HOUSTON — A group called Government Crime Stoppers has posted a $2,500 reward for tips that lead to the prosecution of anyone in City Hall for violating open records laws.
The announcement of the award comes as questions have been raised about transparency in Houston city government, a criminal complaint filed against Mayor Sylvester Turner by a former investigative reporter, and the possibility that the Harris County District Attorney may be looking into the actions of Turner’s press secretary who hid 5,000 documents after a records request.
“From what we read, and in what’s been said there are some problems and allegations surrounding City Hall in the city of Houston,” said Perry Huckabay, who leads Government Crime Stoppers. “In an effort to try to get to the truth we put out on our website an offer of a reward for any information which leads to the discovery of wrongdoing in that area.”
Houston City Hall has increasingly become the center of press reports alleging illegal activity, such as: (1) failure to turn over documents by the Houston mayor’s press secretary related to sideline work conducted during City work hours, and; (2) concealment of public documents by City officials on a separate issue in connection with a $37 million, 20-year recycling contract.
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“The city works hard under state law to comply with all open records requests,” said Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein.
The missing 5,000 emails
The most prominent open records story to come out of City Hall recently has been the news that Turner press secretary Darian Ward was running a side business during her working hours — and hid documents in connection with that business.
When The Texas Monitor inquired about that business in October, she said she had 30 documents in connection with the request.
A city investigation found there were in fact 5,000 records, showing emails where she was working on the side with her production company Joy in Motion.
Ward was suspended for two weeks without pay when the incident was found out.
At a press conference earlier this month, Turner defended Ward.
“The matter is closed,” he said at the time. “It’s been looked at by legal, it’s been looked at by HR.”
Turner said he even went “over and above the recommendation” that his staff gave him for Ward’s recommended suspension. He also said he would not be forwarding this issue to the Attorney General, or the Harris County District Attorney, even though it appears state law may have been violated.
The emails are scheduled to be released soon to The Texas Monitor, a Turner spokesman said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will hand over to the District Attorney whatever is requested regarding allegations of misconduct against his press secretary.
“Whatever it is and whatever the D.A. needs, we will comply and we will be responsive,” he said.
A criminal complaint from former investigative reporter
Former longtime investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino, who now runs his own communications firm, has filed a criminal complaint with the District Attorney against Turner over another issue: a claim that the mayor uses his law firm server to conduct city business, and that he has been withholding emails.
In addition, Dolcefino has been asking for open records in connection with a $37 million, 20-year recycling deal. He represents EcoHub, a company that wanted the recycling contract, but which did not bid on it.
Houston City Council approved last week the contract with winning bidder, Spain-based FCC.
Dolcefino Consulting and EcoHub filing a lawsuit to compel production of records surrounding the deal.
Turner has refused to release the scoring sheets or the names of the city employees who chose the company, according to Dolcefino. The proposed contract with winning bidder FCC is being kept secret too, Dolcefino said.
Turner has strongly defended the city’s process of choosing a recycling company, and has said everything was done ethically and above board. He also said the deal began under previous Mayor Annise Parker’s administration, and he is well within his rights to review proposals that were launched under the former leadership, including EcoHub’s ‘One Bin’ proposal.
“What people kept saying to me is, ‘Mayor. This is a done deal. All you need to do is sign the contract,’” Turner said last week. “I said, ‘Tell me how this is the best interest to the city of Houston.’ I’m not going to sign something that didn’t originate under me, when there are some questions.”
Turner also said he, himself, did not know who scored the bids. In addition, he said, he is an advocate of transparency.
“In my 26 years in public service as a legislator, and you can go and talk to anyone in the legislature,” he said. “No one questions my transparency or fairness.”
Other Government Crime Stoppers rewards
Government Crime Stoppers has also posted rewards for information about conflicts of interest in the Harlandale Independent School District, the Donna Independent School District, and for information about sexual harassment and abuse at the legislature.
“We’re hoping to have some great results so we can have a good clean government, and government officials who do the right thing,” Huckabay said.
Encrypted and fully anonymous tips regarding the illegal actions of office-holders and other public servants will be collected online through the world’s leading tip solution provider, Anderson Software.
“Our goal is not only to assist authorities in prosecuting open indictments but also to expose corruption that might not otherwise be discovered,” said Richard Carter, an advisor to Government Crime Stoppers and the former executive director of Crime Stoppers International, Inc.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.