Lawsuit aims to shake emails loose from Houston City Hall

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HCC Scandal
EcoHub CEO George Gitschel, attorney Stewart Hoffer, Dolcefino Consulting's Wayne Dolcefino

HOUSTON — A lawsuit filed Tuesday by attorney Stewart Hoffer is asking a Harris County District Court Judge to review the city’s conduct in withholding a slate of records in connection with the city’s $48.4 million recycling contract.

The lawsuit alleges that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner engaged in a pattern of secrecy to keep documents, including emails sent and received by city Solid Waste Waste Management Director Harry Hayes.

Hoffer, from Hicks Thomas, is representing former investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino of Dolcefino Consulting, who was asking for records on behalf of recycling firm EcoHub.

EcoHub is a company whose CEO said he believes that his firm was unfairly shut out of the bidding process for the city’s recycling deal. Turner, though, has said he has long believed that EcoHub was not the right fit for the city, arguing that the firms currently bidding for the job are trusted and superior.

“Rather than simply releasing the documents that would corroborate what Mayor Turner claims is a better deal for the residents of Houston, the City has instead refused to produce the requested public records, hence the need for this Petition and the hope for independent oversight,” the lawsuit reads in part.

“No one questions the right of anyone to file allegations in a court of law,” Turner’s Director of Communications Alan Bernstein said. “The city will respond to the allegations where they were made.”

Firm CEO George Gitschel claims that EcoHub can take in all of the city’s waste and recycling at zero cost to the taxpayer. He and Dolcefino seek to find out if city officials and the established, well-monied trash companies vying for the city’s work are too cozy with each other.

“It is our hope that a judge in Harris County Court will look over what the city has decided to do with respect to withholding documents that Mr. Dolcefino and his company have been asking for and determine if the city’s decisions comport with the law,” Hoffer said Tuesday. “This lawsuit really is about the public’s right to know.”

Dolcefino said he has been increasingly aggravated at what he describes as city officials keeping documents under wraps that should be publicly available.

“The documents we seek — for now, six months — can be released today by the city of Houston. What are they hiding this for?” Dolcefino said. “City Council should tell the mayor, ‘Let’s not move forward until all these documents are made public.’”

The city’s recycling deal has been surrounded in controversy for nearly two months.

In the wake of recent questions raised by members of city council over how Turner’s administration scored the winning bid, and about the secrecy surrounding the deal, Turner tossed out the winning bidder for the recycling contract.

The city’s top choice for the recycling contract had been Spain-based Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, widely known in the U.S. as FCC.

The four firms who are on the hunt again to present the best deal are FCC, Republic Services, Waste Management Inc., and Independent Texas Recyclers.

Eco-Hub was not invited to participate in the re-bid.

See other Texas Monitor reports on the Houston recycling deal here:

Houston mayor reverses course on recycling deal

Houston trash deal vote delayed amid questions over transparency, pricing

Houston’s trash deal smells, wants probe into possible bid rigging, recycling inventor says

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.

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