We were excited when we learned that outgoing Mayor Annise Parker may be teaching at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. It's a prestigious two-month fellowship where she'd be able to share the knowledge she's learned after three terms as mayor, and from earlier experience on City Council and as city controller.
In Houston, which has a strong mayor-council form of government, the mayor wields great power. The mayor appoints the city attorney and largely controls the legal department, which does everything from micro-managing basic public records requests to representing the city in litigation.
Whenever the Houston Press has requested public records — no matter how benign — the requests have been sent to the legal department, which is an inefficient way to get information to the public, but a terrific way to obfuscate and impede the flow of information.
Parker took things a step further when she moved the Office of Inspector General from the Houston Police Department to the legal department.
The OIG's mandate is to investigate allegations of administrative violations by city employees, but the OIG was now reporting to the city attorney, whose mandate is to cover the city's ass.
In 2012, OIG Robert Doguim resigned after just 14 months on the job. He told the Houston Chronicle, "The OIG, particularly for a city this large, should be a stand-alone department. It should not be assigned under the legal department."
Two years later, KTRK's Ted Oberg and Trent Seibert reported that Parker and then-City Attorney David Feldman "have put additional rules on the [OIG] to make it even more secretive." They also reported that they requested records of OIG investigations, but the city would not prove anything. And, they reported, when the Texas Attorney General ordered the city to provide some of the records, the city filed suit "to keep the records secret."
Under Parker's tenure, that secrecy was sacrosanct. It's a wonderful template for elected officials who despise transparency and feel that the work of government should be conducted behind closed doors. In that spirit, here are a few things that Parker can discuss at Harvard:
Block The Release of Public Records, Even if You Have to Come Up With a Ridiculous Excuse
If here's one thing many public officials believe, it's that public records don't belong to the public. It's annoying, but it's nothing unique to Houston. But under Parker, the reasons for refusing to disclose records have risen to absurd levels.
In September, the Houston Press filed a public records request for a software program called Infor, and for emails regarding the resignation of City IT Director Charles Thompson.
A great way to delay the release of public records is to seek a Texas Attorney General's opinion on whether the information is exempt, so, naturally, that's what city officials did. When we asked Parker's press secretary, Darian Ward, why the information was exempt, she cited an exception to the Texas Public Information Act that relates to "bioterrorism preparedness" and "public health security."
However, the threat of bioterrorism looming over the city must have passed by the time the letter was actually sent to the AG. Assistant City Attorney Jeffrey Giles now cited an exemption related to the bidding process. He also said that a "completed investigation made by the Office of Inspector General" was exempt, because it contained "attorney-client privileged information."
In another instance, the Press wanted to find out if anyone had ever been fined for feeding homeless people without a permit, as a result of a controversial ordinance that Parker championed in 2012.
As we recently wrote:
According to the invoice the city sent us, it was going to take two employees in the IT department two hours of "computer programming" to pull the information needed to answer our question. It would also cost us $95.
So we paid, they programmed—and then the department got back to us with a very confusing response: puppies.
Yes, the single citation apparently issued under the “Charitable Feeding Ordinance” since 2012 belonged to a man ticketed in a strip mall parking lot for selling puppies with his friend. (A municipal courts spokeswoman first told us that "maybe he was doing it near where food was being sold"; assistant city attorney Randy Zamora finally confirmed that the only likely explanation was that there must have been a filing mistake.)
Now, the real problem comes to finding out about actual puppies.
Parker and BARC Director Greg Damianoff have lately been singing the praises of a group called Rescued Pets Movement (RPM), which exports dogs to Colorado and Wyoming.
Laura Carlock, RPM's co-founder was recently the highest bidder at the BARC Foundation Gala, and therefore got to spend the day with Parker.
So, if you have dough, you can pal around with Parker. If you want to find out actual numbers about RPM, you're less fortunate. We found that out when we first looked into RPM. Neither Parker nor Damianoff would talk to us for that story, as it was not a puff piece, and Damianoff delayed the release of public records for 14 days.
Given that City Council in July recently extended its contract with RPM, and allowed a maximum payment of $2.16 million for RPM's services, it seems like the public should know exactly where these animals are going, and what their outcomes are. Fat chance.
When no-kill shelter advocate Bett Sundermeyer sought copies in October of the City's contracts, invoices, and purchase orders with RPM dating back to January 2013, the City Legal Department quoted her a price of roughly $3,800 (i.e., 31 eight-hour days' worth of work).
But the City simultaneously sought a State Attorney General's opinion on whether some of the information was exempt from public disclosure because of "attorney-client privilege."
In her letter to the AG, Assistant City Attorney Tiffany Evans argued that a "voluminous" amount of documents related to the City's contract with RPM were subject to attorney-client privilege.
That argument allows the City to drape a curtain over a puppy-pipeline to other states, which is troubling. Although Colorado requires rescue organizations to report their numbers annually, not all do, which means a lot of dogs can go unaccounted for. We find it sad that Parker is choosing window-dressing over transparency. We feel the animals at BARC deserve so much more. But then again, there could be bioterrorism involved.
One Woman's Rape Allegation is Another Man's "Sexual Role-Playing Fantasy."
Before HPD Sergeant Curtis Hampton shot and killed an unarmed man on Christmas Day 2011, one female HPD officer had accused him of sexual assault and another had accused him of attempted sexual assault. In the former, the woman — with whom Hampton had a previous sexual relationship — alleged that in 2007, Hampton handcuffed her to a bed, pointed a gun at her head, and demanded sex. He was wearing pantyhose over his head.
According to a 2008 report from HPD's Administrative Disciplinary Committee, Hampton failed to use "sound judgment when, during the role play fantasy, he placed a pillow over [the officer's] face while she was telling him to stop....Hampton admitted that [the officer] said 'Don't do this to me.' Sergeant Hampton then states, 'as usual, I placed a pillow over her face to muffle her....'"
What Hampton might have found unusual is when the woman, fearing for her life, bit his penis and fled into the street.
According to the 2010 arbitration hearing report issued after Hampton contested his suspension, "It took the victim biting [Hampton's] penis and drawing blood before he stopped to consider whether or not she had consented to having sex with him."
The report also noted:
In no way can the Appellant's behavior be defined as reasonable or prudent. He used a gun, handcuffs, and a pillow to muffle the Complainant's cries while he attempted to have sex with her without gaining her consent.
Hampton was ultimately suspended for five days for improper use of his gun. (The phrase "sexual assault," or the word "rape" do not appear in the report. The incident was described as "sexual role-play fantasy.")
In 2008, another officer accused Hampton of stalking her — buying her lingerie, and continually pursuing a sexual relationship. Ultimately, claimed, Hampton talked his way into her apartment on the pretext of signing a form for the insurance he sold on the side.
According to the 2010 arbitration hearing report:
"Somehow, both Sgt. Hampton and [the officer] ended up in her bathroom. For reasons that Sgt. Hampton could not explain, [the officer's] demeanor 'seemed to change at this point, but I had no idea why.' [The officer] then fled the bathroom to the bedroom, where another chase ensued, and she 'scooted across the bed and left the room.' In his his statement, Sgt. Hampton wrote that: 'I wasn't sure what kind of game she was playing, but I was done with it.' [The officer] fled her apartment and waited outside for Sgt. Hampton to come out.
When Sgt. Hampton left [the officer's] apartment, he then put his arm around her and kissed her forehead. Sgt. Hampton's administrative statement suggests that he believed that his encounter with [the officer] that evening was either welcome and/or consensual. [The officer], on the other hand, wrote that she was scared and thought she was going to be raped."
Hampton was suspended for 15 days.
After Hampton shot and killed Blake Pate in 2013, he was no-billed by a grand jury. But Pate's mother, Patsy, sued the city, and both of the female officers testified (reluctantly) in that case. That's when Parker's legal eagles got down to the business of discrediting two female officers who said they had been victimized by a predator. Patsy was attempting to show that Hampton was not only unhinged, but that city officials knew, or should have known, that he was a danger.
The first victim's testimony included this:
I began to scream and struggle, and he put a pillow over my face. Because my thing is maybe scream loud enough, maybe a neighbor will hear me....And I even told him, because I was confused about what was going on, you know, 'think about what you're doing. Just think about what you're doing'....So we continued to struggle, what have you like that, and he eventually got me off the bed. And I believe this is at the point where he's able to pull my pants down. And he's pressing my face into the bed and I can't breathe...Well, at this point, he would assault me, using his fingers in my vagina, in my anus. He continued to do that in and out. He even performed oral sex, I remember..."
She said Hampton penetrated her with his penis. And then:
...at some point during the intercourse or what have you, I went frozen.... in my mind, I was, like, I've got to think of a plan to get myself out of this situation. Amazingly, I got myself in this situation. So at some point in time, I made a motion to him that, oh, you know, let me perform oral sex on you. And that's when I bit his penis. Then that's when we begin to struggle again. And we end up falling onto the floor, still struggling. Blood from his penis was spewing all over the sheets, what have you..."
She then went into the bathroom, and came back out to grab her gun:
"And I thought no one is ever going to believe this story. I should really and truly just shoot him now and call it self-defense. And I couldn't bring myself to even take another human life, despite what had just happened to me."
She then fled and filed a complaint with the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which triggered the HPD investigation.
In the City's response to the lawsuit, city attorneys wrote that "Hampton experienced a cut on his penis, caused by the girlfriend-subordinate female officer during consensual 'role playing.' However, Defendants deny the girlfriend-subordinate female officer bit Hampton's penis in fear or as an escape or defensive tactic."
Apparently, the word of this police officer didn't mean squat. Sure, she bit Hampton's penis so hard that she drew blood, and sure she said she feared for her life, but apparently Parker's legal team was not going to admit that a previous administration allowed a predator to remain on the force. This legal team was going to throw her under the bus.
The second woman who claimed to be victimized by Hampton gave a deposition in Patsy Pate's civil suit. Here's how she described her encounter with Hampton:
"So I was — went in there to start directing him out, like pushing him out my bathroom, and that's when he grabbed right in the middle of my pants and just pulled my pants down....And then he pulled me closer to him — he's like, 'Oh, yeah, you ready. You want this.' That's when he pulled me closer to him and then he turned me around to where, like, my butt is on — on him, and then his left hand was holding me, and his right hand was in-between my legs, touching me....
For a while he was saying, 'Oh, you have nice lips. Yeah, you're ready for this. You want this,' and I can remember him laughing. And I remember him — hearing him take off — unbuttoning his pants, and I could see in the mirror of my bathroom that he pulled his pants down, and I could see his testicles hanging from under his shirt. And all I could think of [was] 'How can I get away? He has his gun with him and my gun is in the closet.'"
City attorneys denied the woman's claims, and would only admit that Hampton had been suspended in that case for "having a relationship with a subordinate female officer."
We understand that it's the job of the city's legal department — under the watchful eye of the mayor — to defend the city from legal claims, whether they're frivolous or not. So that's one lesson Parker can impart: Defend your city in all legal claims, frivolous or not. And if you have to trivialize violence against women and characterize rape as "sexual role-play," so be it.
Some Victims Are More Equal Than Others
Some people might think that the driver of a police cruiser, speeding through stop signs on residential streets at night, with no lights or siren, might be at fault if he crashes into a vehicle that's obeying traffic laws. But, according to the Parker's legal eagles, those people would be freakin' idiots.
Of course, that depends on who the victim is. If it's a distinguished scientist who's killed, you may want to settle. If it's some woman who slings hot dogs at Astros games, and she's not even killed, just gravely injured, you fight.
In 2010, Estella Medrano, a professor and scientist at Baylor College of Medicine, was returning from the airport with her husband Jorge, who was driving their car. It was after midnight, and the two had just returned from a conference in Switzerland. They were turning into the entrance of their apartment complex when a police car traveling 84 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone — with no lights or siren — T-boned Medrano's car.
The officer broke his neck but made a full recovery. Medrano died two hours later at Ben Taub. Her husband later sued the city.
The death of an esteemed scientist made headlines, but the city was prepared to fight. Court records show that city attorneys had retained an expert witness — a professor of environmental physiology — to testify that a major factor in the accident was Jorge Medrano's jet lag, which disrupted his circadian rhythm.
In January 2013, the City settled the suit for $262,500. Then-City Attorney David Feldman told the Houston Chronicle that this was one of those rare lawsuits that "cry out" for a settlement.
"The settlement was the right thing to do," Feldman said.
A month before that settlement, the City went to trial over a similar incident, in which a police officer driving 60-70 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone with no lights or siren at 10:30 p.m. T-boned a Chevy Malibu in which Mattie Etubom, 54, was riding shotgun. The force of the collision split Etubom's palate, knocked out two teeth, fractured her right eye socket, caused a brain hemorrhage, and bruised her lungs so badly that doctors said she had to tote an oxygen tank for the rest of her life.
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Etubom had to be extracted from the Malibu by the Jaws of Life. Her wallet or purse couldn't be found, so she was checked into the hospital as "Female-Juliet 1401." She remained unconscious and hooked to a ventilator. In her 52-day hospital stay, no one from the City of Houston visited her, but she did receive a bill for the ambulance ride.
Etubom sued. But after her lawyer sent the City's legal department a letter asking for total preservation of evidence, HPD's bomb squad used the cop car that hit Etubom in a training exercise: a bomb was detonated inside the vehicle. This destroyed the car's Mobile Data Terminal, which records calls for service.
The driver of the police car couldn't keep his story straight, and the City could never produce a record of the call that the officer said he was responding to. And even though some of the same attorneys worked on both the Medrano and Etubom cases, they gave conflicting stories on what information was even stored in a Mobile Data Terminal.
Ultimately, Parker and the city attorneys apparently believed that this was one lawsuit that did not cry out for a settlement. The city fought it. The litigation was lengthy and confusing: The jury, faced with a list of perplexing instructions, rendered one decision finding the City 60 percent liable for Matubom's injuries — and awarding her $2.26 million — and another finding that the officer had not violated regulations. The decisions canceled each other out. Harris County District Court Judge Dan Hinde would have to pick a "controlling decision." Etubom sought a new trial, and, according to court records, a jury ultimately ruled in the City's favor.