HOUSTON — Mayor Sylvester Turner was pummeled with questions Wednesday after it was revealed that his press secretary failed to turn over thousands of documents required to be released under state law.
Houston Press Secretary Darian Ward was running a side business during her working hours, records show. 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 not just 30 records.
Indeed, there were 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 and was back to work Wednesday.
Turner defended his press secretary.
“The matter is closed,” he said. “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.
Turner also suggested that the city should start running all similar requests through the city’s email server — which happened ultimately in Ward’s case — rather than allowing the subject of a records request to choose what documents to hand over, which is what often happens.
“I expect the [public information officers] to make sure that these requests are answered completely and fully.”
Longtime investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino was at the mayor’s press conference and said that Ward’s punishment should have been more severe.
“Darian Ward has become a weapon in the mayor’s orchestrated effort to keep stuff secret,” he said. “Misuse of city computers the last time I checked is a crime. This is a can of worms.”
Two city council members have also said publicly that Ward should have been fired.
The letter suspending Ward, written by her boss, Communications Director Alan Bernstein and dated Dec. 11, was strong.
“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the chief of staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task,” he wrote.
Bernstein also wrote: “The emails included proposals to, and signed agreements with film, and TV production companies for their consideration of your personal business ideas for reality shows.”
The emails also showed Ward’s involvement in “an intense and sustained promotional and development campaign” for a charity for which Ward serves as a board member, but the memo also noted, “The charity has no known affiliation with government functions.”
Press secretary’s hidden emails not the only open records issue
This is not the only City Hall open records issue that has raised questions.
Dolcefino has been asking for open records in connection with a $37 million, 20-year recycling deal.
A Houston City Council member postponed the scheduled Wednesday vote on that deal citing concerns.
The vote was to approve Spain-based FCC for the city’s recycling contract and comes in the wake of Dolcefino Consulting and EcoHub filing a lawsuit to compel production of records surrounding the deal.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has refused to release the scoring sheets or the names of the city employees who chose the company. The proposed contract with FCC is being kept secret too, Dolcefino said.
Some documents have been released in fits and starts. Some show that Turner confidante, Maya Ford ignored legal requests to see her records. Other Ford emails show she made allegations of possible ethics violations against city Waste Management Director Harry Hayes, according to Dolcefino.
Turner has strongly defended the city’s process of choosing a recycling company, and has said everything was done ethically and above board.
FBI investigating recycling deal?
Dolcefino said the FBI has begun interviewing former city employees involved in the recycling case, including the former Turner Press Secretary, Janice Evans, who fielded questions from the media about possible bid rigging in the contract.
EcoHub was finalizing a contract — its claim was it could save the city up to $40 million a year in garbage costs by recycling all the trash into new products — when Turner came into office and spiked the deal.
New court documents show the Mayor’s confidante, Maya Ford, ignored legal requests to see her records, Dolcefino said. In one email Ford called the court motion “silliness.”
“Any city council member who votes to approve this contract while the mayor fights to keep this smelly deal secret is making a choice that will haunt them. That is a promise,” Dolcefino said. “Council should delay this vote until the records are made public. Taxpayers have a right to know the truth, whatever it is.”
A court hearing to compel the records is set for January 30, 2018.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.