HOUSTON — Darian Ward, former press secretary for Mayor Sylvester Turner, was indicted Thursday for her role in hiding records from a Texas Monitor reporter.
In the indictment, the grand jury said that as an officer of public information for the City of Houston, Ward “unlawfully, with criminal negligence, while acting as an officer for public information for the City of Houston … failed and refused to give access to and to permit and provide copying of public information …”
Ward’s attorney told reporters that she is not guilty of any crime.
In 2017, The Texas Monitor received a tip that Ward was running a side business out of her city hall office during work hours and using her taxpayer-funded city email to conduct business. The reporter asked for any records in connection with any Ward businesses.
She initially provided 30 documents. But an internal investigation found 5,000 responsive documents she apparently had sent using city-owned computers and email addresses. The documents went back years, many of them for projects done by Ward’s company, Joy in Motion.
Using her city email address, and often signing with her official city title and the city seal, she pitched multiple reality television shows to production firms in New York and Los Angeles. One would have featured astronauts’ wives, another would follow the day-to-day life of a former Texans star, and a third, called “My First Million,” was pitched as “Shark Tank in stilettos.”
None of the projects had anything to do with the City of Houston. It also does not appear that any of the pitches were successful.
When the internal investigation in December uncovered the emails that she had not turned over, and showed how much of her time she was spending on non-city projects, Turner suspended Ward for ten days.
She resigned in January.
Turner declined comment Thursday.
“Mayor Turner expects every City of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act,” press secretary Mary Benton said. “Questions about today’s grand jury decision should be directed to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The mayor is currently on a trade mission in South America, where he is focused on promoting Houston and growing business and cultural ties in Peru, Chile and Argentina.”
Attorney and First Amendment expert Joe Larsen said that while he was surprised at the indictment — prosecutions in open records cases are extremely rare, he said — he was not surprised that a public official might not follow the state’s public information act.
“We have, across the state, every single day, public information officers [who] are doing the same sorts of things, pretending they don’t have the information that they actually do have,” Larsen said. “They’re breaking the law somewhere in Texas every day. There’s no question about it.”
He said that in most cases, open records prosecutions would be difficult to prove. And often “political considerations” are taken into account, so that a district attorney may not bring a case that could damage a fellow elected official — particularly one from the same party.
But in this case, “with a Democratic mayor and a Democratic DA, it looks like partisan considerations appear to have been set aside in the pursuit of open government here,” Larsen said.
Ward’s attorney, Christopher L. Tritico, declined comment to this Texas Monitor reporter, noting that the reporter may be called as a witness in the criminal case against Ward.
“Because the law does not require that you turn over personal email, she could not have violated that law,” Tritico said. “I’m shocked and stunned, as is Darian Ward, that this case was true-billed today.”
Ward became press secretary under former Mayor Annise Parker in 2014. She remained in that role when Turner was elected.
If convicted, Ward could face a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.