Criminal complaint filed against the Houston Rodeo in open records case

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(Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

A long-time investigative reporter has filed a criminal complaint against the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, accusing the revered and well-known non-profit of illegally withholding public records.

Specifically, Wayne Dolcefino’s complaint states that the Rodeo has filed a protective order in court to hide records in connection with what the Rodeo pays for security, as well as any payments to settle litigation involving harassment or sexual assault complaints.

“In this state, charities are supposed to make their financial records available for public inspection, whether they’re a little bitty charity or a big, rich charity like the Rodeo,” Dolcefino said. “No exceptions.”

Dolcefino — now an investigative consultant — is investigating a rape that he believes is linked to the Rodeo. He is working for attorney Chad Pinkerton in that matter.

“The law says that if the charity will not give you its financial records, you must go to the appropriate authorities and file a complaint,” Dolcefino said. “I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. The District Attorney right now has criminal charges against Cypress Creek EMS for failing to disclose charity records. I filed the complaint. I don’t want to burst the Rodeo’s bubble, but they ain’t so special.”

The investigator also said he has other issues with the Rodeo, such as the small amount of money the Rodeo provides for scholarships.

The Rodeo did not comment on the criminal complaint, but defended the fact that ten percent of its money collected goes to scholarships.

“First and foremost, the core mission of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is to promote agriculture, not to provide scholarships,” a spokeswoman said.

The Houston Rodeo does indeed promote agriculture. As the largest rodeo and livestock show in the nation, the NRG Center — where the rodeo is held each year — draws millions of visitors each year to see 30,000 exhibitors showcasing steer, sheep, pigs, as well as many other animals and agriculture displays.

But the Rodeo does boast of its scholarship program.

On the front page of its website, however, a link for ‘Educational Support’ is prominently displayed.

As far as the scholarships, the Rodeo states:

Currently, more than 2,200 students are on Rodeo scholarships, attending more than 80 different Texas colleges and universities.

The value of these scholarships is approximately $40 million. The Rodeo has presented more than 16,000 scholarships since the first scholarship was awarded in 1957.

But the amount of money going to scholarships seems low to Bob Martin, one of Houston’s best-known accountants.

“They take in about $120 million a year and about $13 million goes toward scholarships,” Martin said. “But it looks more like a concert venue that gives some money to charity than a charitable organization that’s giving everything to scholarships.”

Concerts, in many ways, are the mainstay of the Rodeo.

They are often packed. Anticipation in Houston rises to a boiling point in the days leading up to the announcement of who will be playing at the Rodeo.

At the next Rodeo, George Strait is scheduled to perform. This past Rodeo, Garth Brooks was the headliner.

Justin Bieber and Tony Bennett have made appearances — Bennett in 2000 and Bieber ten years later. Mary J. Blige has done three concerts at the Rodeo.

Just about any performer you can think of has showcased at the Rodeo, from the Jackson Five, to Naomi Judd, to Usher.

“A lot of people I think go to the rodeo thinking, ‘wow, I’m really helping out providing scholarships to people for every dollar I spend here,’” Martin said. “Well, people have to realize it’s only ten cents out of every dollar that goes to scholarships. If they really want to support scholarships they should give to a scholarship fund where a hundred percent or close to it would go to scholarships.”

From the Rodeo:

To promote agriculture, we produce an annual event that allows agricultural exhibitors to showcase their projects in the world’s largest livestock show and educates the public on the importance of agriculture. By offering a variety of events and activities that appeal to a highly diverse audience, we are able to attract, entertain and educate millions of visitors each year. With the support of a dedicated volunteer force of more than 34,000 and a full-time staff of a little over 100, we are able to accomplish our agricultural mission and also award scholarships and educational funding to the youth of Texas.

The Rodeo argues the vast majority of money does go to its charitable mission.

“Of our total spending, we are proud that more than 80 percent goes toward program expenses, which directly fulfill our charitable mission,” a spokeswoman said.

Dolcefino is probing a rape that occurred during the Los Vaqueros Rio Grande Trail Ride in 2012, which has long been associated with the Houston Rodeo. It is one of 13 trail rides that form to travel to join the Rodeo every year.

The ride was founded almost 50 years ago, its name an homage to the founder’s Hispanic heritage, the group has said. The ride each year starts at the border of Mexico and ends at the Rodeo.

According to court records, the rape happened when the woman was drunk.

While passed out, it appears she was raped in her boyfriend’s brother’s truck, court records show.

A man was arrested on sexual assault charges, and after a trial by jury in Liberty County, he was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

A Rodeo spokeswoman has previously said in a statement that there was no connection with the Rodeo and the trail ride.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

15 COMMENTS

    • Dorothy Brown Hoffman, the Open Records request might have merit. Saying they’re responsible for a rape on a totally separate event on the way to the rodeo is not investigative reporting, it’s a meritless shakedown by a 60 Minutes wannabe.

    • John Nickell it’s a charity that is TAX EXEMPT. It should matter to all who pay their fair share of taxes. I would like to know does the rodeo reimburse the city of Houston and Harris County for the police and sheriff protection. What about the fire fighters that are there are they reimbursed. That is coming from the taxpayers to pay for that if they are not reimbursing them. If they’re on the up and up they will open their books. You don’t open your books if your charity something too hide.

    • Misty Canada, the Open Records request, if proven valid, might have merit. Saying they’re responsible for a rape on a totally separate event on the way to the rodeo is not investigative reporting, it’s a meritless shakedown by a 60 Minutes wannabe.

  1. This doesn’t make sense. A trail ride, unless sanctioned by the rodeo, is a separate and distinct entity within itself separate from the Rodeo.
    The filing is nothing but a which hunt to force Rodeo to pay a under the table payout.

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