in Houston, Texas
Marshall City Commissioners changing rules on their own travel, follows Marshall News Messenger investigation into spending
Thursday, Jul 28, 2011, 03:44PM CST
By Kevin Lee
luggage

Marshall City Commissioners are considering tweaking the rules governing their travel -- like, er, requiring receipts and expense reports -- in the wake of Marshall News Messenger reports earlier this year that the all-volunteer city commission has been busting its travel budget.

The commission is set to consider tonight whether to require such documentation of spending and also whether to change the per diem amount from a standard $100 rate to an amount determined by the IRS depending on the destination city, the newspaper reports. The commissioners passed a travel policy earlier this month.

City commissioners have a $28,000 annual travel budget, which they have blown through three years in a row, the newspaper found. Records gathered by the newspaper show that city commissioners overspent on travel by more than $10,000 in 2008; more than $14,000 in 2009; and a whopping $37,500 in 2010.

The newspaper found that some commissioners took their spouses along to a D.C. conference earlier this year, courtesy of the good taxpayers of Marshall.
 
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Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of luggage by flickr user o5com, used via a Creative Commons license.
UT Brownsville reins in employee talk about separation with Texas Southmost College
Tuesday, Jul 26, 2011, 02:59PM CST
By Kevin Lee

As the University of Texas-Brownsville separates itself from Texas Southmost College, one top official is clamping down on employee communication, the Brownsville Herald reported over the weekend.
The Brownsville Herald has obtained a leaked email allegedly sent by UTB-TSC Provost Alan Artibise on July 7. The email, titled “Media Relations: A Reminder,” asks recipients not to speak directly with (Texas Southmost) trustees and the media. It says that staff who face questions should turn for assistance to Michael Putegnat, special assistant to the provost for transition, or Letty Fernandez, director of news and information.

“Any queries should be directed to me, Michael Putegnat or to Letty Fernandez,” the email reads. “As separation moves forward, there will be instances where the media try to ‘stir things up.’ We need to manage this carefully.”
Fernandez would not comment to the Herald about the e-mail. The newspaper has filed a public records request with the college for the email.

The University of Texas System board of regents voted last year to terminate its partnership with Texas Southmost College. Earlier this year, Texas Southmost trustees approved a move toward independence; trustees who opposed the move were left out of a meeting with a consultant who was to direct the TSC transition.

In June, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law guidelines for the transition. The separation is not expected to be finalized until 2015, but initial steps are already being taken, including changes to renovation plans for student housing and UTB’s elimination of its open admissions policy over three years.
 
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Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo by flickr user Sarah G..., used via a Creative Commons license.
City of Denton pays out $200,000 to departing employees: Denton Record-Chronicle
Monday, Jul 25, 2011, 02:46PM CST
By Kevin Lee
cash

Five departing city of Denton employees were paid a total of $200,000 by the city in exchange for their promises not to sue or criticize the city and not to discuss the severance agreements publicly, the Denton Record-Chronicle reports.

In four cases, the employee received money to resign or retire. The fifth allowed (Denton Municipal Electric’s communications superintendent) to continue working for the city under a six-month, $7,100-a-month consulting contract involving “communications issues.”

No agreements have been offered since Jan. 31, according to the city.

Of the five former employees, one declined to comment, and three could not be reached, according to the newspaper. The fifth “said he couldn’t discuss the terms of his departure but criticized the city for not paying a worker’s compensation claim he filed complaining of on-the-job injuries.”

City of Denton officials told the Record-Chronicle that severance packages are used to “avoid rumors, liability exposure and protect taxpayers from unnecessary expense.”

The newspaper delved into the issue of severance agreements following the departure of a superintendent of Denton Municipal Electric. Former superintendent Terry Jones declined a severance offer of $21,000, then sued the city “over his claim that he was placed on leave and later fired for reporting violations of federal electric reliability standards,” the Record-Chronicle reported in May. The city has refuted Jones’ claim, and the lawsuit is pending.

The severance agreements were released to the newspaper under the Texas Public Information Act. The newspaper requested all release-and-waiver agreements offered by the city between Jan. 1, 2008 and Jan. 31, 2011.

Texas Watchdog has looked at severance agreements from the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, including a six-figure payout that included a pickup truck.

***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money by flickr user jtyerse, used via a Creative Commons license.

New felony charges against District Judge Suzanne Wooten, campaign manager, contributors
Friday, Jul 22, 2011, 06:40PM CST
By Kevin Lee
gavel

A new wave of criminal charges has been filed against Collin County District Judge Suzanne Wooten, her campaign manager and two other defendants who allegedly conspired to bribe Wooten and influence her decision-making on the bench.

A Collin County grand jury last week handed down nine new felony charges against Wooten and campaign contributors David and Stacy Cary and eight new felony charges against her campaign manager, James Stephen Spencer, according to the Star Local News.
The new charges stem from the judge's and her co-defendants' current legal battles with the Collin County District Attorney's Office over donations made by the Carys to Wooten's campaign through Spencer that prosecutors believe were used to bribe the judge in exchange for favorable rulings on the Carys' pending civil litigation in her court.

The Carys are accused of making deposits of $150,000 to Wooten for reasons "other than a political contribution" from Jan. 4 to March 14, 2008, according to the indictment.
Those contributions came in the run-up to the 2008 Republican primary election, when Wooten defeated longtime incumbent Judge Charles Sandoval.

The four defendants were indicted last year on multiple bribery charges. Wooten was suspended from the bench with pay by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of gavel by flickr user s_falkow, used via a Creative Commons license.
Express-News uncovers the bill on San Antonio officials’ trip to Israel to study clean energy
Friday, Jul 22, 2011, 01:29PM CST
By Kevin Lee
Israeli flag

Three San Antonio officials spent public money to pay for airfare and accommodations on a five-day trip to Israel to learn about that country’s clean energy and biomedical industries, the San Antonio Express-News reports.

The city of San Antonio bore trip costs for Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni. The San Antonio Water System paid for its CEO Robert Puente while CPS Energy footed the bill for Executive Vice-President and Chief Sustainability Officer Cris Eugster.

The trips for each official cost $3,700 for their tour packages and between $2,013 and $2,400 in airfare.

Mayor Julian Castro had his trip and accommodations paid for by the Jewish Federation of San Antonio, and Castro dipped into his campaign coffers to pay for chief of staff, Robbie Greenblum.

DiGiovanni’s girlfriend and Puente and Greenblum’s wives, who went along on the trip, paid for their own expenses, the newspaper said in its Thursday report.

Public officials can get their travel paid for through a variety of channels, from campaign funds and gifts from private individuals to the public dime.

Texas Watchdog has reported recently on state Rep. and Houston schools vendor Boris Miles, who has offered free trips to Costa Rica to trustees -- and to school officials across Texas -- and said he sees nothing wrong with it.

Texas Watchdog has also written on publicly-funded trips to Maui, disclosure problems that can keep the nature of official travel murky, and the poor policies that lead to high taxpayer bills for travel.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of the flag of Israel by flickr user Templar1307, used via a Creative Commons license.
Galveston Housing Authority’s handling of public records requests a disappointment: Galveston Daily News
Thursday, Jul 21, 2011, 01:40PM CST
By Kevin Lee
magnifying glass

The Galveston Housing Authority’s policy for handling public information requests is lacking when it comes to routine documents, the Galveston Daily News opined on Wednesday.

Daily News editor Heber Taylor, following up on an editorial from earlier this month, says the current policy is “disappointing” because it “does not outline a system for handling routine requests for records that are unquestionably public” under the Texas Public Information Act.

The flow of information is slow and burdensome for people who support the housing authority’s plans. It’s slow and burdensome for critics. It’s slow and burdensome for other local governments, such as the city of Galveston, which has tried to get information on the housing authority’s plans.

The newspaper reported earlier this month that the housing authority had responded to a Galveston city councilwoman’s public information request by asking her to withdraw it to save the agency the trouble of seeking an attorney general’s ruling on whether the records were public.

Among other things, the council member was looking for details of the agency’s plans to rebuild housing damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The Galveston City Council has repeatedly delayed a decision on whether to release millions to the housing authority to rebuild more than 500 public housing because of questions around the project plans and budget.

***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of magnifying glass by flickr user Images_of_Money, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston superintendent calls for $1 million to upgrade all-girls school where trustees president Paula Harris’ daughter is enrolled
Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011, 03:08PM CST
By Kevin Lee
money

Houston schools Superintendent Terry Grier is calling on district trustees to spend $1 million to fix up an all-girls school launching next month, the West University Examiner reports.

Grier has asked trustees to spend the money to upgrade the 86-year-old campus that will serve as the site of the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy.

The Examiner reports this interesting tidbit:
At least two of the students enrolled at the Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy aimed at high-achieving, low-income young women are anything but low-income: the daughters of board President Paula Harris, and her friends and key campaign figures Frank and Demetra Jones, who both do business with (the Houston Independent School District).
This is the same Paula Harris who voted on millions of dollars in contracts involving a close friend’s firms and later defended her actions.

This is the same Demetra C. Jones whose businesses have received more than $75,000 in no-bid work from HISD since 2009. Her husband, prominent Houston lawyer Franklin D.R. "Frank" Jones Jr., serves as Harris’ campaign treasurer.

Trustee Harvin Moore told the Examiner Tuesday that while he supports the school he said no to the request from HISD leaders.

“That’s not the purpose of these funds, and we have a lot of very urgent and overdue needs in my own district, where these funds were actually allocated,” Moore said.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money by flickr user yomanimus, used via a Creative Commons license.
Judge rules Lubbock health care audit a public record
Tuesday, Jul 19, 2011, 01:50PM CST
By Kevin Lee
gavel

A city of Lubbock audit that alleges a former health care provider misspent $8 million in taxpayer money is a document open to the public, a district court judge in Austin ruled Monday.

Attorneys for the umbrella insurance group now known as HealthSmart presented evidence in the daylong hearing, seeking to block the release of the audit that shows discrepancies in fees, rebates and other charges between 2004 and 2006.
The Avalanche-Journal filed a request in April for the city audit under the state’s Public Information Act. The Texas Attorney General ruled last month that the audit must be disclosed, but HealthSmart filed suit to block the audit’s release.

HealthSmart will appeal the decision, the Avalanche-Journal reports. HealthSmart was formerly known as the Ted Parker Group.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of gavel by flickr user s_falkow, used via a Creative Commons license.
Attorney seeks records of gas drilling site in Ponder, says town failed to produce them
Monday, Jul 18, 2011, 01:35PM CST
By Kevin Lee
file folder

The town of Ponder failed to respond to a public records request for documents related to a new gas well site, according to the Fort Worth attorney who requested the records.

The attorney, Jim Bradbury, has complained to the Denton County district attorney and the attorney general’s office, the Denton Record-Chronicle reports. Bradbury says the city did not respond to his June 15 records request or the complaint he filed last week.

Bradbury requested e-mail records, applications, public notices, and any documents identifying any city official paid by Devon Energy, the operator of the well.

Government agencies in Texas must produce records promptly, under the state Public Information Act. If the agency believes the records can be withheld, the agency must seek a ruling from the attorney general within 10 business days of receiving the request.

Ponder Mayor Scott McCarty told the Record-Chronicle that he had received the formal complaint but that he did not recall receiving the original public information request.

Ponder residents who live near the well site have voiced their displeasure, saying “they had no idea what would happen to the site, previously set aside for homes and a town park, until the energy company’s bulldozers showed up,” the newspaper reported. The Ponder Town Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a moratorium on new drilling permits.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of files by flickr user Tim Morgan, used via a Creative Commons license.
Charities, nonprofits court federal officials; former Rep. Chet Edward 11th on list of honorees
Tuesday, Jul 12, 2011, 12:19PM CST
By Kevin Lee
100 dollar bills

Former Texas Rep. Chet Edwards was courted by a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that sponsored a gala in his honor in 2009, according to a Sunlight Foundation report today.

Records collected by the Sunlight Foundation show the Paralyzed Veterans of America paid more than $530,000 to various companies in the fall of 2009, including a Washington D.C-based event organizer and a floral design company. The vets’ group held a gala to honor Edwards for his work on veteran affairs health care in September of that year, and has praised Edwards for his help on legislation.

All told, lobbyists for special interests contributed more than $50 million in 2009 and 2010 to nonprofits with connections to lawmakers and the executive branch, according to the Sunlight Foundation report.
 
Donations honoring Edwards totaled $570,000. The Waco congressman came in 11th on the list of honorees.

Texas-based companies Dell and ExxonMobil were in the top dozen of the contributors list, with Dell making more than $950,000 in payments, and ExxonMobil making more than $780,000 in payments.

Edwards, a conservative Democrat, held office for 20 years before losing to Republican Bill Flores in November.
 
***
Contact Kevin Lee at 713-228-3733 or kevin@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of money by flickr user AMagill, used via a Creative Commons license.
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