Houston Airport System overlooks high-ranking employee's blocking of public records request, lies to cover it up

Monday, Apr 23, 2012, 06:53AM CST
By Steve Miller
IAH Bush Intercontinental

A Houston Airport System official who withheld public records against the advice of city lawyers and then lied to cover up her misdeed was never sanctioned or disciplined, public records show.

Maria Fink, assistant director of human resources at HAS, prevented the release of certain personnel records for an airport employee as required by state law and violated other city policies in her dealings with a subordinate, a 2010 investigation by the city's Office of Inspector General found. According to correspondence from the city on a public information request earlier this year, "there are no records of disciplinary actions" following that investigation.

It's hard to tell if Fink's case is an isolated one. No one at the city contacted by Texas Watchdog was willing to address if there are any penalties for violating those policies.

Annise ParkerAnnise Parker

Airport Director Mario Diaz and Eric Potts, who was interim director at the time, declined to comment.

Mayor Annise Parker, who once claimed that her administration was “trying to be much more accommodating” to open records requests, also declined to comment.

Fink, a human resources manager at Enron in the late '90s, was paid $111,000 last year, according to records. She, too, declined to comment.

On Oct. 27, 2009, Texas Watchdog reporter Jennifer Peebles submitted an open records request for “any and all personnel records” for two airport system employees, Aleks Mraovic and Kelly Hu.

Beverly Roach, the point person for public records at the airport, emailed Fink as the records requested were in her custody. Fink provided some documents but not all, and on Nov. 5 Roach emailed her supervisor, Nancy Yue.

“This is to bring to your attention a misinterpretation of HAS’ requirement to fulfill an open records request for 'personnel files,'” Roach wrote. “Maria Fink has determined that the personnel file as it exist[s] is not what is being asked for in this request. …This action is not encouraged by our Legal Department.”

Roach included in her email the penalties for refusing access to public records.

“Ms. Peebles is scheduled to come in at 10 a.m. today. I have concerns about our handling of the request. …” Roach added that she had contacted the city attorney's office regarding the issue.

On Nov. 17, Peebles emailed HAS, accusing the airport of withholding documents in violation of the law and threatening action with the state Attorney General’s office. The AG in Texas has strong powers in policing open records violations, and has shown a proclivity to take such matters seriously.

“Several days ago I visited you at your office, and you granted me access to a few sheets of paper – mainly the internal City of Houston forms indicating an employee has been promoted, reassigned or had a change in pay,” Peebles wrote. “While the paperwork you allowed me to view is indeed responsive to my request, I need to make it clear that it does not fulfill my request to HAS for all of Mr. Mraovic’s personnel file.”

Roach forwarded the email to Evelyn Njuguna in the city attorney's office, asking for advice. She copied Fink on the message.

Njuguna was clear: “If the entire file has not been released, it should be released.” She later told investigators that the request was for specific information “and was not vague in what was asked for.”

Three hours later, Fink emailed Roach and advised that "as official custodian of personnel records of HAS, I will handle this request."

The OIG report shows that Fink continued to block the release of the records and discouraged her staff, and Roach in particular, from seeking legal advice in complying with public records requests. (Hear an excerpt of an OIG interview with Fink in the player at left.)

“The advice legal gives us is just that – advice," Fink told her staff in a Nov. 30 email. "We, as a division, weigh the risks of that advice and we (HAS management) will make the final decision on the issue. Legal does not make the decision. … We should first utilize our internal resources before we seek external help on HR and open records policies.”

On Dec. 2, over five weeks after the initial request, Peebles sent a last ditch effort email to gain access to the public records. State law requires government agencies to release records promptly and gives them a window of 10 business days to challenge the request to the AG. Peebles again asserted that the matter would be referred to the AG’s office if the records were not released.

The next day, several city officials had a conference call that included Potts, HAS employee Ian Wadsworth, Fink and assistant city attorney Don Cheatham.

In a taped interview with OIG investigator Don Williams, Cheatham said that during the meeting, a woman whom he presumed to be Fink “kind of got in my face, and I got back in hers over the phone. She just didn’t think they ought to do so-and-so and so-and-so, and I told her, ‘That’s fine, but she wasn’t a lawyer for the city, and I wasn’t taking legal advice from her.'

"She wanted to argue about it, and I said, ‘It’s not up for debate.’ You know, she acted like I was offending her.”

The files were eventually released to Texas Watchdog.

Peebles, who is no longer with Texas Watchdog, was part of a team uncovering a number of problems at the Houston Airport System the previous summer, including the creation of a nonprofit offshoot that was entangled in international development of airports using the Houston name without permission, as well as using HAS employees to do its work. At one point, the nonprofit refused to hand its records over to the city, which wanted to review the processes and work of the operation.

The wrangling over the personnel files spurred a lengthy inquiry by the city, one that investigator Williams portrayed during taped interviews as one that “keeps coming back like a bad penny,” and claiming that it was “one of my thicker case files.”

Williams compiled two-and-a-half hours of taped interviews for the Fink case, which also included some personnel issues. Six of 12 sustained complaints against Fink pertained to the open records case, three of which were violations of a mayoral directive that city employees be truthful during city investigations.

Maria FinkMaria Fink

In one interview, Fink told Williams that she had contacted the city attorney’s office on her own regarding the Texas Watchdog request. She said she spoke to Don Fleming, an assistant city attorney.

“We went to another area of the legal department…” Fink said. She said she was told that her “interpretation” was correct.

“…There were now two different interpretations,” Fink said.

Fleming, questioned by the investigator, said that he was never contacted by Fink and that his colleague Cheatham handles open records questions.

Wadsworth, a deputy director at HAS, told Williams that at one point he had a call with Potts and Cheatham, and that there was consensus that Fink’s read on the request was correct, and they would not release the whole file.

But the legal office had told them that the request was for the whole file, which should be released.

Wadsworth then directed Roach to obey Fink and release only the few pages to Texas Watchdog, according to tapes and documents of the investigation.

Wadsworth, who was found to have lied to an OIG agent during the inquiry, spoke to the investigator three times in just over five weeks in sometimes combative tones and at several points talked over Williams, interrupting him. (Hear an excerpt of an interview with Wadsworth in the player at right.)

Wadsworth misleadingly told Williams that the Texas Watchdog request “asked for all and any items in the personnel file relating to a number of things.” He initially said the request was read to him by Fink, then said he read the request.

Wadsworth called the request for the personnel records “somebody on the outside doing a fishing expedition presumably for the purpose of discrediting a city employee.”

“We have got to clearly comply with all laws and regulations from a [public records] perspective,” Wadsworth told Williams. “But I believe we also have an obligation to make sure we do what we can to protect our city employees, and therefore if as long as we’re compliant with the [open records] we don’t need to be loose in our interpretation, provide any more than necessary if that’s just going to hurt a city employee.”

Roxanne Butler, communications chief at HAS, told Williams that Fink was to blame for the entire episode. (Hear an excerpt of an OIG interview with Butler in the player below.)

Butler said, in a disjointed use of an old phrase, that having Fink handle a public records request for an HAS employee file ”would be like the fox watching the chicken hen, and when the farmer comes out the fox is now doing damage control. She needed to separate herself. … My feeling is, if one of my staff members is being investigated, I don’t get out front and try to be explaining it and showing it to the person who is looking it over. ... It’s Beverly’s job.”

Butler said she had to answer questions that were coming from Mayor Bill White’s office through spokesman Patrick Trahan after the threat to go to the AG’s office.

“His concern was, ‘Let’s get her the records.’ He wasn’t looking at the back end. He was looking at where we are now, and can we move forward."

Butler said at one point she, Trahan and Roach had a conference call.

During the call, “I wanted to make clear that Beverly is not the reason were in this position," she said. "The reason we are here is that someone else involved themselves in the process. [Fink] completely micromanaged the situation and messed it up. Maria caused the situation - I don’t know why. This FOIA stuff you can’t play with. If you hand the reporter five to seven pieces of paper, any reporter is going to look at you and say, ‘You’re full of shit.’ Then I became offended, and I said, ‘What are you hiding?’"

The OIG was clear in its findings: “The investigation revealed that Ms. Fink placed Ms. Roach in an untenable position by failing and/or refusing to comply with the request. The investigation revealed that between November 17, 2009 and December 1, 2009, Ms. Fink failed to comply with the Texas Watchdog Open Records request.”

The inquiry also determined that Fink misled investigators by claiming that Peebles’ Nov. 17 email was a clarification.

“The investigation revealed that the October 27 and November 17 requests both requested any and all personnel files and documentation concerning Mr. Aleks Mraovic," the report states. "Ms Fink was untruthful in her response when she indicated that Ms. Peebles modified her request."

There were other violations of city policy and mayoral directives by Fink, including several infringements of Roach’s rights as an employee. Wadsworth was found to be guilty of one violation, lying to the investigator regarding the city attorney read on the request.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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airport guy
Friday, 04/27/2012 - 04:50PM

Somebody should ask the director why he told his management staff at each of the airports at their monthly meeting that he didn't want to see any OIG investigations or the would be held accountalbe - looks like he doesn't hold his executive staff accountable