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Houston preservationist J.P. Bryan has funded a legal battle against the city’s Downtown multipurpose arena and donated tens of thousands of dollars to El Paso City Council candidates in the last two elections.
In March, he reached out to Mayor Oscar Leeser — a recipient of a $5,000 Bryan campaign contribution three months earlier — in what Bryan said was an effort “to end all of this litigation,” according to voicemails and text messages obtained by El Paso Matters.
Neither Bryan nor Leeser responded to multiple requests for comment from El Paso Matters about the retired Houston oilman’s efforts to influence the mayor. A text message sent to Bryan by Leeser’s chief of staff, Estrella Escobar, said Bryan’s communication was “inappropriate.”
Escobar told El Paso Matters the mayor is unable to comment on issues associated with pending litigation.
It is the latest effort by the wealthy 81-year-old Houstonian to influence policy regarding a neighborhood and major government project in a city hundreds of miles from his home.
He urged Leeser to settle a Bryan-financed lawsuit that the city won before an appeals court in 2018 and the Texas Supreme Court refused to take up more than a year ago. He also urged Leeser to support a Downtown historic district that was opposed by many of the property owners in the area and now appears dead.
Voicemails and texts from Bryan to Leeser
Bryan’s first attempt to connect with Leeser was a phone call placed in what appears to be early March. The dates of the voicemails were not provided as part of the records obtained by El Paso Matters under the Texas Public Information Act and city officials did not answer questions seeking to clarify the timing of Bryan’s communications with Leeser. But the contact appears to have been in early March.
“I wanted to discuss the Duranguito in a constructive way, I hope, ” Bryan said in a voicemail, which El Paso Matters obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. “And see if now that we have a little change in leadership that you and I might have a conversation about how we can get this thing resolved in a manner that would be beneficial to the most of those people involved.”
Later, after apparently not receiving a returned call, the retired Houston oilman left another message for Leeser.
“I’m calling because I’m anxious to see if we could have a, possibly have a discussion about figuring out how to end all of this litigation around the Duranguito. And I think it needs to start, at least know that you’d be supportive,” he said.
Bryan also sent Leeser a text message on a Wednesday, which appears to be March 3.
“Oscar I sent you a text message earlier today that may not have gone through about the critical importance of your sending a letter to the Texas historical commission regarding your support for the preservation of the Duranguito. This is, I can assure you, is a request made solely to you in your position as mayor. It is your responsibility alone and does not require the concurrence of members of the city Council. I say this as a former historical commissioner and a lawyer If you have gotten any legal advice to the contrary it is simply not correct, I can promise you. I would very much like to discuss this further if you have the time please call me in the morning,” the text message from Bryan states.
A mayoral aide responds to Bryan
Escobar, the mayor’s chief of staff, sent Bryan a text message on March 5.
“The Mayor received your two messages. It would be inappropriate for Mayor Leeser to call you back as you have asked to discuss any type of settlement. If you are interested in settlement discussions, please have your attorneys contact our City Attorney, Mrs. Karla Nieman. The Mayor is not able to discuss pending litigation. Thank you and I hope you have a very nice weekend.”
Bryan bristled at Escobar’s message.
“Please believe me when I say your response is simply not correct. The mayor is not in anyway inhibited legally or otherwise from discussing a problem regarding the cities business. I have no intention of calling the legal department since they have always been the problem. I don’t know who is the mayor’s legal advisor but he is getting no wiser counsel than the former mayor got from his legal department. This is regrettable and ranks with her advice that I couldn’t contribute to any of those seeking election. A big part of the reason he was elected was to settle this dispute. That is what leadership is all about and that is what Mayors do. Karla Nieman is the problem – hardly the solution. But if she has an answer please have her call me Many thanks JP Bryan.”
It’s not clear if Leeser has had any other communication with Bryan since the Houstonian left the voicemails and texts.
How we got here
El Paso voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a $180 million bond issue to build a multipurpose event center, which the city later proposed to build in the Duranguito neighborhood in the Union Plaza area of Downtown.
The project has been blocked for years by lawsuits from Max Grossman, a University of Texas at El Paso art history professor who has been active in historic preservation efforts. Bryan has largely funded the lawsuits. Courts in recent months have rejected Grossman’s efforts to block the city from moving forward on the multipurpose arena project.
Bryan unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a settlement of the lawsuits in 2018 with then-Mayor Dee Margo and El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, El Paso Inc. reported. Bryan was a longtime supporter of the Tom Lea Institute, founded by Margo’s wife Adair, but did not contribute to his mayoral campaign, according to campaign finance reports. Margo lost his re-election bid to Leeser in December 2020.
Hunt was a major financial supporter of Margo’s in his two campaigns for mayor and his prior races for the state Legislature.
Although the Texas Supreme Court has twice refused to hear a lower court’s rejection of a Grossman lawsuit to block the arena project, the city can’t proceed with work because the 8th Court of Appeals has yet to rule on appeal of a 2019 district court ruling that lifted an order preventing demolition.
Leeser said in January that the arena was not a priority for him. He also said he wouldn’t seek to reverse the city’s opposition to including the Duranguito neighborhood in a proposed Downtown historic district. Bryan supports the inclusion of Duranguito in the historic district.
Bryan has previously said his interest in the preservation of Duranguito stems, in part, from other historic preservation efforts throughout the state and the financial impact it has had on other communities.
In a June 2019 column for the El Paso Times, Bryan said the loss of Duranguito would be a terrible loss to the city and the local economy.
Bryan’s campaign contributions
Campaign finance reports show Bryan has contributed $37,000 to various City Council candidates in the 2018 and 2020 elections. It’s the largest amount contributed by someone from outside El Paso in that time.
Documents obtained by El Paso Matters show that city Rep. Alexsandra Annello initially returned a donation from Bryan at the advice of the city attorney in September 2020.
“I appreciate your support. I am sorry to say at this time I must return your check. City Attorney, Karla Neiman, has told me that I am prohibited from accepting any donations from you,” the letter stated.
Annello said the donation was for $1,500 and she was advised by the city attorney that it might not be the best decision to accept donations from Bryan. Annello said that Neiman followed up with ethics training with outside legal counsel so all members of council could better understand what the campaign finance laws are within the city charter.
Neiman declined to comment. Annello said the outside legal counsel said council members could accept contributions from Bryan because he’s not a named party in litigation with the city.
Campaign finance reports show Annello later accepted two $3,000 donations from Bryan. They accounted for almost a fifth of her total fundraising during her re-election campaign.
Annello said her conversations with Bryan have been about historic preservation, but he has not asked her to take any specific actions.
City Rep. Joe Molinar, who received two $3,000 campaign contributions from Bryan, said he has not spoken with Bryan since being sworn into office in January.
Almost a quarter of the money Molinar raised for his campaign came from Bryan. Molinar defeated incumbent city Rep. Sam Morgan, who had supported efforts to build the multipurpose arena in the Union Plaza area.
“I have not had communications with that man. So there’s no letters, no emails, there’s nothing to say, ‘hey, do this for me.’ No quid pro quo, nothing like that,” Molinar said.
Cover photo: Fencing surrounds El Paso’s Duranguito neighborhood, where a plan for the construction of an arena has prompted years of lawsuits and activism by neighborhood preservationists. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)