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Paula Harris, HISD Strangely Accuse Reporter of Unethical Behavior

The Houston school district and its board president, Paula Harris, have accused Texas Watchdog reporter Michael Cronin of "unethical behavior" because, among other things, he taped a conversation with her.

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer, a former Houston Chronicle reporter and editor, sent TW a letter saying of an attempt by the reporter to interview Harris that "Mr. Cronin secretly recorded the conversation without telling Trustee Harris he was doing so. It was not until Ms. Harris noticed the recorder and asked about it that Mr. Cronin acknowledged what he was doing."

We've asked Spencer why that would be unethical -- in Texas only one party, including the person doing the taping, has to be aware a conversation is taped. Not to mention the "conversation" was an attempted on-the-record interview with a public official.

Also not to mention that TW says the tape recorder was in plain sight.

TW editor Trent Siebert says:

He said Mike secretly recorded the conversation without telling Harris he was doing so. Mike says he had his digital audio recorder in his hands, out in front of him, the entire time during the conversation. There's no way that can be "secretly recording" someone. And apparently Ms. Harris is unaware that, as a school board president, reporters will sometimes approach her for comment and yes, they can legally record her without first saying "I'm recording you" -- but there's usually not much need to tell someone you're recording them when you have a tape recorder stuck out in front of you, and they're an elected official in a public building after a public meeting, and they know you're a reporter.

We haven't heard back from Spencer. (Update: See below)

There are a host of other "charges"; we'll post the back-and-forth below. But this all stems from TW's aggressive reporting of potential conflicts of interest between Harris and HISD contractors, heat she is apparently not pleased with.

Here's the letter from Spencer to TW:

I'm writing to express our concern about what seems to be a pattern of unethical, bullying, and intimidating behavior by Texas Watchdog reporter Michael Cronin.

On Monday, October 10, 2011, Mr. Cronin confronted Trustee Paula Harris in her office and aggressively demanded that she respond to his questions, despite the fact that she has repeatedly and politely made it clear to him that she is not interested in being interviewed by Texas Watchdog. When Trustee Harris again told Mr. Cronin she was not interested in speaking with him, he persisted in asking questions while physically blocking her office doorway. In addition, Mr. Cronin secretly recorded the conversation without telling Trustee Harris he was doing so. It was not until Ms. Harris noticed the recorder and asked about it that Mr. Cronin acknowledged what he was doing. Mr. Cronin also has repeatedly demanded access to Trustee Harris' private social media accounts to which he has no legal right of access.

This incident comes on the heels of another incident in August in which Mr. Cronin and Ms. Peebles attempted to plant activated video and audio recording devices inside a closed meeting of the Board of Education's audit committee. It was not until Trustee Greg Meyers pointed out their behavior that Mr. Cronin and Ms. Peebles returned to gather their equipment. At the time, the HISD officials who witnessed the incident accepted the explanation that this incident was an accident. But in light of Mr. Cronin's subsequent unethical recording behavior, we question whether these are tactics that Watchdog employs as a matter of course.

HISD respects Texas Watchdog's right to gather and report news. HISD is a taxpayer-funded entity and the people who work here are accustomed to scrutiny. But Texas Watchdog has crossed the line into bullying, intimidating, and unethical behavior with respect to Trustee Harris. We respectfully request that Mr. Cronin be instructed to respect Ms. Harris' decision to not speak with him. Thank you.

And TW's response, which they'll be publishing later today:

 

The chief spokesman for the Houston Independent School District says Texas Watchdog is unethical.

For a school district that's been mired in accusations of cronyism, contract steering and even corruption, that's pretty rich. But let's put aside the irony for just a moment.

As the editor of Texas Watchdog, I want to step back a moment and address the accusations HISD has levied at us.

For those of you who did not read our story from earlier today, our reporter Mike Cronin sought out HISD board President Paula Harris after a meeting Monday night to ask her why she'd blocked him from her Twitter and Facebook feeds. This was after Harris and her representatives had failed to return Cronin's calls and e-mails for nine weeks, including calls asking her to respond to questions as innocuous as what her goals were for the district if she were to be re-elected Nov. 8.

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer sent us an e-mail today making several accusations against us. Let me rebut them one by one.

+ He said our reporter, Mike Cronin, physically blocked Ms. Harris' path. This is not true. Ms. Harris was in an office cubicle when Mike approached, and at no time did Mike try to prevent Ms. Harris from leaving.

+ He said Mike secretly recorded the conversation without telling Harris he was doing so. Mike says he had his digital audio recorder in his hands, out in front of him, the entire time during the conversation. There's no way that can be "secretly recording" someone. And apparently Ms. Harris is unaware that, as a school board president, reporters will sometimes approach her for comment and yes, they can legally record her without first saying "I'm recording you" -- but there's usually not much need to tell someone you're recording them when you have a tape recorder stuck out in front of you, and they're an elected official in a public building after a public meeting, and they know you're a reporter.

+ He said Cronin "has no legal right of access" to Harris' Twitter feed. We would encourage HISD and its attorneys to re-read the Texas Public Information Act and the recent rulings by Attorney General Greg Abbott stating that a public official's communications regarding public business are a matter of public record, regardless of the ownership nature of the account or device through which they are transmitted.

+ He said Mike and our deputy editor Jennifer Peebles "attempted to plant activated video and audio recording devices inside a closed meeting of the Board of Education's audit committee" back in August. This is not true. Mike and Jennifer brought their audio-visual recording equipment with them to a public meeting. When the meeting went into closed session, the school board members instructed them to leave. As they got up to leave, they were told they could not leave their equipment and other belongings in the meeting room while waiting outside. Mike and Jennifer doubled back, gathered up all their gear, and left the room.

And we have a witness to back that up.

"I did not interpret Texas Watchdog's actions at the beginning of the closed session of the Audit Committee meeting in August as trying to secretly record the closed session," HISD school board member and Audit Committee Chairman Mike Lunceford told Mike today. Mike and Jennifer, Lunceford said, "gathered up (their) stuff and left."

Lunceford was present at the start of the audit committee meeting in question. Harris arrived about 45 minutes later, well into the closed part of the meeting.

+ He accused Mike of "unethical, bullying, and intimidating behavior." Asking an elected public official questions that they don't want to answer isn't unethical, bullying or intimidating.

Spencer and HISD "requested that Mr. Cronin be instructed to respect Ms. Harris' decision to not speak with him."

That's not going to happen. If Paula Harris didn't want to be questioned about her relationship with HISD vendors and whether she went to bat with HISD to get her buddies business with the school district, she either shouldn't have been dealing with them or should not have run for the school board.

I'm sure HISD would like the stream of stories we've been producing about their ethical problems to go away. And I'm sure they'd like Mike to go away.

We want to reassure our readers that that's not going to happen, either.

Spencer's response to our question:

As the folks at Texas Watchdog are fond of pointing out, just because an action is legal doesn't make it ethical. I find it interesting that their story today defends the reporter's actions by stating: "Texas and many other states require only one party's consent to a conversation for it to be legally recorded -- in this case, the reporter's."

In this case, it appears Texas Watchdog isn't holding itself to the same ethical standards they apply to school board members. They are responding to questions about their ethics by saying they didn't violate the law.

I personally believe it is perfectly ethical for reporters to record conversations, as long as they inform the person being interviewed beforehand. Informing the person who is the subject of the interview is especially critical if the reporter intends to broadcast the recording. I was not present when Mr. Cronin and Trustee Harris had their conversation yesterday. I can tell you that Trustee Harris spoke with Mr. Cronin for some time before realizing that her comments were being taped and that she felt violated.

I also personally believe that the actions of the Watchdog reporters who left two activated recording devices in a closed meeting of the Board Audit Committee in August were unethical, and possibly illegal, if they did so intentionally. The reporters involved said at the time that they accidentally left the devices in the room and everyone here gave them the benefit of the doubt. But Mr. Cronin's actions yesterday are causing some here to wonder about their information-gathering methods.


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