By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Just a year earlier, Canton voters had approved a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for the economic development corporation and promote, in the broadest sense, business growth in Canton. Its board of directors was empowered to pick which job-producing projects it would favor with the sales tax dollars, which amount to roughly $495,000 a year.
Reese arrived as the first in line for a handout once the Canton Economic Development Board got down to the business of selecting projects.
He told the board--consisting of the city manager, two local bank presidents, a retired schoolteacher, a probation officer, and a real estate broker--that he was negotiating to acquire some telephone marketing equipment and form a "marketing-oriented business."
The minutes of that meeting, and several subsequent sessions in the board's ultra-fast-track consideration of the request, never mention the words "politics" or "candidates" or "Republicans."
At the first meeting, Reese got right down to brass tacks. He wanted the city to buy a 24,000-square-foot metal building--a former sewing factory near the center of town--and lease it back to him free for "two or three years." He said the building would need some repairs to its dirt parking lot and air conditioners that the city should pay for, and he said he'd like the city to pick up his electric and water bills too. He generously offered to pay his own phone bill.
Only six days later, Bob Alexander, the Canton board's executive director, was in front of the board at its next meeting pitching Reese's plan. Reese spoke too, explaining to the board how he anticipated employing 35 to 70 people in the first year and generating sales of "$2.5 million" by the end of three years.
Reese also introduced Bill Simpson--who was then making a name for himself in Dallas by videotaping the license plates of patrons to topless bars and sending word home to their wives--as his "operations manager." He mentioned in passing that "Dr. James Leininger of San Antonio" would be "a principal in funding the business," the minutes say.
On September 29, a mere 11 days after Reese made his first pitch, the board voted unanimously to buy the building at a cost to the city board of $315,000, contribute $60,000 in repairs, and lease the whole deal to Winning Strategies rent-free for three years. The city's board even took out and paid for insurance on the building, at a cost of $3,000 a year, according to a copy of the policy.
After the deal was closed in late December 1997, Winning Strategies was required to obtain a commercial liability insurance policy, and that document as much as anything confirms who is behind the company. The policy is issued to Mission City Management Inc. and Winning Strategies. Leininger is president and owner of Mission City, corporate records show. Lyles and Staffel are officers and directors.
Alexander, who did Canton's speedy research on the project, talks of the company in ways that are either evasive or totally naive. He says he thought at the time that Leininger was a "dentist in San Antonio."
"Now that we have reporters calling saying he's so-and-so, I don't think it really matters," Alexander says. "It's a financially stable company...I really don't think it would be proper to inquire into what someone does with their political money."
Alexander says he has it on Reese's assurance that only 40 percent of Winning Strategies' business is political. "They are a company that has political clients. The Republicans and Democrats are political organizations. The Heritage Foundation and those, to me those are political. This is a for-profit company, and to the best of my knowledge they have non-political clients." He says he has been in the "phone center," the boiler room where employees--many part-timers--work the lines, and he's heard people pitching commercial products.
He concedes that he saw intense political activity before the November election. "Brochures were stacked up in the print shop," he says.
Irene Patterson, an 80-year-old Canton woman who works part-time as a phone solicitor at Winning Strategies, says much of her work is for a commercial client. She sells estate-planning seminars. But on several occasions, she's done "educational work," as she puts it, and polled people about their thoughts on public schools and home-schooling. "They're doing some of that now," she said last week.
In reality, suggesting that Winning Strategies isn't a political organization--dedicated to furthering a political party and a cause--is laughable. The company is intensely political.
Besides having Fisher, the former Christian Coalition leader, on its payroll, Wyatt Roberts, president of the American Family Association's Texas chapter, is working for the company as a consultant, several GOP sources say. Last year he led the fight at the State Board of Education to divest the $46 million in Disney stock held by the Permanent School Fund because of complaints about the company's morals.
Bill Simpson, the Dallas political gadfly, is Winning Strategies' Dallas representative, according to his business card. A call to his Dallas number last week was transferred to Canton, where a company official said all employees were informed that only Reese could discuss the company with the Observer.
Last year, sources in Canton and in the GOP say, Winning Strategies worked for 30 to 40 political candidates--mostly in local and state legislative races. It was in local races that the company's impact was greatest.