in Houston, Texas
Texas state House candidate Ann Witt sued over campaign website attacking Rep. Jim Murphy
Tuesday, May 08, 2012, 11:31AM CST
By Steve Miller
Texas state Capitol

Houston ad agency Rehak Creative Services has filed a defamation lawsuit against statehouse candidate Ann Witt, claiming that a Web site where she documents her opponent’s campaign donations amounted to libel of the agency.

A spokeswoman for Witt said that the site, How to Succeed in Government, is fact-based and will not come down. The Witt campaign has not yet filed a response to the claim.

And “there could be more to come,” said Ellen Witt, the daughter of Ann, who is challenging incumbent Jim Murphy in the Republican primary for state representative for the Houston-area District 133. Much of the information on the Web site was also disseminated in a Witt campaign mailer last month.

The portal attacking Murphy chronicles the work of his company, District Management Services, which includes a 2012 contract with Westchase District calling for a monthly fee of $22,491 in addition to other payments for consultancy and an upfront payment of $7,711. His title at the district is general manager, according to the district’s Web site.

The Witt campaign site also outlines the numerous Westchase contracts handed out to Murphy donors, including Rehak Creative Services, whose owner, Robert Rehak, has donated at least $7,000 to Murphy’s campaigns since 2005.

Other contract-holding contributors named on the site include executives with Phonoscope, BMS Management and Brown & Gay Engineers.

“Double Dipping. Skirting the Law. Bilking Taxpayers. Rewarding Cronies,” a banner at the bottom of one page claims in fairly standard attack ad format. The site went live in mid-April.

Rehak claims in its petition filed April 30 in Harris County District Court that the “Succeed” Web site contains a number of “defamatory and illegal statements and references” with regard to Rehak including:

  • “Material misstatements as to the amount of Rehak’s contributions to Jim Murphy’s campaigns, which were intended to and did create a materially false impression as to timing of such contributions.”
  • “Materially false allegations of a quid pro quo between Rehak’s contributions and a contract awarded by the Westchase District to RCS."
  • “Materially false implication that RSC and Rehak were unqualified ‘cronies’ of Representative Murphy, rather than being highly qualified to participate in the competitive bidding process that RCS won” in 2003.

The suit also alleges that the statements were published without an attempt to contact RCS “or attempting to verify the accuracy of the statements.”

“The action is meritless,” Ellen Witt said. “It appears to be an effort by a friend of Jim Murphy trying to discredit the campaign. It’s a flimsy effort to detract from the real issue.”

She added that “most people in this district have not been aware of the enormous salary that he is taking as a government employee and independent contractor. Our government is supposed to be about service, and he’s turned it into a cash cow at the expense of taxpayers.”

She noted that, as the site states, it is illegal for a state legislator to hold a second government job, but the law does not prohibit consultancy work. The site links to a query sent by former state Rep. Joe Nixon to the state Attorney General’s office asking if a legislator may also work as president of a municipal management district. Nixon introduced numerous bills regarding the powers of the Westchase District.

Texas Watchdog reported last month on state Rep. Vicki Truitt's no-bid contracts as a consultant to the public hospital system in Tarrant County.

Patrick Gaas, an attorney representing Rehak, said that the case was not political.

"I don't know Mr. Murphy or Miss Witt, and I personally don't have a dog in that fight," Gaas said. He had sent the defendants a cease and desist letter before filing the petition although the information was already out there via the mailer.

Gaas stressed, as the petition does, that Rehak was contracted before Murphy was elected, therefore the insinuation that Rehak's contributions had anything to do with the contract was false.

A proposal listed on the "Succeed" web site was finalized in May 2007, shortly after Murphy took office. The other documents regarding Rehak are production estimates from 2003.

Murphy did not return calls.

His campaign posted an item on his campaign Web site that claims Witt's attack is "false and easy to disprove" by stating that he was a member of the Westchase district board from 1995 to 1997, "served as the Westchase District President until 2006 and has not been a Westchase District employee since then" and was elected to the statehouse in 2006.

Murphy lost to Democrat Kristi Thibaut in 2008, but bested her 56 to 42 percent in 2010. His victory was due in part, ironically, to a hit job ad by the Republican Party of Texas that linked Thibaut to ACORN, a political third rail at the time.

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

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Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user eschipul, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
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Documents on Galveston councilman's potential conflict of interest withheld
Monday, Mar 19, 2012, 04:09PM CST
By Steve Miller
galveston

The city of Galveston refuses to hand over information it collected in determining if a city council member voting in a conflict of interest.

The city’s ethics commission announced earlier this month that Councilman Rusty Legg had no conflict when he voted on an issue regarding the Galveston Housing Authority. That’s the same conclusion the city attorney’s office reached in November.

Tarris Woods, a former city councilman who lost in a runoff election to Legg in 2010, appropriately asked the city for “all information used to provide a legal decision that Rusty Legg did not have a conflict of interest with GHA.” He was told by the city that the information fell under attorney-client privilege, although that’s not for the city to decide.That’s why the state has an excellent system via the state Attorney General.

And the Daily News points out that the report exonerating Legg was cited in a public meeting, making it a public record.

Some believe that because Legg is vice president of Charna Graber, a real estate firm that takes money from the public housing trough, he should have recused himself. Legg voted last year to give the housing authority $25 million to help rebuild some public housing, provided it not be done in areas with mixed-income housing. He stated that building in mixed-income areas would hurt the smaller property owners who rent to tenants with housing vouchers.  

This seems like an obvious case of abstaining from the vote to at least avoid the issue of a conflict.

Woods has referred the situation to the local District Attorney's office.

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

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Photo of Galveston Beaches by flickr user galveston.com, used via a Creative Commons license.

Panel disciplining judges shields records, withholds them from commission bound to keep them confidential
Wednesday, Mar 14, 2012, 01:19PM CST
By Steve Miller
Lady Justice

Not just no, but hell, no.

In this week of sunshine, there is one state government body that protects its own even if it means slamming a door in the face of one of its most esteemed colleagues.

The Austin American-Statesman writes that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct refused to turn over a number of records to the Sunset Advisory Commission during a routine review. Nor would it allows reviewers to watch proceedings, which are apparently top secret.

The judicial commission, which is in full hunker-down mode as it posts a notice of the sunset commission’s review on the home page of its site, oversees virtually all of the state’s judges, and cited attorney-client privilege and legislative dictates as it thwarted the sunset committee.  

This despite the fact that state law allows all records under review to remain exempt from disclosure laws, and the state Attorney General has ruled that all works reviewed by Sunset staff are confidential.

In its unusual report on the judicial body, the sunset commission acknowledges that the panel is not subject to the state’s public information or open meetings laws but adds, “This must be balanced against the public’s right to know that the process is working fairly and effectively when judges misuse or abuse the substantial authority they have been granted.”

The judicial commission, composed of six judges, five gubernatorial appointees and two State Bar appointees, has met in public 12 times in the last 10 years.

“[The judicial commission] refused to allow Sunset staffers to attend any of its private meetings. The Commission would not allow Sunset staff to attend its meetings to observe its process and its interactions with judges, complainants, and witnesses,” the report said.

The report goes on: “The Commission, based on its interpretation of confidentiality requirements tied to the oversight of judges, refused to give Sunset staff full access to its meetings and key documents used in its enforcement process. This decision impeded Sunset staff ’s ability to conduct a complete and thorough review, and thus, staff could not reach an overall conclusion regarding the efficiency, effectiveness, or impartiality of the Commission’s oversight of judges.”

In other words, the judicial group refused to cooperate. Who knows what might be found in the name of efficiency?

In the work it could do, the Sunset Advisory Commission found several inefficiencies, many based on the fact that the state Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction, has not updated the judicial commission’s rules for 18 years.

The sunset commission advised that the judicial body be reviewed every six years from now on, rather than every 12 years.

Seana Willing, executive director at the judicial commission since 2003, defended the secrecy. Willing, whose bar record states ethics as a practice area, told the Statesman that her commission offered to provide the Sunset panel randomly selected files about judges - albeit with identifying information obscured. "We copied and redacted dozens of files," she said. "They said, ‘No.' "

In its own self-evaluation released in September, the judicial commission stated that "a judicial office is a public trust. In order to function effectively, the judicial system must be assured of the public’s faith and confidence." But it also noted that "... judges rarely engage in criminal activity and most complaints filed against judges do not involve allegations of criminal conduct."

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

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Photo 'the shadow of justice' by flickr user jmtimages, used via a Creative Commons license.

State pursues voter fraud charges against Woodlands residents who registered to motel
Tuesday, Mar 06, 2012, 03:12PM CST
By Steve Miller
vote sticker

The case of eight Woodlands residents who sought to use a residency loophole in the state’s election law to gain representation in a utility district election in 2010 will go before a grand jury on Thursday in Montgomery County as the state pursues criminal voter fraud charges.

The eight, which included retirees, small business owners and trade workers, sought to elect some new members to the board of the Woodlands Road Utility District.

Because they didn’t live in the 2,400-acre district, they checked into a Residence Inn that was within its boundaries, claiming residency there. Three of their confederates placed their names on the ballot, and, thanks to the “new” residents, they ousted three incumbents who had fostered the district, which has the power to tax and issue debt.

The incumbents sued, and a judge ruled the votes were invalid, reversing the election. In October 2010, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office submitted information to the state Attorney General’s office.

The AG’s office has pursued criminal voter fraud charges over the past several years as part of Attorney General Greg Abbott’s crusade against the practice. Texas Watchdog has documented mail-in ballot fraud - a practice widespread in poorer, South Texas communities. Lawmakers have refused to address that issue, focusing instead on voter ID for in-person balloting.

A spokesman for the AG’s office refused to speak about The Woodlands case.

Meanwhile, a website assembled by a Fort Worth lobbying firm paints the group of eight as “Most Wanted” for their  work.

Adrian HeathAdrian Heath

The site, Montgomery Voter Frauds, was registered in January 2011 to the Radar Agency, one of several businesses run by Brian Eppstein, a political omnivore once profiled by Texas Watchdog.

The residents featured on the site, which includes photos from inside their homes taken as part of the action filed against them, recently discovered the site.

“When I saw the site, it looked like they were accusing us of being criminals,” said Adrian Heath, one of the residents.

Eppstein and his partner at Radar, Jonathan Rice, did not return emails or calls. Eppstein also runs the Eppstein Group, a political consultancy.

Eppstein has worked for a host of state politicians, including state Sen. Tommy Williams, whose district includes The Woodlands. Williams was a proponent of the Town Center Improvement District, which was legislatively created in 1993 and became The Woodlands Township in 2007.

The lawyer for The Woodlands Township is Mike Page, who also serves as counsel for the Woodlands Road Utility District. Page’s firm, Schwartz, Page & Harding, donated $5,000 to Williams’ political fund in 2009 and 2010.

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

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Photo of 'I voted' sticker by flickr user Sarah Korf, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
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, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Galveston releases list of candidates to be top cop (way more info than public gets from TWIA, school districts)
Wednesday, Jun 01, 2011, 05:06PM CST
By Steve Miller
police car

We appreciate the city of Galveston’s transparency in releasing a list of candidates for its police chief opening. Far too often, government bodies simply refuse to hand over the names of applicants for high-profile jobs.


Most recently, the beleaguered Texas Windstorm Insurance Association violated state law in its refusal to hand over the names of candidates for a leadership role.

 

A couple years ago, it took a state Attorney General’s ruling to get Port Neches-Groves ISD to hand out the names of applicants for a football coaching position.


And last year in Irving, the school district’s refusal to release a list of applicants being considered for its superintendent position sparked some racial strife in addition to blocking transparency.

 

The law was on the school district's side. State law requires school districts to release the name of the lone finalist, no more.

 

In the 81st state legislative session, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, introduced a bill that would to change that law and make school superintendent searches more transparent. The bill passed the Senate and then fell flat. A similar effort failed this spring.

 

Again, Galveston deserves props for releasing the list, which includes folks from Los Angeles, Honolulu and Costa Rica.

 

***

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


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Photo of police car by flickr user AV8PIX Christopher Ebdon, used via a Creative Commons license.

Former South Texas DA Joe Frank Garza pleads guilty, agrees to repay $2 million he took from Jim Wells, Brooks counties
Monday, Mar 07, 2011, 01:18PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
gavel

Joe Frank Garza, the former South Texas district attorney who paid himself and three of his staff members more than $1.2 million from drug seizure forfeitures, pleaded guilty to felony charges today in Jim Wells County.

Prosecutors for the state Attorney General’s Office said said Garza has agreed to repay $2.16 million to Jim Wells and Brooks, the counties he represented as district attorney, surrender his law license and pay a fine of $10,000.

Garza is scheduled to be sentenced May 6. Prosecutors are asking that he be sentenced to 10 years probation and to serve 180 days in the Jim Wells County Jail.

A Jim Wells County grand jury in August indicted Garza on charges of misusing more than $200,000, but Armando Barrera, Garza’s successor, determined through an audit that the actual amount was more than $2 million, paid to himself and to people in his office he referred to as "my eyes and ears in the community" between 2002 and 2008.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of a gavel by flickr user mrbill, used via a Creative Commons license.
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