same time you are unwelcome,” Hamilton told the OA days before the election, referring to his opponent. “Not even your district wants you. They are tired. They are ready for change.”

But once on the job as District 1 councilman, Hamilton would soon find conflict.

By the beginning of February, multiple sources began talking about a confrontation between Hamilton and City Manager Morton at City Hall.

Hamilton confirmed elements of the incident in a recent TV interview and called for Morton’s ouster at the Feb. 28 City Council meeting. Hamilton told KMID-TV he approached the city manager about building a community center in front of Hays Elementary, and a separate source confirmed this to the OA.

“He walked in the door saying, ‘No, we don’t have the money’ and I called him out on it and said, ‘Yeah we do have the money’,” Hamilton told the news station.

In actuality the city manager can only recommend a project like a community center. The city council is the body that decides to fund and build one.

Hamilton confirmed a heated meeting with Morton in early February but declined to discuss then what happened with the OA, saying “it’s about a whole bunch of stuff that’s unethical and not right.”

The OA asked Morton on Feb. 8 about the rumored shouting match.

“I didn’t get in a shouting match,” Morton said, and then, asked specifically if the pair was physically separated, he repeated: “I did not get in a shouting match. I got yelled at. But no, I really don’t want to comment.”

Asked about specific allegations the OA learned Hamilton had made, Morton replied:

“No, he’s — I really shouldn’t say anything. I mean he’s a new council member. He’s trying to find his footing. He’s very passionate. And he’s got doubts about, I mean you hear him. He’s got doubts about ODC, OIDC (the former name of Grow Odessa). I mean, you name it. He’s just suspicious.”

Morton declined Friday to comment for this story.

Hamilton during the KMID-TV interview said that “a lack of cooperation” followed the confrontation and a “sarcastic atmosphere and a tone that’s just become so toxic.”

Hamilton also said he had been “told by employees” — of cases when the city manager “intimidated” and “threatened” city staff, “bullying them.” Hamilton hasn’t provided any evidence of that claim.

IS HE GOING TO HAVE THE SUPPORT?

In the wake of Hamilton’s controversies, his former opponent said she feared her district would be again left without an effective representative on the City Council.

“This is an elected official,” Davenport Littleton said. “These are people that we elect to represent us, to help us. And I feel that Malcolm can help us. I do. I feel like he can. But so far all the negative publicity that our district is getting, it’s just not good. I hate it.”

Hamilton needs to work with fellow council members to pursue his goals for the district, Davenport Littleton said. And to do that, she said, he needs to build trust with them.

“You know it takes three votes to get anything done,” Davenport Littleton said. “That’s politics. And now that all of this has happened, I’m just worried. I’m just worried. When Malcolm wants to get something done, is he going to have the support to get something done? And what bothers me is our district. We are going to suffer because of this.”

Still, Davenport Littleton added, “it can be fixed.”

As it stands, Hamilton’s position is secure. And removing him would be difficult.

That would take a recall in which a voter from his district files an affidavit with the city secretary making the demand for his removal. The recall would require at least 2,000 signatures from within District 1 — almost as many people as who voted in November. If the petition got enough signatures, Hamilton would have five days to resign or face a recall election.

Since news of Hamilton’s controversial trip, his traffic stop and his calls for Morton’s job, fellow city council members have mostly fallen silent.

Hamilton eventually repaid the city $310.04 to cover the flight change of his more than $2,100 taxpayer-funded trip to Minneapolis despite claiming in an earlier CBS 7 interview that “there is no misuse of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Hamilton also denied wrongdoing in the traffic stop he described as “illegal,” despite a police review that found officers acted properly. His ticket was ultimately dismissed.

In their limited comments, some fellow council members sought to allay worries that District 1 would be left behind.

“We are going to continue to be there for them, and my door’s always open,” the mayor, elected to represent the entire city, said.

Turner and District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner also made general comments about public officials being held to a higher standard, the importance of treating rank-and-file employees with respect and the need to be responsible with public money.

“The City Council is going to function like it’s supposed to function — irregardless,” Gardner said. “We may not always agree on everything but we are going to do what’s right.”

Gaven Norris, an attorney who grew up in District 1 and still works in the area, said he still supports Hamilton’s plans for the district and his passion.

“I think everyone is just looking at it,” Norris said. “I think the situation — not just from what’s being reported about Malcolm but maybe all the parties involved are probably giving the city a black eye. And maybe the parties involved can sit down and find a way to resolve it.”

Goates, for his part, said Hamilton needs to understand he is “not anyone’s boss” and learn more about the duties of a city councilman, setting policy with fellow council members.

“He is a very bright individual,” Goates said. “I think he will do much better once he truly understands how the system works.”

Goates said he has not talked to Hamilton since he assumed office but would help him if asked.

“I don’t know what’s happening with Mr. Hamilton,” Goates said. “But all City Council people should have a decorum that they don’t try to push their weight around.”

Full disclosure: The OA supports the Salvation Army yearly through the Empty Stocking Fund and OA Editor Laura Dennis is a board member. The OA has also been a shareholder of Grow Odessa for more than a decade and is represented by Publisher Patrick Canty. Canty is also on the Odessa Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

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