Altered Statements

Annual financial disclosure statements required of city of Houston elected officials and some employees are hardly the most revealing public documents for sleuths trying to follow the money trail in city government. Other than standard personal information like addresses and members of households, the form deals with personal wealth, which is couched in very general categories ranging from I, for less than $5,000, to VII, for $1 million or more. While the form warns that failure to comply fully with the filing requirements may result in prosecution, no elected official has ever been taken to court for a violation.

Poring over at-large Councilman Joe Roach's filing from last February, the most explosive information to be had is that he is president of a company called Dough to Go, Inc. Unfortunately for scandalmongers and municipal muckrakers, this is no offshore money laundering operation. Dough to Go is a bakery whose business address happens to be the Roaches' home on Wordsworth in the Rice University area. Perhaps there's an investigative scoop to be had in discovering who actually does the baking in the family or whether the business violates neighborhood deed restrictions.

And yet, more than a decade after a city ordinance mandated the statements, the information required was touchy enough to provoke someone to ask City Secretary Anna Russell earlier this year to not allow the public to view the forms before selected information was blanked out. Assistant City Attorney Helen Gross says several unnamed city employees complained to her, asking, "Gee, how much of this stuff actually gets disclosed to the public?" Gross, a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union Houston office, says she writes in the margin of her own financial disclosure form next to information about her children, "Please redact before disclosure."

When Russell declined to produce the documents for the Insider, the Houston Press filed an Open Records request with City Attorney Anthony Hall to get access to the unaltered financial statements. City lawyers responded to the Press request and others by asking Texas Attorney General Dan Morales for an opinion on whether all information contained in the disclosure statements had to be made public. In doing so, city lawyers cited a 1976 Texas Supreme Court case as the city's justification for withholding the financial statements. The request for an opinion currently resides in the Open Records section of Morales's office with no timetable on when it might be processed.

Hall himself contends the financial portions of the documents are public information, though he raised the issue of whether home addresses and members of officials' families and households could be shielded. The city's request for Morales's opinion stated, "While in ordinary circumstances, personal financial information may be afforded the protections of common law privacy, these financial disclosure statements are of legitimate concern to the public and should be available for public inspection."

The city attorney promptly faxed the Insider his own financial disclosure form.

As with the bombshell in Roach's report, the most exciting tidbits in Hall's extremely boring document are his less-than-$50,000 interest in Reed Golf Corporation and his position as Commander/President of the Galveston Bay Power Squadron. Hall, it turns out, is a sailor.

Instead of waiting for Morales's opinion, Hall said, Mayor Lee Brown and his department heads will also file releases with the city secretary allowing the public to view their unaltered statements. Civic snoops be forewarned: sizzling revelations are extremely unlikely.

-- Tim Fleck

 
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