Houston Public Works employees shop, work side businesses on taxpayer’s time

Houston City Hall

Taxpayers scoff when they see road crews standing around, but the city of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering has workers who are far more creative. They shop, run errands, go home and work their side businesses.

All while they are supposed to be repairing streets and sewers for Houston taxpayers, according to an analysis of personnel records conducted by KHOU.

Consider utility worker Keith Perkins, who has spent up to three hours a work day the past couple of years tending to his horses at his private stable. Or field supervisor Carlos Ramos, who attended an auto auction to bid on vehicles for his side business while on the city clock.

There’s also meter reader Marcus Estes, who KHOU trailed one afternoon. Estes sat in a drug store parking lot for 20 minutes, drove his city pickup in and out of neighborhoods, headed to the Gulfgate Mall and spent about 30 minutes in a grocery store. Shortly after, he clocked out.

When KHOU questioned him about how he spent taxpayer time, Estes drove away. The department, which has fired some workers for slacking on the job, issued Estes a verbal warning.

"Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable," Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright said of such conduct. “The public demands and expects our employees to be accountable, and so we feel an obligation to make sure that that occurs.”

Department leaders call the employees’ behavior dereliction of duty and theft of time. The department turned to GPS technology beginning last summer to track the location of employees that it suspects of wrongdoing. The strategy has caught about 24 employees so far. Public Works is asking residents who see workers goofing off to snap a photo, jot down the details and send the info to the city.

Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of Houston City Hall by flickr user luna715, used via a Creative Commons license.