When it comes to making government records public, Houston City Hall largely goes by the honor system.
Last year a Texas Monitor reporter received a tip that Darian Ward, press secretary to two Houston mayors, was running a side business out of her city hall office during work hours and using her taxpayer-funded city email to conduct non-city business. The reporter asked for any available records in connection with any Ward businesses.
She initially provided 30 documents, which she got to select herself.
But her bosses became suspicious, and an internal investigation found 5,000 additional documents she should have provided, all of which she apparently had originally sent using city-owned computers and email addresses. The documents went back years, many of them for projects — such as pitching a half-dozen reality shows to producers in New York and Los Angeles — that would have been overseen by Ward’s company, Joy in Motion.
On July 23, investigative reporter Ted Oberg with ABC13 followed up on how Houston City Hall officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, respond to records requests sent invoking the Texas Public Information Act.
ABC13 sent requests for emails directly to the Information Technology department, which maintains and controls the city email servers. A representative rejected the requests and instructed us to instead send them to the mayor.
State law requires that requests go to whomever hold the records. Despite that, all requests were rejected and we were referred to the mayor’s office.
When we asked for the policy or communication related to how these situations are supposed to be handled, that request was rejected under the guise of “attorney-client privilege.”
Worse, many public officials, including Turner, maintain separate email addresses, sometimes on city servers, sometimes not. Emails that are sent or received from that private email address aren’t archived through the city system and are only turned over when a public official chooses to.
That’s exactly what investigative reporter Mario Diaz from KPRC Channel 2 recently found when digging into the emails of Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer. Icken has a hand in almost every economic development deal Houston is involved with.
During [a] February investigation into State Representative Jim Murphy’s lucrative deal as general manager of the Westchase District, Channel 2 Investigates obtained more than 200 emails from Westchase between Murphy and Icken. There were 23 emails detailing city business that came from Icken’s personal AOL account.
We asked the mayor’s office multiple times for the city’s copies of Icken’s emails dealing with city business, including personal ones. Each time, we were told there were none.
“I never had them,” Icken said during a sit-down interview at City Hall. When reminded that he sent them, Icken said, “I sent them and then they were deleted by my mail, by my email account.”
Only after Channel 2 Investigates informed the mayor’s office that Icken appeared to be in violation of state law did the city provide his personal emails, more than four months after our first request.
Brandon Rottinghaus is a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written several articles and books on political scandal.
“In general, the laws feel like they are organized to keep people from understanding what’s happening in government,” he said. “Government only works if it’s based upon information which people can understand, process and then use that for accountability. If we take away the ability for people to understand what government is doing, you’ve taken away a core tenet of democracy.”
Are there changes on the horizon when it comes to public records in Texas? Rottinghaus said no.
“Public records issues are obscure for most voters,” he said. “Politicians don’t prioritize it because there’s not any serious organized interest to reform it. There’s not a lot of appetite amongst elected officials to change the rules of the game while the game is being played.”
In a Jan. 3 press conference, after suspending Ward for ten days, Turner said that he expects custodians of records to comply with the Texas Public Information Act.
“Let me just say to you, we have the PIOs [public information officers], certainly it’s their responsibility to respond fully and completely,” he told reporters. “That’s important. Let’s say in my case, if I get a TPIA request, IT [the Information Technology department] automatically does all the work. They do it. I don’t have a say-so in it. They do it … . I expect the PIOs to make sure that these requests are answered completely.”
Turner communication chief Alan Bernstein said this week that the open records process at city hall is quite clear.
“Our general way of proceeding, which leaves room for some adjustments to be made on a case by case basis, [is that] if Joe Schmoe’s emails are requested, because Joe Schmoe is a city employee, Joe Schmoe is asked to produce all relevant emails,” Bernstein said. “And Joe Schmoe is made aware, counseled, instructed, however you want to say it, that it is not up to Joe Schmoe to choose which ones to turn over, unless he wants to risk being in violation of the law. If Joe Schmoe sees some sensitive emails that he believes might be exempted from disclosure, our response is, ‘Let’s see them.’ ”
Ward resigned soon after Turner’s January press conference. Turner also said at that press conference that his legal team had looked at Ward’s activities and determined that there was nothing worthy of sending to the district attorney.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg apparently did not agree. Ward now faces criminal charges, with a punishment, if convicted, of a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.
Ward’s attorney has told reporters that his client is not guilty.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.