City E-mail Endorses Terrorism

Controller is appalled at the inaction of Mayor Brown

On September 12, almost exactly 24 hours after terrorists slammed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an accountant in the Houston city controller's office sat at his keyboard and typed a gloating e-mail to a friend in the city legal department.

"What's your take on this bombing?" asked the sender, a slight 30-year-old man of Pakistani descent. He went on to offer his view:

"I say it's great and wonderful and probably the best thing I've seen in my life.

"The world got what it deserved.

"Persons are rotten, evil, and thrash [sic] so this is what happens when they act like that and I hope a full scale war breaks out over this."

The author got his wish and more. As military action raged later in Afghanistan, his leaked e-mail provoked a bureaucratic battle at City Hall that led to his resignation. After the worker left, superiors found that his computer contained prurient e-mails suggesting he had solicited and purchased sexual favors from a female legal department secretary.

Although the recipient of the original e-mail was his confidante, she found the terrorism message alarming enough to turn it over to her supervisor, Connie Acosta, the section chief of the department's labor division. And there the matter apparently rested for two weeks, until a staffer for Controller Sylvia Garcia was forwarded a copy of the e-mail and alerted her boss.

"I was very offended by it," recalls Garcia. "I thought it was sentiments of hate that, particularly when written the morning after such a tragic event, were very offensive and inappropriate for an employee of the city, being done on city time and using city property."

Top controller officials were stunned that in the heightened security following the attacks, Acosta had not bothered to alert them or City Attorney Anthony Hall about the e-mail.

"You can't print my reaction," says Garcia. "I was very disappointed in the lack of any response from anyone in legal, and the fact they didn't bother to tell us even though it was one of our own employees."

The sender was in the sensitive position of reconciling city bank accounts, and the controller believes the sentiments in the message raised issues of potential diversion of city funds and office security.

Garcia immediately put the employee on paid administrative leave and pressed for his firing. Her staffers notified Mayor Lee Brown's security team, which in turn contacted Police Chief Clarence Bradford. Police criminal intelligence officers launched an investigation, in conjunction with the FBI's antiterrorism task force. City Inspector General Tim Oettmeier also was alerted.

The controller then sent the mayor a memo requesting that he fire the employee, who could not be terminated from his civil service job without approval of the city's top executive.

She met with Acosta and First Assistant City Attorney Susan Taylor, who informed the controller that the employee was simply exercising freedom of speech and had committed no violations. According to City Hall sources, the two lawyers treated the matter as frivolous. They advised Garcia that "If we allow you to terminate this gentleman we will have to terminate everyone who sent an e-mail saying 'God Bless America.' " They refused to draft a memo seeking his termination and said the mayor would not sign it because the action would not be supported by law.

The controller pointed to city policy that specifically forbids "using Internet access for non-business related purposes or activities inappropriate or generally offensive in the workplace." She took her case to Brown and Hall, who both supported the legal department's position of doing nothing.

Determined to get the man out of her office, Garcia launched her own investigation. An examination of the hard drive on the employee's office computer revealed a series of deleted files containing pornography-laced e-mails.

There was a May 3 message to the woman who later received the e-mail celebrating terrorism. The man, however, had a very different subject in mind in the earlier note:

"find me a girl

I want absolutely to pay no more than $75

I don't care what color or religion

I don't want no relationship- just sex

I want girl to have weight and be pretty."

He concluded, "If she likes TV, it would be a plus."

On June 14 the man's computer correspondence indicated he'd found a satisfactory candidate for sex:

"I want to do it

But ------ needs to know I never did it and I'll need help.

Also, tell her to call me tonight if possible cause I have to make my weekend plans."

Four days later the employee sent his legal department pal an e-mail titled "read in private." It detailed a consummated liaison with the secretary he'd named in the previous message. He graphically described the sexual encounter, which left him distinctly unimpressed:

"It was not as enjoyable as persons say

Sex movie was playing while we did it and bought condoms- she chose movie

It gave a different feeling when I c- but its no big deal

I will never have sex again in my life

I needed my curiosity satisfied

And now it's satisfied, I can get more fun by watching a Disney movie

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