Houston Press vs. Memorial Hermann Hospital System; Red Bull vs. Roaring Lion

Hiding info? Blame the temp

We live to serve here at the Houston Press. But that philosophy can occasionally lead us down some very twisty trails.

A reader had a seemingly simple request: He wanted to know who was on the board of directors for the Memorial Hermann Hospital System, one of Houston's most well-known entities.

The Web site offered no help, he said. The system's public information office would only provide the names of the chairman and president.

Huh? It's a public, nonprofit corporation. They can't hide that info, we thought.

It turns out, however, that they sure can try to hide it.

A call to the media relations office got this response, from someone who had checked with higher-ups: "We are a private company. The list of the board of directors is not released to the public. I'm not able to give that to you."

Our response was — to use a sophisticated journalism term — WTF? "I spoke to my supervisor, and that's the information she told me." (Her supervisor, she said, was Beth Sartori.) We asked if we could get a further explanation for not releasing the list.

Before that moment, we could have lived our entire lives, content with not giving a shit who was on Memorial Hermann's board of directors. Now we had to find out.

The Internal Revenue Service was unhelpful, shockingly. They directed us to Guidestar, a private Web site with financial information on nonprofit groups. Guidestar only had the 2006 board ­members.

Over the next few days, Press reporter Craig Malisow began calling the folks on that 2006 list, without much luck. Emily Tinsley, whose Baylor University alumni bio says she is "a homemaker and an active volunteer," said, "I'm certainly not in a position" to give a list of members.

"I really think that's not my place," she said.

Another, retired oilman Robert ­Croyle, said, "I can't help you with that. You'll have to talk to Memorial Hermann."

(At this point we got a call from another Memorial spokeswoman, who said Beth Sartori was "right across the hall" and she would check with her on our "further explanation" request.)

Eventually two board members were helpful. Former city councilwoman Gracie Saenz said she was baffled by the decision not to release the list ("I don't understand why not. It's a nonprofit organization"). Both she and Irma Diaz-­Gonzalez, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, offered to contact Memorial Hermann's CEO to find out what was going on.

And, lo and behold, the next day a call came out of the blue from the mysterious Beth Sartori. Who promptly dumped all the blame on the temp worker who took our initial call a week earlier.

"Well, Melba is a temp who's filling in for an employee who's on maternity leave, okay?" Sartori said. "So the way I found out about this was just through the board member calling me. So unfortunately, she gave you the wrong information."

Pretty powerful for a temp, declaring all on her own that Memorial is "a private company." Not only to us, but we have to assume that Melba was the sole reason the information wasn't released to the Press reader who started all this.

Sartori then sent over the list, which included three registered sex offenders, the head of the Harris County Neo-Nazis and Barack Obama's pastor.

Not really. It contained, of course, an utterly unsurprising list of movers and shakers. Whose names must be protected at all costs, apparently.

Bull by Any Other Name

Enter the bar that's unimaginatively called the Tavern, on the intersection of Gray and Waugh, and you'll see a large sign declaring that they "proudly" serve an energy drink called Roaring Lion instead of Red Bull.

Which is kind of like Café Annie posting a sign saying they proudly serve Foodarama's in-house brand of salad dressing.

We couldn't reach the Tavern's managers, but it appears the bar was busted — by Red Bull.

Red Bull takes seriously what it calls "passing off" — selling drinks that customers assume include Red Bull but instead use an off-brand.

Red Bull sued the Tavern, something they do to bars three or four times a year, says company spokesperson Erin Mand.

"Customers are not getting what they asked for [and] paying premium prices for a generic product," another spokesperson, Mary Dacuma, said.

"Generic"? Hey, we're sure Roaring Lion tastes just as crappy as Red Bull, no matter what you pay for it.

 
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