A veteran Texas Department of Criminal Justice press officer has resigned, accusing officials of retaliating against her for questioning department policies and for copying Senator John Whitmire's office on e-mails detailing her concerns.
Michelle Lyons, who had been with TDCJ for 11 years, was one of our favorite flacks. She was a straight-shooter, which is why we tend to think there's something to her e-mail to media last week, outlining her version of events including her allegation that TDCJ higher-ups froze her e-mail after seeing she had copied Whitmire's office.
Lyons said the shit hit the fan when she responded to a question from Duane Stuart, a TDCJ employee who runs the thebackgate.org, a blog on prison employee matters; Stuart had asked her about allegations that the department was monitoring employees' Facebook profiles. (Stuart had copied Whitmire's office on the e-mail, and Lyons replied to all.) Unfortunately, Stuart hadn't realized that Lyons had already been demoted from her longtime position and was no longer a press officer.
"Within a couple of hours, my e-mail account was 'frozen,' and I was told I was under investigation," Lyons wrote. "Before I was charged with failing to obey an order, I was told that I should have not responded to Duane because he is considered media. At this point, I would note that some time ago, I was tracking down an answer to a question Duane had asked me and I went to [TDCJ
Executive Deputy Executive Director Bryan] Collier. He asked why I was responding to Duane since 'he's not media.' It's interesting to me that he wasn't 'media' several months ago, but now he is?"
Lyons wrote that the Department's human resources rep "told me that I knew what to expect if I was found guilty. The underlying message was, of course, termination. In the end, I elected instead to resign."
She continued: "As many of you know, I [have] been with the agency for 11 years. In that time, I have never had so much as a letter of reprimand in my file. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm [an] honest person and I have always been honest with the media. But in the last six months, I have been demoted, [and] received a substantial pay cut that put me in jeopardy of losing my home....I know that what I've gone through these last six months is similar to what so many other TDCJ employees have had to endure during their own tenures with the agency. I just didn't really understand until it happened to me."
Lyons wrote that "...I can pinpoint that the retaliation began as soon as I questioned the way TDCJ requires employees to track their time and how they appear to be circumventing federal labor laws through some policies (although an agency policy obviously shouldn't trump federal law). Within two weeks, Mr. Collier told me, 'I should have just fired you,' and it only escalated from there."
TDCJ told us they have no comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Whitmire, the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told us that his office was aware of the allegations, "But it's...not something that we're really involved in."
Wow. A well-respected TDCJ flack says she was forced out of a job because, in part, of e-mailing a senator who's been outspoken against TDCJ in the past, and that senator isn't "involved"? Terrific. (It seems that Whitmire only likes to get "involved" in decidedly non-controversial issues, such as nixing the last-meal program for death row inmates, or taking a courageous stand against cell phones smuggled into prisons.)
We'll be keeping our eye on this one.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.