On a slow winter day last December, Channel 13 investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino was sweeps-week dreaming about a blockbuster series of news reports to air the following spring. They would be predicated on the notion that some official somewhere in Houston city government just had to be using the office computer for more than legitimate job duties.
After all, authorities had recently nabbed the respected police chief of West University and a squeaky-clean young principal of an HISD Heights middle school for visiting Internet porn sites via their work computers. Common sense dictated that trawling through the municipal desktops would surely yield enough taxpayer-funded Web surf sinners to satisfy KTRK's voracious news programmers for weeks on end.
So Dolcefino's Undercover Unit fired off an open records request to the city seeking Internet access records for every computer in the offices of the mayor, the controller, the 14 city councilmembers, and city department heads. The mission: To find out who uses their Net connections to get jiggy at City Hall.
At-large Councilwoman Annise Parker says councilmembers get "these shotgun open records requests on a not-too-infrequent basis, and while the information should certainly be available, fishing expeditions chew up a huge amount of personnel time." Parker and the other officials on the list had to make their electronic desktops available for a session with the city's computer proctologists.
Although Dolcefino has not yet aired a story based on the resulting research, The Insider has reviewed computer records compiled by the city in response to the KTRK requests and discovered several unusual fish wriggling on the hooks. More about that later.
Dolcefino, whose promotional spots on KTRK feature him mugging it up with a wallful of regional Emmys won for his reports, tends to reserve his splashier stories for those periodic sweeps weeks, which determine viewer ratings and, subsequently, advertising rates. Wayne is a bona fide Houston legend who has made plenty of news himself, including a celebrated libel battle with mayoral candidate and state representative Sylvester Turner.
The reporter's first open records request sought Internet contact records for some 250 computers in the offices of the mayor and councilmembers. Information and Technology Department Director Richard Lewis says his staff studied the work necessary to collect the information. They told Channel 13 it would require 462 staff hours and a payment from KTRK of $10,828.
Apparently unwilling to ante up the fee for such an expensive fishing license, Channel 13 revised its request on January 2 so that it would cover only 16 computers assigned directly to elected officials. At the same time, Lewis says, his staff found a shortcut to pull the information from the computers while dramatically lowering the cost of the search.
"Originally we were thinking tech would have to go out and spend an hour and a half in front of the desktop to get the records," explains the director. "We found some free software that cut it from an hour and a half to 30 minutes."
The city billed KTRK $656 for the work. Councilmembers were alerted not to delete records from their hard drives while Information and Technology staff secured the computers and extracted the requested information. The first batch of data was collected, copied and handed over to Dolcefino in January.
That wasn't the end of the matter, though. KTRK filed a follow-up request on January 15 for similar information on all computers in offices of elected officials having eight desktops or more.
"We had already done the elected officials, so we went in and did the other desktops in those offices," says Lewis. The city billed the station an additional $593.
After those computers were examined, Dolcefino came back with yet another request last month for the same type of records for each city department director. That led to a final charge to the station of $57.
After The Insider got wind of the probe, the Houston Press filed open records requests for everything Channel 13 had requested. Fortunately, Lewis's staff had just completed the last of the computer searches for KTRK, so The Insider reviewed the material sequestered in a back room of the city offices, while the Channel 13 operatives picked it up out front.
Since KTRK had already paid for the data, the Press got a free peep. Call it the Undercover Unit's Spring Dirty Linen Sale.
Because of deadline constraints, The Insider had only about four hours to scan the hundreds of pages of mind-numbing computer entries. But even the quick flyby detected some intriguing Internet visits on the computers of two city department heads.
The office computer of Solid Waste Director Thomas "Buck" Buchanan showed repeated stops at the Houston Press Web site, but it wasn't to check out news, features or The Insider. At least a half-dozen entries involved perusing Press personals.
Buchanan's keyboard also showed a fascination for Realmenwearkilts.com, with dozens of visits to view kilt-clad male actors like Mel Gibson, Sean Connery and David Duchovny posing in Scottish finery.
The office computer of Dawn Ullrich, director of the convention and entertainment facility department, showed visits to a number of sexually explicit adult Web sites, including Massivemammaries.com, Ebonyfantasy.com and Pinkchocolate.com. The latter advertised features including "Big Booty Girls," "Thousands of Live Ghetto Girls" and "Lovely Dark Ladies."
A spokesman for Ullrich claims the entries were made by a male employee before she received the computer and that she had nothing to do with the visits.
"What we're surmising is they gave her a new computer when she moved over to the George R. Brown ten months ago and this computer had been assigned to folks over here," says Ullrich's deputy director, Steve Lewis. "It is a little embarrassing. We're researching the sites now and will take disciplinary action against the employee."
Searches of the office computers of elected officials proved less sensational but suggestive of other proclivities.
Mayor Lee Brown, not surprisingly, lived up to his reputation as a travel fanatic, with heavy use of Travelocity.com, Rambler.com and Coolvacations.com. His records also showed extensive visits to the Brookings Institute, Stanford University, Sam Houston State and Rice, where he may peddle his services after leaving office next January.
As one of the subjects as well as the compiler of the KTRK request, director Lewis says he had no worries about what the computer data would reveal.
"The Chron is what you'll find on mine," chuckles Lewis, referring to repeated accessing of the Houston Chronicle Web page, no doubt to catch the latest installment on the city's SimDesk computer debacle. A review of Lewis's file also revealed an interest in scuba diving.
District A Councilman Bruce Tatro has been rumored to be one of the main targets of Channel 13's probe, supposedly based on the tip of a former employee.
"I wouldn't doubt it at all," says the councilman, who states flatly he has never visited an adult Web site on his city computer. As for the journalistic tactics being employed by 13, Tatro asks, "Is it a misuse of city time and city computers? Yes. If there's something else that [Dolcefino] had in mind that he's looking for, it may add validity to it. I'll tell you this, though: It's his time and his money."
The only sexually suggestive entries on Tatro's computer involve the National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings Web site, with visits to files on team dancers Heidi and Rebecca. Otherwise, Tatro lived up to his nerdy accountant image with multiple entries for Geekradio.com, Oxymoronlist.com, Broccoli.com and Ghostshoes.com.
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Several of Tatro's staffers do seem to be spending a lot of time on extracurricular interests. One computer reflected dozens of visits to the Bachelorette TV show Web site, with alternate stops at the Internet shrine to Laci Peterson, a missing California mother and possible murder victim. Another aide was apparently hooked on Internet shopping at Waterford.com, with 24 visits.
Michael Berry was the only councilmember to visit a colleague's Web site, judging by the records. His computer reflects eight hits on Tatro's city site, including stops on Tatro's biography. That would fit with a prevailing rumor at City Hall that it was Berry who sicced the media dogs on Tatro, ostensibly to damage his upcoming run for city controller. However, it would make sense only if Berry is planning to jump from the contest for mayor to controller, a switcheroo he has repeatedly denied he is considering.
Colleague Shelley Sekula Gibbs had the shortest list of computer entries of any councilmember. They were divided between medical professional organizations and two trips to Bedbathandbeyond.com.
Hopefully Dolcefino, with months to work on it, has sniffed out more explosive revelations. Otherwise, from what The Insider has seen so far of the great 2003 City Hall Internet probe, he's glad he doesn't have to justify that $1,300 bill to his bosses.