in Houston, Texas

E-mails raise questions about Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan's use of personal e-mail account to conduct city business

Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011, 08:14AM CST
By Jennifer Peebles & Steve Miller
blackberry

A review of e-mail communication by Houston city officials raises questions about whether City Councilman Mike Sullivan is using a personal e-mail account to get around the state's open records law.

Texas Watchdog found seven e-mails that Sullivan, representing Council District E, sent to Mayor Annise Parker from a private e-mail address, mike@mikesullivaninterests.com. 

When Texas Watchdog asked for all of Sullivan’s communications from the same time period, his office turned over a huge stack of e-mails -- but failed to include the seven from the personal account. 

Sullivan said that the omission of the e-mails in response to Texas Watchdog’s records request was simply an oversight. He said he possesses two Blackberry devices, one for his personal affairs and one city-issued. A number of elected officials and city workers are issued PDAs, or personal digital assistants, to be used in their work. 

“It was not intentional at all not to produce those e-mails,” Sullivan said. “I use on a regular basis just one device. … It’s more convenient for me. I don’t always carry the city Blackberry with me. Sometimes it’s on my desk, sometimes it’s in my console, and if I’m out somewhere, and I have a thought, I go ahead and generate the e-mail then, and I always have my personal device with me because of my daughter and my family.”

Among the e-mails Sullivan did release to Texas Watchdog last year were three in which the councilman forwarded an item to members of his staff but warned them in the subject lines or preface not to respond to the message and said it was being sent from his city e-mail account.

Speaking to Texas Watchdog by phone Monday, Sullivan explained that he was asking staffers to refrain from getting involved in the issues discussed in those e-mails, rather than asking them to be aware that anything they conveyed would be a public record.

“I have given them the authority to act in those areas, but there are some cases that come along where I say, ‘I will handle this myself,’ where I have an idea or a response,” Sullivan said. 

For one e-mail, Sullivan wrote at the very top of the message: “Do Not Respond to This. Being Sent From City Email Account.”

“Those are two separate sentences,” Sullivan told Texas Watchdog by phone. “They may not even be related.”

One of those e-mails was about removal of a street median, while another was about Parker’s executive order extending the city’s anti-discrimination rules to cover transgendered individuals. Still another forwarded several links, including a photo of Sullivan on a local news reporter’s blog, a news item about NASA, and another to a story on a city refuse ordinance that Sullivan opposed.

Sullivan’s District E takes in areas northeast and southeast of the 610 Loop, including Kingwood, where he lives, and Clear Lake. Now in his second term, his online city biography touts him as the city council’s most conservative voice. He also chairs the city’s Ethics and Council Governance Committee.

The problem of public officials shielding their official acts from public view by using private communication modes “is a growing problem across Texas that state lawmakers need to address during this upcoming legislative session,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of theFreedom of Information Foundation of Texas. (Honest disclosure: Texas Watchdog’s Jennifer Peebles is a board member of the foundation.) “... Regardless of which account or device an elected official might use to communicate public business, it is still the public's business and should be subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act."

Across Texas, including in Lubbock and San Antonio, public officials have used private communications channels but responded very differently from Sullivan, instead choosing to stand their ground and argue that the e-mails were their own private business, even if the messages contained discussion on public matters. In the Lubbock case, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has ruled that text messages sent by public officials on private phone devices are indeed public. Abbott ruled similarly in the case of e-mails sent by a Bexar County commissioner, and Bexar County responded by suing Abbott. 

While reviewing e-mail communication from multiple city officials over the course of the year, Texas Watchdog requested access to all of Sullivan and Councilman Jarvis Johnson's communications – including e-mail, text messages and private “PIN” messages -- between May 6 and May 14, 2010, and while also reviewing all of Parker’s e-mail communication with the 14 city councilmembers for most of 2010. Other e-mails were sampled from Councilman Wanda Adams.

In a January e-mail from his private account, sent just a few weeks after Parker took office, Sullivan says he’s concerned about the amount of money the city must spend to pay police officers providing security for “special events,” such as visits to the city by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He suggested changes to the city’s ordinances on the matter.

The mayor wrote back to Sullivan that his idea was excellent – but in May, Sullivan sent another e-mail from his personal account, complaining that Parker was leaving him out of the work to change the special events ordinance.

Being included was also the theme of a couple of other e-mails Sullivan sent the mayor from his private account.

In May, Sullivan e-mailed Parker to ask if he could stand on the podium with her and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett at an upcoming press conference marking the beginning of hurricane season. He also e-mailed Parker that month to ask her to allow him to come with her if she accepted Gov. Rick Perry’s offer to her to tour the state’s emergency operations center.

(Sullivan didn’t get to stand on the podium at the hurricane press conference, the e-mails show; Parker e-mailed him after the press conference to say she and Emmett had agreed to keep the affair small. The e-mails are unclear as to whether Parker ever accepted the offer to tour the state emergency operations center.)

In another e-mail from his private account, sent in February, Sullivan called on the mayor to make sure local contractors got some of the business to build new affordable housing in the city. And in March, Sullivan sent an e-mail from his private account lauding the efficiency of the city office that issues building permits, saying he was passing on the kudos from a local builder who raved about the quality of service.

Sullivan said that he will continue to use his personal e-mail account for city business, which is neither illegal nor unethical as long as those e-mails are provided upon request by the public.

“It may happen, yes, if that’s the device I have and I have a thought that needs to be reduced to an e-mail communication, then absolutely, yes,” he said. “And I will make every good faith effort to produce those e-mails when requested.”

DESCRIPTIONS OF THE SEVEN E-MAILS

E-mail No. 1
Date: Jan. 31
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Mayor Annise Parker, CC’ed to mayoral staffers Susan Christian and Marty Stein and Sullivan’s chief of staff, Monica Aizpurua
Subject: "Special Events Ordinance and Costs/Expenses"
Excerpt: "...Not sure if you have an opinion on this or not. While reviewing reports during my first term, one that always caught my eye was HPD's report on what they spent on supporting 'special events.'

"Special Events often includes supporting (the U.S.) Secret Service, for which we cannot seek reimbursements. However, providing security to the Speaker of the House while she conducts book signings or fundraising is something that we should not have to pay for.

"Special events that are enormous undertakings that require expensive undertakings are often (not) to (be) charged for city services, yet they make enough money to dole out to various charities. Is that fair to the average taxpayer?

"So, long story short, I would like you to look at the special events ordinance, with emphasis on how the city is reimbursed for its costs. An important component of that needs to focus strongly on HPD's expenses with respect to providing security, traffic control, etc, to special events.

"Lastly, if I understand correctly, if a special event obtains a city permit, then the current ordinance prohibits the city charging for certain services.

"Let me know if there is anything I can do with respect to this issue."

Parker writes back on Feb. 1 to mike@mikesullivaninterests.com, saying, “This is an excellent suggestion. There have been some recent legal rulings that suggest we need to revisit our parade ordinance as well. There have been some First Amendment issues that we have to be careful of, but a clear and consistent policy is important."

E-mail No. 2
Date: Feb. 26
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Parker, CC’ing Stein and Aizpurua 
Subject: "Affordable Houston Projects"
Excerpt: "I listen very closely to what you say. Since being elected, I have heard you talk about (in my words) 'hiring Houstonians first.' I have found a way to weave that into our normal course of business in my council office.

"As you know, it is that time of year when council members and others receive letters from developers regarding proposed affordable housing projects. I review each of those requests carefully and have an established process that I follow when considering the project."

Sullivan says that he requires each developer to "commit, in writing, to allow at least 5 local prime contractors to bid on the project. If the developer agrees to this requirement, he/she receives the highest consideration possible in that scoring category. If the developer does not agree to the requirement, then he/she is severely penalized."

He thanks the major for "your innovative ideas to lead Houstonians back to work. As a council member, I support your efforts in that area and will do as much I can to help you."

E-mail No. 3
Date: March 5
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Andy Icken, Parker’s go-to aide; CC’ed to Aizpurua and Parker and mayoral staffers Stein, D'Ann Marro, and Waynette Chan
Subject: "Compliments for Permitting"
Description: Sullivan tells Stein that local businessman David Boothe, owner of construction firm Landmark, had been "raving about the service he is now receiving from the city's permit dept. He said that the turn around on his plans is better than ever before. ... He is highly complimentary of the department."

E-mail No. 4
Date: May 8, 2010
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: City Attorney David Feldman; mayoral staffers Stein, Chan and Susan Christian; CCed to Aizpurua and Carolyn Lacye in Feldman’s office
Subject: "Special events ordinance"
Excerpt: "When I met with Annise Parker as Mayor-Elect, I told her I had a specific interest in working to improve the special events ordinance. She agreed that it needed to be revised and would let me work on it. Along the way, it appears that I wasn't included.

"When I brought this up at council 3 weeks ago, she inferred that I could participate. Since then, I've still heard nothing at all. ... If she wants me on it, include me. If she doesn't want me on it, let me know so I can go do something else with my time."

E-mail No. 5
Date: May 8
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Parker; CC’ed to Chan and Aizpurua
Subject: "Governor Perry"
Description: Sullivan asks to accompany Parker if she takes up Gov. Rick Perry's offer to tour the state's emergency operations center. Sullivan met the governor at a National Day of Prayer event at City Hall, and the governor told Sullivan he had invited Parker to tour the center.

Sullivan says, "I gained a great deal of experience in emergency operations working on both hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Mayor (Bill) White let me take important leadership roles during both events. I want to offer that experience to you during your terms as Mayor, and promise to represent you as well as I did Mayor White."

E-mail No. 6
Date: May 28
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Parker
Description: In an e-mail sent at 9:18 p.m. on a Friday, Sullivan asks the mayor if he can stand on the podium with her and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett at an event at TranStar for a press conference to discuss the coming hurricane season. Sullivan says the presser is 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Excerpt: "Since I was so actively involved with hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and worked alongside Judge Emmett and everyone at TRANSTAR at both events, I would like to stand with you at the presser. If you receive this email prior to the presser, just let me know if I can join you."

Parker writes back to his personal account at 6:19 p.m. Tuesday, after the presser, saying, "Sorry for not responding sooner. It was just Ed and I, with no other elected officials. We agreed to keep it small. As I indicated, though, you will be looped in as we move into Hurricane season."

E-mail No. 7
Date: Sept. 20
From: mike@mikesullivaninterests.com
To: Parker
Subject: "Engagement of UH/Rice for Redistricting Work"
Excerpt: "I've learned that you've decided to include (Texas Southern University) in the redistricting work that (the University of Houston)/Rice (University) was going to do. Could you share with me what they'll do and how much it will cost?"

Sullivan goes on to say he wants UH/Rice to take the lead on the redistricting project -- "There are no other institutions that can compete with UH/Rice. If we're trying to include other institutions, let's carve out some work they can do, independent of UH/Rice. I do not want to do anything that would lessen the importance of their work."

Contact Steve Miller at stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org or 832-303-9420. Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles and @texaswatchdog.

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Creative Commons

Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, we'd love to hear about it. E-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo: Blackberry Curve 8900 by Flickr user Honou, used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Jeff
Wednesday, 01/12/2011 - 03:46PM

This just seems petty. None of these emails were discussing secrete deals. I think the only people who really care about this is the watch dog group. The average citizen just wants to see work getting done and budgets getting balanced, it looks like that is what he was trying to do.

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