in Houston, Texas
Texas windstorm agency withholds records that would shed light on consultant costs
Wednesday, Dec 05, 2012, 01:19PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
Hurricane Ike

A state agency so troubled that regulators took it over is complaining the costs of that oversight have become burdensome.

The $6.4 million a year, in part for outside consultants charged with helping turn around the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, is a “sore subject” for board members of the agency and state lawmakers, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports. The agency’s general manager, John Polak, points out that TWIA has no control over the hiring of those consultants and so cannot be held responsible for those costs.

Board members must have forgotten the fears of insolvency and allegations of mismanagement that led to oversight in the first place. All this outside meddling was brought about by the agency’s own bungling of claims following Hurricane Ike, which brought charges of fraud and a torrent of lawsuits.

Ongoing litigation costs stemming from Ike are expected to reach $2.5 billion, the paper reports -- or nearly 400 times the annual cost of the management consultants, who have recommended a restructuring of TWIA, reviewed legal bills and given legal advice to the board.

While board members are miffed about the mounting consultants’ costs, their agency could help shed some light on them by releasing invoices sought by the paper for Alvarez & Marsal, the costliest consultant of them all. TWIA joins the North Texas Tollway Authority, Lehman Brothers and the Central Bank of Cyprus on the firm’s client list.

But as one board member put it: “I still wonder what we are getting for the money.”

TWIA has appealed the newspaper’s request to the attorney general, saying the information may be proprietary -- a common but flawed argument when private companies do the public’s business.

Records released so far list six-figure costs for vague reasons like “special projects” and “additional services.”

By releasing the records swiftly and in full, TWIA would take a step toward rebuilding the public trust and maybe, just maybe, eventually being allowed to operate on its own.

***
Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of Hurricane Ike by flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, used via a Creative Commons license.

Government contractors resist Texas public records law with lawsuits
Tuesday, Nov 27, 2012, 12:04PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dome

People who work for your government and deal with your government would rather you didn’t know so much about your government. And they would like the law to reflect that view.

Don’t take our word for it. As many as half of the lawsuits filed with the Attorney General’s office come from government contractors who want to skirt the Texas Public Information Act, Amanda Crawford, the assistant attorney general for open records, told a Senate Committee on Open Government hearing Monday, Associated Press reports.

As we have been reporting for more than a year, the Austin American-Statesman has been fighting in court to determine exactly the taxpayers’ involvement in a recently staged Formula 1 race outside of Austin.

Circuit of the Americas, the company that made agreements with the state, Travis County and Austin to build its grand prix race track, has argued disclosing details of those agreements would compromise it in the marketplace.

Crawford told two-fifths of the committee (Chairman Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and vice-chairman Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, were there. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler and outgoing Sens. Florence Shapiro and Jeff Wentworth were not.) what she regularly sees are contracts drawn with government bodies who are allowed very little access to the contractual fine points.

If your elected officials don’t know what is going on, what are the odds that you will?

The committee leaders also heard from the staff members from cities pestered by what they refer to as frivolous open records requests. Camila Kunau, an assistant city attorney for San Antonio, asked that state law be changed to allow the city to charge more for those kinds of requests.

Kunau did not offer at the hearing to help lawmakers define what, exactly, would be a frivolous open records request, although we are relatively sure she would be glad to.

And, speaking of frivolous, there is the reflexive response of some local officials to being asked to abide by the Public Information Act and its companion, the Texas Open Meetings Act: going to court on the taxpayer’s cuff.

Crawford told the committee the city of Lubbock and a commissioner in Bexar County are currently fighting to keep e-mails about public business private because they were sent on a private account.

City officials we have come to call Furtive Fifteen have taken their challenge to the Open Meetings Act to the Supreme Court, after having lost in every Texas court that would have them.

And taxpayers in Austin are still watching the legal meter run after Travis County attorneys ran up a legal bill of nearly $350,000 trying to determine whether Austin city officials violated the Open Meetings Act nearly two years ago.

Terri Burke and Russell Coleman, speaking on behalf of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, reminded the committee the reason the public information laws in Texas exist is not to make life less burdensome for elected officials but to give the public information.

If the laws need to be changed, Burke told the committee, they need to be made clearer to those officials who are currently unsure. More information is always better than less.

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

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Photo of Texas state Capitol dome by flickr user coffee is for closers, used via a Creative Commons license.

Recall petition in Sinton, Texas, must be released, AG rules
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 02:00PM CST
By Mike Cronin
AG

The city of Sinton must release a recall petition, the attorney general has ruled. The city failed to show that the information could cause harm to a city employee or that its release would violate a law shielding the personal information of police officers.

Supporters of the petition want to recall three Sinton City Council members who “fired City Manager Jackie Knox without explanation Tuesday,” the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports. That was after an unsuccessful move to fire Sinton City Secretary Betty Wood.

Knox accused the city council members -- Mayor Eloy Lopez, Linda Guzman-Alaniz and Michelle Soliz -- of meeting in secret to arrive at their decision to fire him. Lopez denied any closed-door meetings.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Personnel records - like those of 4 fired Denton County prosecutors - key to keeping eye on government
Monday, Aug 20, 2012, 01:44PM CST
By Steve Miller
files

When four prosecutors from the Denton County District Attorney’s office were fired in June, the Denton Record-Chronicle filed an open records request for their personnel files.

On the 10th day after it received the July 2 request, Denton County, in accordance with the law, told the newspaper that it would ask for a ruling from the AG’s office.

But after the newspaper ran a story July 7 on the terminations, without the information from the files, the county withdrew its request for a ruling from the state. On July 24, it provided the records to the newspaper, which recounts the saga here.

Did the county stall as a tactic to obscure the story?

“The attorney general’s opinion was sought on the 10th day after the request, which is the deadline day,” notes a DRC piece dated Saturday. “The request was withdrawn July 24, the deadline day for filing a brief defending the arguments to withhold the files with the attorney general’s office. That gave the story the longest possible time to cool. But (the DA’s spokesperson Jamie Beck) said that was not the intention of her office.

“I can assure you that there was no deliberate attempt to use the open-records laws to circumvent releasing the records in a timely way,” she said.

Personnel records are public records, as has been decided numerous times by the state Attorney General’s office, with restrictions. These records are key to keeping the public informed as to just how the employees it pays are hired and fired, as well as just who these people are. Most people hired by a publicly-funded entity are informed that some of their information is public.

The Bandera County Courier used personnel records to shed light on a tangled mess leading up to the termination of a former sheriff’s deputy, Mario Hernandez.

The Courier has been crusading for months to obtain the details of a settlement made between the county and Hernandez.

It has apparently given up finding out the details -- the details of a legal settlement are well-protected in most states, even when they involve public employees.

Big stories have been broken via open records requests for personnel information; witness the case of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which handed over a Ford pickup truck and thousands of dollars to a couple of canned employees. The story was launched initially by a couple of tips, then this paragraph in an open records request:

All records, letters, correspondence and other communication related to the resignation or termination of Reggie Warren and Bill Knarr. This would include memos, emails, letters of resignation or other orders to Knarr and Warren regarding the end of their employment from TWIA.

The story led to a legislative investigation and the state takeover of the agency.

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

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Photo of file cabinet by flickr user shawnogram, used via a Creative Commons license.

College of the Mainland employees’ suit questions whether Texas open meetings law followed
Tuesday, Jul 24, 2012, 06:21PM CST
By Steve Miller
college

The College of the Mainland is accused in a lawsuit of violating the state’s open meetings act by failing to properly note discussion of employee layoffs in the agenda posting.

College trustees in a filing in the 405th state District Court in Galveston earlier this month contend they have immunity from legal action.

The employees’ union at the two-year college in Texas City sued both the trustees and the college in its June filing, asking for a temporary injunction on the layoffs until the court can determine whether the firings were done in accordance with the transparency law.

In a story at the time of the firings, which included 13 full-time employees including two faculty members, the Galveston Daily News reported the union’s complaint about the treatment of the terminated workers, some of whom were escorted off the college premises. The story noted that the layoffs “came as a surprise to many of those let go and were not specifically outlined on recent College of the Mainland board of trustees meeting agendas.”

The observation foreshadowed the legal action.

The union contends that the notification for the April 30 board meeting was not adequate.

The agenda noted the board would be discussing personnel issues, without any note of pending terminations. A meeting agenda a little over a year earlier used the same language regarding what would be discussed in closed session.

The Human Resources Committee went into closed session earlier on April 3 to discuss “possible action on reappointment list (s) professional, administrative and faculty personnel.”

A public hearing on the same day did not mention the terminations.

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

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College of the Mainland iused via College of the Mainland.

Would a dose of Texas-like transparency have opened the Penn State scandal earlier?
Monday, Jul 16, 2012, 04:07PM CST
By Steve Miller
penn

Texas is graced with some of the nation’s best open records access. It has an arbitrator of disputes in the state Attorney General’s office that, while we may not always agree with it, does its best to ensure the law is followed.

The Beaumont Enterprise makes an excellent point in an editorial run over the weekend, celebrating our state’s transparency while noting that the travesty of coverup at Penn State may have been prevented if the state of Pennsylvania did not have laws that shielded the university from the public’s right to know.

“Penn State and three other large Pennsylvania schools, unlike most other colleges and universities in the nation, are not subject to that state's open records laws. Because of this bizarre and inexcusable exemption, most records and documents at Penn State are not available to the press or public.

Simply put, the school was basically walled off to outsiders. A curious taxpayer or journalist would have a hard time learning anything that Penn State officials didn't want them to know. In turn, this moat around the university discouraged accountability from people like the president, athletic director and coach Joe Paterno.”

A piece at the Poynter website goes into more detail, breaking down how the system broke down, shielding Penn State and predator Jerry Sandusky. Then there is the unspoken idea that the corporate media could have hired its own lobbyists to make university records obtainable.

It’s something worth watching every legislative session here in Texas; lawmakers on the payroll of one special interest or another – recall exiled state Rep. Vicki Truitt’s bill to shield the names of public pensioners from scrutiny – will work to keep their client’s work from curious eyes.

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

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State Bar of Texas sues Attorney General Greg Abbott over records in investigation into misused funds
Monday, Jul 16, 2012, 09:53AM CST
By Steve Miller
Lady Justice

The State Bar of Texas is suing the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott over an open records decision earlier this month that gives a legal trade magazine access to records detailing an internal investigation by the state bar.

A reporter from Texas Lawyer magazine in April requested the records from the state bar, which is an administrative arm of the state’s judicial department, with regard to fiscal misappropriation of funds by a bar employee who is also a deputy clerk for the Texas Supreme Court.

The bar appealed the request, and the AG’s office ruled in favor of the reporter, telling the state bar to hand over most of what was requested with the exception of some information that was asked to be withheld by the Austin Police Department as it is part of an ongoing investigation.

In its suit against the AG’s office, the bar argues that while one provision of the state’s open records law permits the withholding of a completed audit or investigation of misappropriated funds under section 552.108 by a law enforcement agency, “it makes no sense” to permit the release of information just because it is related to the expenditure of public or other funds by a government body, “particularly when the investigation is not yet complete.”

It also argues that the AG’s ruling claimed that to be withheld, information must fall under the dictates of a mandatory exception to the open records law rather than discretionary. “There are, however, no distinctions drawn with respect to [open records law] exceptions,” the bar’s petition states.

It is rare for the AG’s office to permit the release of information relating to an open investigation. But the AG’s letter ruling is based heavily on legitimate public interest.

The state bar last year sued Abbott over a different ruling that granted access to records to a lawyer accountability group.

In that case, the ruling granted access to a number of records dealing with lawyer sanctions. The bar, in its legal action, claimed the AG’s office also made public “sensitive State Bar personnel memorandums.”

The state bar and Abbott also tangled in a 2007 case before the state Supreme Court that centered on the public nature of the home address and phone number and date of birth of members of the state bar. Abbott ruled that they were subject to disclosure. An appellate court ruled the information is not subject to open records requests.

The Austin attorney Jennifer Riggs of Riggs, Aleshire & Ray, represents the state bar in all three cases.

Riggs worked in the AG’s office from 1984 to 1992, and served for two years as chief of the office’s Open Government Section.

One of her law partners is Bill Aleshire, an oft-cited advocate of transparency and a hotline volunteer for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

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

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'Lady Justice' photo by flickr user Scott*, 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.

Secrecy will continue as Governor Rick Perry travels
Monday, May 14, 2012, 12:08PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
travel

District Judge Scott Jenkins did what the Texas Legislature didn’t do in the last session: allow Gov. Rick Perry to keep the records of travel for his security detail a secret.

The ruling gave little pleasure to Jenkins, who said in an Austin American-Statesman story last week, "It's a sad, sad world where we have to do this ... and it leads to less transparency."

Right or wrong, Jenkins was hardly capricious in his ruling. The lawsuit, brought by the state’s major newspapers, has kicked around the courts for five years.

In 2008 Jenkins ruled the public had the right to know what it was paying for when the governor traveled with a taxpayer-financed Department of Public Safety security entourage. The governor had argued the release of those travel records could put a governor’s safety in jeopardy.

The 3rd Court of Appeals upheld Jenkins’ ruling. The Texas Supreme Court vacated those rulings in favor of the safety of the elected official.

Last May, the Legislature considered but failed to pass a bill that would have kept those travel records private.

Chastened by the high court, Jenkins said he had little choice in his latest ruling. After reviewing some of the travel records, Jenkins said he could see travel patterns that might be taken advantage of by someone who meant harm to the governor.

William Christian, the lawyers for the newspapers, was saddened, too, by the ruling. "It's a sad day when every requestor (under the Texas Public Information Act) is being treated like Osama bin Laden," the Statesman says Christian told the judge.

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

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Photo of travel guides by Fickr user Venessa (EY), used via the Creative Commons license.

Houston Airport System official who blocked records request, lied to investigators, got bonuses and pay raises
Thursday, May 03, 2012, 12:19PM CST
By Steve Miller
planes

The human resources chief at the Houston Airport System received a $250 bonus the year she was found guilty of deceiving an investigator for the city of Houston during an inquiry into her withholding public records.

Records show that Maria Fink received the $250 payout in 2009 and 2010. An investigation concluded in June 2010 by the city’s Office of Inspector General cited Fink for failing to comply with the state’s open records laws in response to a records request filed by Texas Watchdog in October 2009.

The investigation found that Fink claimed she had received advice from the city attorney’s office that allowed her to withhold over 60 pages of a personnel file that was requested, but the specific attorney she claimed gave her that advice said she had never contacted him.

Instead, the city attorney’s office had directed her to release the information, which she initially failed to do.

Fink’s salary has increased 7.4 percent since her hire in 2009, despite the OIG finding, from $103,600 to $111,283.

Ian Wadsworth, who was found in the same investigation to have lied to city inspectors, also received bonuses of $250 in 2009 and 2010. His pay since the infraction has increased 11.4 percent from $155,000 to $172,776. Wadsworth is chief commercial officer at HAS.

Neither Fink nor Wadsworth was disciplined for their deception, which included violations of mayoral dictates, according to public records. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who took office in January 2010, has declined to comment on the investigation.

In December 2010, Parker removed the authority of the inspector general from the police department and placed it under the auspices of the city attorney’s office. Robert Doguim, a former FBI agent who was hired in December 2010 to head the OIG, resigned in February, citing a lack of authority bestowed by the city to his office.

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

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Photo of planes at Bush Intercontinental Airport by flickr user prayitno, 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.

Attorney General's ruling suggests trick for Texas agencies wanting to keep records closed: Just move them.
Wednesday, Apr 25, 2012, 01:19PM CST
By Steve Miller
lucy

Buried deep in this excellent narrative of a pursuit of a public record - in this case, the resume of a psychiatrist found guilty of having sexual relations with patients in another state - is a scary notion: Government agencies that want to hide records can stash them inside a file that is considered in previous rulings to be confidential.

The Austin American-Statesman did a series of stories on the state hospital system last year and among other things found that some doctors continue working while their cases are investigated, as well as discovering that doctors with shady records in one state can simply move on and practice in another.

We wrote about a similar case in which a Texas doctor complained to the cops that aliens were invading his head, yet he continued to practice in Florida. At the time, we were told that states often rely on news accounts to keep tabs on errants doctors. You can do some of your own reporting when it comes to doctors: For $10, you can get some kind of doctor history here.

Case in point for the Austin newspaper’s story was Gary Paul Kula, an Oklahoma shrink with a dubious past hired to work at a state mental hospital in Rusk. The reporters filed an open records request to gain access to Kula’s administrative personnel file, which includes work history. Unlikely to be released, as the story points out. But what is almost always fair game is the resume of a publicly-employed individual, be they doctor or electrician.

In a ruling last month, the story reports, the state AG’s office claimed the resume was in the larger personnel file and could not be released.  

The ruling was a rare misstep for the AG’s office, which is generally seen as friendly to the Sunshine cause. As the story points out, “the decision appears to violate several state Supreme Court rulings that make ‘clear that a routine business record such as the requested resume is not privileged simply because it is located in a medical committee’s file.'"

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

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Photo of Lucy from the Pacific University College of Education.

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Ted Cruz's first senate term in a nutshell The National Review's Tim Alberta switched to Politico, and one of his opening pieces put Ted Cruz's first term in a nutshell It...
Update:3 years 1 month
Rick Perry vs The World
Andrea Parquet-Taylor named KTVT CBS 11 news director Former KHOU 11 assistant news director Andrea Parquet-Taylor named Vice President, News Director for KTVT CBS 11 Andrea...
Update:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
VIDEO: KPRC 2 10pm newscast (1-24-99) ...
Update:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
Democrats actually thought Wendy Davis was a serious candidate? Hat tip to Willisms: VIDEO- Wendy Davis being Wendy Davis: https://t.co/SHq3ACGVDJ #txlege— Will Franklin (@WILLisms) January 24,...
Update:3 years 1 month
Rick Perry vs The World
Luke Bryan to sing National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI on FOX ​ Country music superstar LUKE BRYAN will sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LI pregame festivities at NRG Stadium in Houston...
Update:3 years 1 month
Mike McGuff
Tweets
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
"Patrick F. Kennedy is a career foreign service officer" - http://t.co/GOrCe0IS
Peter Corbett ✈ | 7 years 9 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 7 years 9 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 7 years 9 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 7 years 9 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 7 years 9 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 7 years 9 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 7 years 9 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 7 years 9 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 9 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 9 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 9 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 9 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 9 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 7 years 9 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 9 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 9 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 9 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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