in Houston, Texas
steve miller
Rift at Texas’ cancer institute widens as more scientists defect
Monday, Oct 15, 2012, 11:44AM CST
By Steve Miller
cancer cells

If there are people involved, it’s going to get political. And if it’s government-run, ah, see the first point times 100.

The Associated Press writes of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a taxpayer-funded program, after filing an open records request for letters of resignation from key advisors to the agency.

It found that seven advisors resigned last week, claiming “suspicion of favoritism” in doling out grants and warning that the program is becoming subject to abuse.

“You may find that it was not worth subverting the entire scientific enterprise — and my understanding was that the intended goal of CPRIT was to fund the best cancer research in Texas — on account of this ostensibly new, politically driven, commercialization-based mission,” wrote advisor Dr. Bryan Dynlacht in his resignation letter, cited by the AP.

Another letter, from Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in Cambridge, Mass., said the program “was tainted by baseless accusations by members of the CPRIT Oversight Committee that our review of a series of multi-investigator grants in the spring was influenced by regional or institutional bias and the consequent failure to advance these grants for funding consideration in that cycle.”

Records show the agency spent 83 percent of its funds on grants in 2011, or $50 million out of $60 million in spending. The share dropped in 2012, to 41 percent, with the agency doing out $42 million in grants out of $102 million.

The agency was accused earlier in the year of awarding a grant based on commercial potential – the grand Texas tradition of making a buck – rather than scientific merits.

Weeks before that, the chief scientific officer for the agency, Alfred Gilman, said he was asked to step down by the agency’s executive director.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas was created by statewide voter approval in 2007, sold as a means of research and prevention and put on the ballot by the state legislature. The measure authorized the issuance of $300 million in bonds that would be paid by taxpayers.

As it moved through both chambers of the statehouse, there were several objections, including that of state Sen. Kevin Eltife, who said, “I cast a "no" vote on HJR 90 because while I support Senator [Jane] Nelson’s efforts to ’ fund cancer research, I prefer spending general revenue for this effort rather than borrowing money.”

Among those testifying for the bill was Lance Armstrong, the dubious king of bike racing. His Livestrong foundation received a grant from the state agency in 2010.

The recent controversy has prompted calls for reform. Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle he will file legislation to put more funding emphasis on prevention.

The board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas includes comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

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

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Photo of prostate cancer cells via the National Cancer Institute.

CareFlite paramedic, who broadcast on Facebook her urge to slap patient, loses appeal in wrongful termination case
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 09:25AM CST
By Steve Miller
facebook

It seems that slapping a patient being transported for critical care is hardly proper procedure. But that’s what CareFlite paramedic Janis Roberts announced on Facebook was her instinct regarding a difficult patient.

Roberts was warned by a superior that her post to a colleague’s page was inappropriate.

“I just wanted to remind you that the public sees your posts,” CareFlite compliance officer Sheila Calvert told Roberts in a message. “People outside of CareFlite and outside of EMS. In fact, my sister saw your  post to [colleague] Scott Schoenhardt where you stated you wanted to slap a patient and she thought she wouldn’t want anyone such as that taking care of her and made the comment that maybe she didn’t want to renew her CareFlite membership. People you don’t expect to see your posts do.”

"Yeah, whatever," Roberts replied, with the air of someone who didn’t need a job. "YOU weren't there. Whenever I have to have a firefighter ride in with me because of a patient's attitude, and I fear for MY safety, I truly believe a patient needs an attitude adjustment. Think about that the next time YOU correct someone!!"

You probably guessed what was next: Roberts was unemployed. She sued, of course, because this is Texas.

In her appeal she used a case “that considered whether the Texas Public Information Act required disclosure of the birth dates of state employees or whether the information was exempted from disclosure under a provision exempting information from an employee's personnel file,” according to a synopsis of the case on Courthouse News.

After a lower court ruled against her non sequiter citation and claim of invasion of privacy – on the Facebook thing - Roberts found more tough sledding in the appeals court, which denied her appeal.

CareFlite never had to do any digging into Roberts’ file or check out her past; it was there in the public domain, for all to see, on Facebook.

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

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Illustration by flickr user toodlepip, 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.

‘Nobody’s Women,’ a true crime thriller by Texas Watchdog’s Steve Miller, tells the story of the Cleveland Strangler and his victims
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 04:24PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
prison bars

You know Steve Miller for his dogged reporting on government here at Texas Watchdog. His work has revealed shenanigans in state and local government, officials’ conflicts of interest, and a first-hand account from a paid vote harvester.

Miller is also a well-regarded author of true crime. His latest book will be featured on Cleveland radio and TV shows next week.

Nobody's Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Serial Killer,” is described in this way on Amazon:

On a Thursday evening in late October 2009, Cleveland Police detectives arrived at the home of Anthony Sowell—an ex-Marine and a registered sex offender—to arrest him on week-old rape charges.

But this was no ordinary house, nor would it be a routine arrest.

For even though Sowell was not at home, officers knew immediately something was horribly wrong. After initially finding two rotting corpses inside the home, their investigation would lead them to discover the bodies of eleven women.

This is the shocking true account of Sowell’s legacy of depravity and cold-blooded murder. His mannered and well-spoken veneer masked a monster who felt no mercy for those he butchered. His twisted existence spent among the decaying bodies of his victims. And how he picked his victims from the fringes of society—lost souls with criminal records or drug habits that would make them less likely to arouse alarm if they simply disappeared.

But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be avenged…

So if you happen to be in Cleveland next week, tune in (show times below). You can also catch Miller on this recent installment of “True Murder,” (click player below) a Blog Talk Radio program hosted by Dan Zupansky that examines “the most shocking killers in true crime history and the authors that have written about them.” Here are those show times:

  • 6:45 a.m. Monday on “Fox 8 News in the Morning,” WJW Television.
  • 10 a.m. Monday on "Rover's Morning Glory, " WMMS.
  • Times TBD Monday on WEWS-TV and Tuesday on WDOK/WQAL.

Listen to internet radio with True Murder on Blog Talk Radio

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

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Photo by flickr user jellevc, used via a Creative Commons license.

Public schools in Texas ban fewer books, ACLU report shows
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 10:38AM CST
By Steve Miller
bookshelf

The number of books banned by public schools in Texas dropped in the past year dropped to the lowest in a decade, with the subjects of cursing, teen and race issues, illustrations and sexuality being the sticking points for parents, teachers and administrators.

The annual banned books report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas reports the drop, based on a mass open records request to more than 1,000 school districts. Both bans and challenges have dropped since 2007.

Most objections to book begin with a parent. From there the matter is referred to a review committee – 59 percent of them in 2011-2012 school year. The previous year, 50 percent of districts said the issue went before administration or the vague “administration or other.”

The annual report hits during Banned Books Week, which wraps up tomorrow.

Best-selling author Dean Koontz is among those whose books were banned. Books by Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Thomas Hardy were on the list of restricted books, titles where access was limited by age or parent request.

The Michael Moore movie “Sicko”, which promoted the national health care policies in Europe and Cuba, was challenged in the Edna Independent School District in South Texas by parents who felt the liberal political view was presented without debate. The issue was resolved when the teacher “also planned to show alternative side of issue,” the ACLU report states.

The school district in Allen north of Dallas banned “The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To,” by D.C. Pierson,  for middle schoolers, a book that was in the news recently when a student sought help in its meaning on the Internet and received a note from the author instead.

It seems a little tame in comparison to the unintended marking of Banned Books Week in 2010, when Texas developer Hiram Walker Royall sued an author for an unflattering portrayal of his use of eminent domain.

Royall was defeated in his effort to ban the the book by a state appeals court.

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

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Photo of bookshelf by flickr user zetson, 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.

UH professor’s high-flying expenses include $500 pens, luxury rental cars, thousands of dollars for booze
Wednesday, Oct 03, 2012, 02:05PM CST
By Steve Miller
Audi

The Cadillac tastes of a University of Houston professor are fine when he’s spending his $198,954 salary on his own. But a KHOU report uncovers physics professor Arthur Weglein’s fancy tastes even when the money he spends is the public’s.

Think $500 pens, and nightly rates of $535 at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and $567 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

He even rents Land Rovers and Audis when he has business in San Francisco, a city where a car is a liability.

Perhaps the most stunning part of the story is his utter lack of regard for the perceived overspending.

“I do things that are appropriate and serve this university,” Weglein said. Weglein told the news station that he needed the luxury cars to “navigate the steep hills.” Flying first class? Weglein has a doctor’s note saying “he suffers from back pain.”

In an interview with KHOU, Weglein clams up when it comes to his alcohol bills, $17,000 worth, funded by the Cullen Foundation, according to the report.

In fact, Weglein claims that most of the money he spends comes from the private sector, donations to Weglein’s research program at the university.

But if that’s the case, why is it that the pens - $8,000 worth of the finest MontBlanc over the past few years – have prompted an “ongoing investigation,” according to UH Provost John Antel.

Antel also said the days of the $500+ hotel stays are over for Weglein. Thanks to this report, there will be someone watching to make sure.

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

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Photo of an Audi by flickr user FotoSleuth, used via a Creative Commons license.

Chesapeake Energy has near-perfect win rate in mineral rights cases before Texas Railroad Commission
Wednesday, Oct 03, 2012, 11:38AM CST
By Steve Miller
gas flame

The land grab rights of Texas are legend, handed over to corporations fairly easily. Reuters writes another piece on the simple process of taking private land for mineral rights, using a couple from Arlington as a jumping off point.

Chesapeake Energy Corp., the story notes, has an overwhelmingly high success rate at getting approval from the Texas Railroad Commission. It has been rejected in its overtures for land rights in 5 of 1,628 cases since 2005, or .03 percent of the time, the story reports.

 

“Chesapeake has sought the most exceptions during that time -- almost twice the number sought by a subsidiary of giant rival Exxon Mobil,” the story reports.

 

The company obtains the authority under a state statute from 1919 called Rule 37, originally intended “to prevent excessive drilling of oil wells and to protect the mineral rights of small landowners, say legal experts.”

 

Fast-forward a century, and small landowners like the Arlington couple say they don’t feel very protected. The couple is not owed any money for the mineral rights Chesapeake secured under Rule 37. A commission spokeswoman says her agency isn’t charged with weighing the fairness of the law, but rather making sure natural resources don’t “go to waste.”

 

Indeed, the Commission has allowed Chesapeake to run over private land holders, a land grab strategy that Chesapeake itself brags about on its corporate Web page, speaking of its successes between 2003 and 2007:

During this time, we rapidly increased our acreage positions in these unconventional plays as we won what we have called the “gas shale land grab.” We believed that by winning this land grab, we could establish Chesapeake as the premier U.S. natural gas producer for decades to come.

It’s one thing to strike a deal, albeit a bad one taking advantage of someone, as happens a lot.

 

But it’s quite another when a corporation has an advantage at the regulatory level. We reported in early 2011 about the notion that energy companies run the Railroad Commission as the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission considered the need for the agency.

 

But the numerous complaints from the public fell on deaf ears, as a report on the commission failed to address a perceived coziness between big energy and the state.

 

***

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

 

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Photo of gas burner by flickr user c.a.muller, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas' screwy election laws: Voters in Texas claim unconventional residences; which cases amount to fraud?
Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012, 11:32AM CST
By Steve Miller
polling place

In early 2010, Alan John Lesselyong moved from his Dallas apartment to a FEMA trailer in the middle of 1,000 undeveloped acres in Denton County.

He did so at the behest of a group of developers to establish a board and approve $400 million in bonds that will be paid off by future residents, a hefty responsibility for Lesselyong, the sole voter in Denton County Municipal Utility District #7.

Lesselyong’s voter registration today shows the same address in Pilot Point, and he says he goes to the property frequently, though the trailer is long gone. His voting address is an empty lot, but he lives, he said, in the downtown Dallas apartment.

His case highlights the range of interpretation of Texas’ residency law, which defines “residence” as a place “to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” While Lesselyong has never been challenged about his registration, seven Woodlands voters, who also moved temporarily into a utility district for voting purposes, are under indictment by the state’s top lawyer for voter fraud.

Lesselyong registered to vote April 28 and 10 days later, on May 8, he served as election judge at a polling place behind his trailer.

“I opened the place in the morning and was there all day,” said the 33-year-old Lesselyong. “I got the equipment, followed the instructions and when the polls were open, I voted.”

No one else came by because Lesselyong was the only person registered in the precinct. By a landslide vote of 1-0, every ballot measure under consideration was approved. By the same margin, each of the board candidates swept into office.

All the district needed was a tenant.

“I met the directors at a dinner they held for us all,” Lesselyong said.

A few months after the election, two people – an 18-year-old woman and a 24-year old man – moved into a trailer not far from the one Lesselyong used to set up their own district. The two voters in the Denton County Municipal Utility District #7, renamed the Four Seasons Municipal Ranch Utility District, approved $292 million in bonds for roads and water infrastructure.

While Lesselyong was holding a one-person election behind his FEMA trailer, a group of 10 Woodlands voters were also getting ready to vote, encamped at a hotel inside the boundaries of their utility district. The Woodlands voters said they were frustrated that the board members had not been challenged in an election for a decade.

The Woodlands voters initially prevailed, electing a slate of new board members. The results were later overturned in court.

Seven of the voters have been charged with voter fraud by the state Attorney General’s office. Some of them say they believe that the charges stem from a well-connected cabal of influencers, beginning with state Sen. Tommy Williams, who aided lawyers filing the fraud complaint against the accused.

The state’s case is based on residency: “Defendant voted in the May 8, 2010 Woodlands Road Utility District Board of Directors election, when he knew he did not reside in the precinct in which he voted,” the indictment states.

The ringleader of the group, Adrian Heath, has said he got the idea from reading about nine Tarrant County voters who were registered to an office building, figuring that if an office building could work for voting purposes in the eyes of the state, so could a hotel. The Tarrant voters were registered to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s address at Alliance Airport, although they did not live there full-time. Three of the nine had homes in other parts of Tarrant and Denton County.

When the matter was called to the attention of the Secretary of State’s voting division, a spokesman said the residency requirement can be determined “by the voter.”

Lesselyong was in full compliance with the law as were the DEA-registered voters. He paid rent to live in the trailer.

Recent efforts to change the state’s residency law have stalled.

Jane NelsonJane Nelson

In April 2011, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed a bill to address residency requirements in municipal utility districts, requiring a one-year residency before being eligible to vote.

In a hearing, Nelson looked with exasperation to her fellow lawmakers for some relief.

“You understand the problem,” she said in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. “The people I represent are very discouraged. They think all of this is being done behind curtains. I want more transparency, and I don’t know how to do that. “

Joe Allen, of Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, a mega law firm that represents numerous special districts in the state, called Nelson’s legislation “a very damaging bill.”

He said developers are buying undeveloped land, “and there are no residents, and you simply have to have some initial votes to meet the constitutional requirement to have an election in order to vote these bonds,” Allen said at the hearing. “There’s no political subdivision in the state that are more scrutinized than these districts.”

He said any changes to the laws, including voting residency requirements, “will hinder home builders and prices in the state.”

The bill died quickly.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in 2010 that residency laws and voting were “something that needs to be looked at.”

 

“This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and I hope it doesn’t get politicized if anyone tries,” Bonnen said at the time.

This week, Bonnen said he was finalizing his legislative goals for the coming session.

“But to be candid, I’m a little limited this session,” he said, as he is wrapping up an appointment as chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission and has a number of other issues before him. 

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

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Photo of polling place sign by flickr user tychay, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas attorney general steers clear of San Antonio streetcar debate
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 02:44PM CST
By Steve Miller
streetcar

Is a streetcar line the same thing as light rail? The state Attorney General has declined to rule on the question asked by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who is battling officials in Bexar County who want to use special district funds for downtown streetcars.

Wentworth and a group of others say that a sales tax measure approved by voters in 2004 to create the Advanced Transportation District specified that the proceeds were not to be used for light rail, and that an effort to spend some of the sales tax proceeds on a streetcar project violates the referendum.

Supporters of the $190 million VIA Metropolitan Transit streetcar project, who say it will help with downtown development, claim that streetcars are not the same as light rail and therefore are fair game for some of the proceeds of the quarter-cent sales tax.

Wentworth in March asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to rule on the matter, after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff asserted in a letter to Wentworth and state Rep. Lyle Larson that the tax money could be spent on an urban streetcar project.

In his letter to Wentworth, Wolff said that “a light rail system is NOT the same as a street car system. Street car systems are slower than light rail, make more frequent stops, utilize smaller vehicles, and operate within the inner city.”

“I believe they are parsing words,” Wentworth said in an interview with Texas Watchdog. “They do have a contract with the voters. They didn’t keep their word.”

Wentworth noted that the top two proponents of the streetcar project are Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

In 2000, voters emphatically rejected a light rail system, 70 percent to 30 percent. The supporters came from the business community, the same place that much of Wolff’s campaign funding comes from.

Wolff’s contributors for the first half of this year include:

  • Bart Koontz, who owns and operates a number of development firms that have ownership in millions of dollars in Bexar County property.
  • William Sneckner, of Star 7 Properties, which owns retail store properties.
  • Sam Barshop, co-founder of La Quinta Inn hotels.
  • Dan Leyendecker and Derek Naiser of LNV Inc.,  a consulting firm and engineering company for developers.
  • Rio Perla Properties, which owns millions or dollars of properties around the downtown San Antonio area.

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

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Photo of streetcar by flickr user M. Ortiz Gallery, used via a Creative Commons license.

AG denies Houston Airport System’s request to keep secret an embarrassing federal review
Tuesday, Sep 18, 2012, 11:20AM CST
By Steve Miller
plane

Under protest, the Houston Airport System has released a federal review questioning the agency’s flimsy fiscal arrangements with the city of Houston, including payments for software that was never used.

A local watchdog requested a copy of the 12-page letter from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Houston Airport System. He first went to the FAA, which denied his request because the review had no signature. He then turned to HAS, which appealed to the state Attorney General, claiming exemption under section 552.116 of the Texas Government Code, which pertains to audit working papers of a state agency by a state agency.

In a letter ruling issued Aug. 14, the AG denied HAS’ request to withhold the review. The exemption the airport system cited did not apply to the requested records.

The audit at issue is being conducted by the FAA, a federal agency, not the state auditor or the auditor of a state agency, an institution of higher education, a county, a municipality, a school district, a hospital district, or a joint board. Accordingly, section 552.116 of the Government Code is not applicable, and the system may not withhold the submitted information on that basis. As you claim no other exceptions, the submitted information must be released.

The sternly worded letter notes that a $20 million contract between HAS and the Houston Police Department, entered into without any memo of understanding, opens the door to a number of accountability problems.

Also noted by the FAA is a $345,000 expenditure by HAS for three years’ use of the city’s geographic information system, which no one at the airport system uses because it is “inferior to the one already in use at HAS.” Same for the $100,000 annual cost of the city’s phone system - but that estimate is tenuous because “the city has not revealed the exact cost to the airport.”

And finally, the FAA voiced concern over the marketing expenditures of HAS with three local economic development agencies, with no invoicing. It asked for some help in order to understand the arrangements and for a more complete accounting of expenditures.

A Houston Airport System spokeswoman declined to comment on the report. Texas Watchdog has requested the HAS’s official response.

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

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Photo of plane by flickr user MichaelB in Houston, used via a Creative Commons license.

Tornillo ISD should beef up financial controls, guard against more ‘reckless’ spending by superintendent Paul Vranish: TEA
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 08:00AM CST
By Steve Miller
money

The superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District, Paul Vranish, benefitted by using his position to approve purchase of items that were not sanctioned by his contract, spent public money in a “reckless manner,” and submitted the same hotel invoice twice for reimbursement, according to a state audit.

The final investigative report from the Texas Education Agency notes financial lapses at the district and suggests at several points that Vranish may have violated numerous codes and laws.

 

The state agency examined $117,394 in reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, also employed by the district, in the 2011 fiscal year, finding $47,909 in questionable costs.

 

Several members of the district’s board of trustees and school system’s lawyer refute the state’s assertions.

 

"We are giving them feedback and expect everything to go away," said Jim Darnell, the attorney representing Vranish.

 

According to the state, which issued its final report Aug. 31, Vranish used travel for the district to earn frequent flier mileage points, then used those points for district travel.

 

“He then requests reimbursement for the miles used by submitting documents that show what that flight would have cost if the district had paid for a regular airline ticket, as well as the associated fees charged to use the frequent flier miles,” the report states. “Because the superintendent is charged with protecting the district’s assets and using them for the benefit of the district’s students, but instead used them in a reckless manner, he may be in violation” of several articles of the Texas Constitution.

Paul VranishPaul Vranish

 

Vranish declined to comment.

 

Among the other findings:

  • “PMV Services sold a 50’ DLP HDTV to (the Tornillo school district) for $1,200 in June 2007. The superintendent provided additional documentation regarding the self-dealing but this transaction is still questionable because it does not appear to be an arm’s length transaction.” PMV Services is a company owned by Vranish. In an interview with Texas Watchdog earlier this year, Vranish explained he operates it part-time as a certified board trainer for school districts.
  • Vranish “authorized a purchase order to purchase a cell phone for himself.” His contract provides that the district pay for his service, not his cell phone. Vranish also purchased a number of other tech items without the proper purchase authorization.
  • Vranish submitted two parking tickets for reimbursement, one at Houston’s Hobby Airport and the other at the El Paso airport. The tickets were issued in relation to a Texas Association of School Boards convention in which all travelers, including Vranish, rode together in a rental car. “Therefore, the reimbursement is questionable,” the report notes.
  • On several occasions, purchase orders were authorized after a purchase had already been made. Numerous items were shipped to Vranish’s home rather than his office, the report states.
  • Several trips were taken without an explanation of what they were for, and trips were reimbursed before they were taken.

See TEA’s analysis of expenses here.

 

TEA concludes the report by demanding new policies at the school district outside El Paso on the state’s western border. Among them, that the district implement new financial controls. The district must hire a forensic auditor to examine the district’s reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, Marla, for the years 2006 through 2011. The district must implement new measures to ensure Vranish reimburses the district for all expenses and ceases using his personal credit card for district-related expenses.

 

Records obtained by Texas Watchdog show the district has continued to defend Vranish. Several trustees in a March 9 letter claimed Vranish’s use of a personal credit card “was well known to everyone.”

 

“…Every year, auditors make a call to a trustee, private from the superintendent, to ask about board member knowledge of operations and possible fraud problems,” states the letter, which is not signed by the entire board but includes several past members.

 

Texas Watchdog reviewed a letter from Douglas Little, of the local accounting firm Little, Roberts and Company, refuting many of the TEA findings. The letter was written at the request of Darnell, Vranish’s lawyer.

 

Darnell calls the investigation and its reports “a crock of baloney.”

 

"I had a CPA go through the report, and he responds to every single one of the allegations," Darnell said. "We've got responses to every single one of the things they found. The report is sloppy to the point of incompentent."

 

In the April 23 letter, Little disputes the charges for the cell phone, saying the auditors ‘offer no argument why these items are inappropriate for Mr. Vranish’s job duties.”

 

He calls the auditor's questions about money Vranish spent to repair a snowmobile an “egregious overreach by the auditor” and says that a snowmobile – a 2007 Polaris - was damaged during a 2008 school trip to Colorado and that a repaid bill of $1,210.33 was put on Vranish’s expense report.

 

“Mr. Vranish owns two snowmobiles, a 1992 and a 1993 model which clearly do not match the description on the repair receipts,” he writes.

 

The school district’s lawyer, S. Anthony Safi, argued in an April 23 letter to the TEA that the selling of frequent flier tickets for district-related travel  “actually resulted in savings to the district.”

 

Safi also questioned the necessity of a forensic audit, calling it a “very significant, unbudgeted expense” that “should be left to the discretion of the school board.”

 

Safi did not return a call. Rachel Avila, president of the Tornillo shcool district board, did not return an email.

 

The TEA ordered the audit earlier this year after receiving complaints from several members of the school board, which is divided 3-3 in its support of Vranish.

 

Vranish resigned in January shortly after the news of the audit broke and received a $276,000 payout, which one report attributed to his contractual arrangement with the district. He’s still running the district, though, since he specified his last day would be June 28, 2013.

 

Vranish has previously left a top job with a school district amid controversy over expenses. He resigned in 1999 from the Lone Oak Independent School District in East Texas after an investigation questioning the district’s financial practices.

 

***

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


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