Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officials said on Monday they would make public details about security costs, as well as potential settlements for sexual assault or harassment complaints. Less than a week later, they flip-flopped.
“We are postponing the inspection scheduled for tomorrow morning while we consider and pursue legal and appellate options,” Rodeo General Counsel Sherry Hibbert wrote in an email late Wednesday to investigative consultant Wayne Dolcefino, who had been seeking an inspection of Rodeo records.
Rodeo attorneys have been fighting for months to keep those records private. Last week, though, Harris County District Judge Steven Kirkland ruled that Rodeo records are public under the state’s charity laws. The Rodeo is set up as a nonprofit charitable organization.
“The Rodeo is going down a road they will not win,” Dolcefino told The Texas Monitor. “The charity law is very clear. They are a charity that takes money from the public. They have a legal obligation, and it’s criminal if they don’t do it, to give up their records.”
Rodeo officials said in a statement to The Texas Monitor that there have been “no settlements of harassment or assault litigation since 2012.” Dolcefino asked the Rodeo for that information spanning the years from 2012 through 2018.
The state’s charity laws, the officials said, “were rightfully created to hold charitable organizations accountable to the public… The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo expects to be held accountable and has nothing to hide.”
Dolcefino does not agree that the Rodeo has nothing to hide.
“It sounds like the Rodeo has decided to fight, which makes me wonder, ‘What are you hiding?’” Dolcefino said. “Fight me for records? There must be something good in there.”
Rodeo officials told The Texas Monitor they backed off on handing over the records because of some of Dolcefino’s statements.
“The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo planned to release the requested records this week to Wayne Dolcefino. However, upon attempting to schedule a meeting with Mr. Dolcefino to provide documents pertaining to his March 23 request, his response on Monday, June 18 stated that the Rodeo was ‘on an unfortunate course’ and promised ‘a long process’ with ‘voluminous requests for financial information,’” those officials said in a statement.
Rodeo officials said they want higher courts to determine whether Dolcefino is using the charity laws, in part, “with the intent to harass.”
Neither the “intent to harass” nor any other issue was mentioned in the Wednesday email the Rodeo sent to Dolcefino. The state’s charity law does not provide for an “intent to harass” as an exemption for making records public.
Dolcefino spoke with The Texas Monitor on camera. Rodeo officials declined an on-camera interview.
Dolcefino said he believes that continuing its fight to keep its records from public view will hurt the Rodeo’s image and immense popularity.
“What’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m asking for somebody’s Social Security Number,” Dolcefino said. “I’m asking for documents from the Rodeo concerning the safety of the people who go there.”
Dolcefino has called on Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg to bring criminal charges against the Rodeo.
Dolcefino has long maintained that he became curious about the Rodeo’s security costs and potential payouts for sexual assault or harassment complaints while investigating a rape in Liberty County that he believes is linked to the Rodeo.
From the beginning, the Rodeo has strongly denied any connection to the incident.
The rape occurred during the Los Vaqueros Rio Grande Trail Ride in 2012, which Dolcefino said 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. Rodeo officials disagree.
He is looking into this matter on behalf of Chad Pinkerton, the attorney representing the rape victim. The woman’s attacker was convicted and is serving time in prison.
In court records, the woman described being raped after she had passed out in her brother’s truck.
“While she was passed out, Plaintiff alleges that she was raped by Alvin Wesley Prine… Prine 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. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant was somehow affiliated with the event hosted by Los Vaqueros, which Defendant denies.”
It was because of this investigation that the Rodeo initially went to court to protect the records, arguing that Dolcefino was trying to get around the rules of discovery and “to create negative publicity in an effort to prejudice,” according to the Rodeo in court filings.
“The case for which Mr. Dolcefino is requesting information involves a sexual assault that occurred in Liberty County at a Los Vaqueros Rio Grande Trail Ride Association LLC social function in December of 2012, completely unrelated to any Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo function,” Rodeo officials said in a statement.
The Rodeo/public records issue, as well as the issue surrounding the lawsuit, has been hotly debated on the The Texas Monitor’s Facebook page.
“So the crooked lawyer says she was raped by a rodeo? Not the guy who was convicted? Go chase an ambulance or get a real job,” Facebook user Barry Martin wrote.
From Facebook user Tom Shawhan: “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 witch hunt to force Rodeo to pay a under the table payout.”
Many have also questioned why the Rodeo is reluctant to make records public.
One of those commenters is Ron Jennings of League City, who has attended the Rodeo in the past. He has been closely following the issue and spoke to The Texas Monitor Thursday about the public records aspect of the debate.
“They’re a nonprofit,” he said. “Their books are supposed to be open. “Obviously, they’re not operating as a nonprofit, so maybe their nonprofit status needs to be revoked. If they aren’t going to open their books, if they want to operate as a for-profit, they need to lose their tax-exempt status.”
The The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the largest in the nation, and runs for three weeks every year in the late winter. The 2019 Rodeo is scheduled to run Feb. 25 through March 17.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.