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Aug. 27, 2006, 2:10PM

Payroll scandal hasn't sapped Alvarado's clout

Councilwoman maintains White's confidence despite stepping down as mayor pro tem

By MATT STILES
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

A payroll-padding scandal six months ago cost Carol Alvarado her job as mayor pro tem, but she kept a coveted piece of real estate along the horseshoe-shaped City Council dais.

It's a green, high-back chair just off center the spot right next to Mayor Bill White.

The seating arrangement is just one example of how Alvarado has retained her City Hall clout six months after a scandal seemed destined to imperil it.

"Nothing's changed," the third-term councilwoman said in a recent interview. "I just don't have that title. Everything else remains the same."

Despite a cloud of uncertainty about an ongoing investigation by local prosecutors and the negative news about her employees taking unauthorized bonuses, Alvarado still has more access to White than her council colleagues.

She's the only member with an open invitation to attend his thrice-weekly senior staff meetings, and Alvarado remains a regular on the mayor's weekend bicycle rides through city neighborhoods.

He also lets her spearhead complicated issues, such as studying a tougher ban on workplace smoking, responding to a grass-roots effort to change a police immigration policy or modernizing the city's campaign-finance disclosure system.

And she's still performing many of the historical duties assigned to the mayor pro tem. She advises the mayor, helping advance his agenda. She also works with his staff to gauge the moods of council members on emerging issues.

It's not unusual for White to delegate tasks to council members despite Houston's strong-mayor system, which allows his administration to set the agenda. He wants consensus. He gets that by letting members, even those who don't side with him politically, handle high-profile issues they care about.

Councilwoman Toni Lawrence has led efforts to enact new neighborhood-protection ordinances. Councilman Adrian Garcia has held hearings on a tougher juvenile curfew. And Councilman Michael Berry has been a champion of White's mandatory freeway-towing program, known as Safe Clear.

Yet Alvarado's role is unique.

"Carol is the only one that I think he's going to ask to figure out if there's votes on something, even if that's not her issue, because he trusts her," said Berry, who took over the administrative duties in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem when Alvarado stepped down. "In some ways, she is an extension of the administration."

Alvarado has strongly denied any role in the $143,000 in bonuses taken by the employees in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem, who worked separately from those in her District I office. She has said someone forged her signature and schemed to hide the bonuses.

Even so, she was criticized for being lax in monitoring the employees in the office, which helps the 14 council members manage their payrolls, budgets and purchases.

Keeps coveted chair

But she still has the symbolically important chair next to White and has slowly been reclaiming her former role, even though she may never regain the title.

She first had to navigate the distraction of weeks of intense media attention, a cursory internal investigation that ultimately cleared her and some resentment among her colleagues over the negative attention.

It all wore on her.

"There was a certain sadness. Anyone who is betrayed by people that you're working with, of course it affects you. It affects your demeanor," said Councilwoman Sue Lovell. "But I don't think for a moment that it's stopped Carol from being an effective council member."

Alvarado also acknowledged some tension between her and White, especially as speculation swirled before she stepped aside as mayor pro tem while Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal investigates the bonuses and probes other city files for possible wrongdoing.

Publicly and professionally, though, the relationship seems back to normal.

"There's no doubt that there was a management lapse in the mayor pro tem office, and she's accepted responsibility for that," said White, who regularly chats with Alvarado during council meetings. "But she also is extremely hardworking and knowledgeable about government."

White knew Alvarado before appointing her mayor pro tem when he took office in January 2004. He said he selected her for her knowledge of city government she was an aide to former Mayor Lee Brown and because they agree on many issues.

Alvarado's removal from the office was said to be temporary, pending Rosenthal's investigation, which could drag on for many months.

He said last week that he hopes to finish the probe into the four employees's actions "shortly." As for the status of any probe into the activities of Alvarado or other city officials, Rosenthal wouldn't comment.

It remains unclear whether Alvarado will ever resume the pro tem post before term limits end her council tenure in January 2008.

"First, I would probably need to talk to the district attorney concerning whether or not investigations are open or concluded," White said. "And then talk to both council members Berry and Alvarado, and their colleagues."

Active outside Houston

Alvarado said she feels "urgency and anxiety" about finishing parks and infrastructure projects in her district, where she regularly attends meetings with civic clubs.

She is active in politics outside Houston, taking over as president of the Texas Municipal League, serving as an officer in Hispanic Elected Local Officials, and maintaining contacts in New York and Los Angeles.

Alvarado recently wrote U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to complain about what she said were inappropriate depictions of immigrants in a Democratic campaign advertisement. The ad eventually was pulled.

She wants to stay in public life and would prefer elected office, though some political analysts have said the scandal or any future allegations by prosecutors might complicate her efforts to seek a citywide post.

"Realistically, I think she may well have a successful political future in elected office, but I think it's going to be very difficult to run citywide," said Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, who taught Alvarado years ago.

Mayoral possibilities

Others think she still can get back on the political fast track.

"If she's able to rehabilitate herself politically, and I think she can, you're talking about somebody who could be a formidable mayoral candidate," said Jon Taylor, who chairs the political science department at the University of St. Thomas.

Alvarado said she hopes people judge her by her accomplishments, political experience and the vigor with which she has represented her constituents, not by a single scandal.

"We're all human. We all learn from our mistakes," she said. "From this, I will be a better public servant."

matt.stiles@chron.com