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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 A Troubled Father’s Last Chance

A mother fears he has not kicked
his addictions or changed his ways

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 5 in a Series
Posted Wednesday October 26, 2016 2:23pm

This is a story about one of the 5,615 divorce cases filed in Williamson County involving children under the age of 18 during the five-year period ending December 31, 2015. It started with a divorce in 2011, involved three separate lawsuits, and culminated last month with a final order.

Jack Lumus (TxDPS)Jack Lumus (TxDPS)Jack Walton Lumus, 43, might be less than a perfect father to his five children. Four of the children were born to three women. He adopted the fifth child (his third wife’s daughter) when she was 10. Four of the children now range in age from 19 to 22. For more than two years he did not see his youngest son, now 11 (and who will not be named in this story due to his age).

From the time he was a young man Lumus led a troubled life. This story will detail many of his transgressions including multiple occasions of abusing his wife and children. His third ex-wife and two of his older children, while emotionally distraught and fearful of reprisal, testified in court to the abuses they suffered and witnessed. Yet Lumus denied these allegations in his own testimony. Was he in denial and trying to evade responsibility, or were his ex-wife and children lying, as he testified?

Today the overarching questions are whether Lumus has overcome his admitted drug and alcohol dependency, whether he is faithfully taking the medication prescribed for his bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive disorder), and whether he is equipped to provide love and guidance in the upbringing of the one child he has not alienated.

This story cannot provide a definitive answer as to whether Lumus is today a suitable parent. The effort is hobbled by the fact that, through his lawyer, Lumus declined to be interviewed. The many questions prepared for him will go unanswered.

Charles SullivanCharles Sullivan“My client is not going to call you back. We will do what we did in the courtroom, which is where it should be handled,” said attorney Charles Sullivan of Jones Sullivan PLLC, based in Canyon Lake.

“Get your facts straight,” Sullivan warned. “I have sued the Austin American-Statesman and New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. (Neither newspaper could recall having been sued by Sullivan, who was licensed to practice law in May 2007.)

This story is based on police reports, criminal history files, more than 70 court records including transcripts and affidavits, and interviews with an ex-wife who says she has done what’s needed to protect her son. Given the boy’s age and that Lumus is allowed unsupervised visitations, this will remain her chief concern.

There are red flags. But only Jack Lumus knows if he is playing by the rules or he is deceiving others to get what he wants and not what’s best for the boy.

Broken relationships, bad conduct

Jack LumusJack LumusIn September 1990 at age 17 Jack Lumus enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, according to public records obtained from the National Personnel Records Center. A year later he went on active duty in Houston, went through boot camp in San Diego and was then transferred to Camp Pendleton, California.

Fewer than eight months into his active duty service, in April 1992, Lumus married Kimberly A. Cooley in Harris County when they were both 18, according to records maintained by the Harris County Clerk and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). (No record of their divorce was found.)

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(6 votes, average 4.17 out of 5)

 Custody Dispute Ends in Mistrial

Care of twin boys unchanged after
week-long trial in Travis County case

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Part 4 in a Series
Posted Tuesday May 24, 2016 2:14pm

A happy mother, Cassandra Medrano, and her attorney Jake Gilbreath, after the trial.A happy mother, Cassandra Medrano, and her attorney Jake Gilbreath, after the trial.Which parent should have the exclusive right to determine the primary residence of twin boys born to a never-married couple?

That was the only question for a Travis County jury of seven men and five women. The decision was to be based solely upon what the evidence indicated would be in the best interests of the children. The boys, who were a year old when the couple separated, recently turned seven. One of them is autistic.

In this case, the jury was asked to determine whether the circumstances had materially changed since the court order of November 12, 2010, which gave the mother primary custody. The trial was initiated by the boys’ father, who pushed this case back into court in an effort to win that right.

If the jury favored the father’s request, it would then be up to the judge to decide all related matters, such as how the children’s school and medical care should be decided, how visitation rights for the non-primary parent would be handled, and how and when the children will be exchanged.

Stephen YelenoskyStephen YelenoskyThe proceedings ended in a mistrial because a sufficient number of jurors were unable to agree on a verdict. Thus, the status quo was preserved. The mother, who has been the primary custodian of the boys care for more than five years, will continue.

In this type of civil case, at least 10 of the 12 jurors must agree on a verdict. The jury was impaneled on Monday May 2, then sat through more than three days of testimony, and deliberated for a total of about eight hours, starting the morning of Friday May 6 and resumed Monday May 9. Ultimately they informed the judge that they were hopelessly deadlocked.

Judge Stephen Yelenosky of the 425th District Court declared a mistrial late Monday morning.

While this particular case involved only one set of parents and children, the themes played out in the trial—the allegations of each other’s wrongdoing—are nearly universal given the highly emotional custody battles that are fought daily in the courts of not only Travis County but also the state and nation.

In 2013, the latest year for which statewide statistics were available, there were 76,423 divorces in Texas involving 59,135 children under the age of 18. Many of these children will be pawns in litigation that plays out over many years and leaves it to the family courts to determine what is in their best interests.

Opening statements

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Commissioners Respond to ‘Extortion’ Complaints

But discuss only cost of Williamson County Domestic
Relations Office, and claim need for judges to buy in

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 3 in a Series
Posted Tuesday April 26, 2016 4:03pm

Lisa BirkmanLisa BirkmanAfter months of hearing from parents who claim they are being ripped off by racketeering in the family courts of Williamson County, Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman briefed the Commissioners Court about research she had done to explore the possibility of establishing a Domestic Relations Office (DRO). That is a goal advocated by the Texas Association for Children and Families (TACF).

Birkman described the duties of the professionals who are appointed by courts to assist in making decisions about child custody. The person appointed will interview the children, parents, and others and report to the judge, she said. In Williamson and most other Texas counties the person appointed would be an attorney or other licensed professional in private practice.

She noted that the Family Code allows the Commissioners Court to establish a DRO, such as the one operated by Travis County. Among other services provided by the Travis County DRO, it has employees qualified to be appointed as guardian ad litem to advise the court on the best interests of children.

There's only a few counties that do it that way and it's expensive,” Birkman said. (Actually there are eight such counties in Texas, per the Texas Association of Domestic Relations Offices.)

Birkman cited cost figures for three DROs:

• Harris County (Houston) has 42 employees and a $3.3 million annual budget.

• Tarrant County (Fort Worth) has 83 employees and a $7.2 million budget.

• Travis County (Austin) has 51 employees and a $3.6 million budget.

“The way we do it in Williamson County, and most counties in Texas, is the parents bear the cost,” Birkman said.

Judges not yet responsive

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(7 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Parents Demand Halt to ‘Extortion’

Texas Association for Children and Families and
parents demand reforms under threat of lawsuit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Monday April 18, 2016 9:12pm

Williamson County Commissioners Court. Judge Dan Gattis (center) and Commissioners (left to right) Lisa Birkman, Cynthia Long, Valerie Covey, Ron MorrisonWilliamson County Commissioners Court. Judge Dan Gattis (center) and Commissioners (left to right) Lisa Birkman, Cynthia Long, Valerie Covey, Ron MorrisonTomorrow morning the Williamson County Commissioners Court is scheduled to hear yet again from the Texas Association for Children and Families (TACF) about alleged corruption. The organization claims that for years a “racketeering enterprise” has been operating right under the noses of family law courts in Williamson County, wrecking the lives of children and parents, and ruining them financially.

The court-appointed professionals named by the TACF as being involved in the alleged scheme who were reached for comment have denied any wrongdoing.

This will be the fourth time representatives of the TACF and parents have appeared in person since last December 1 to complain about alleged injustices and plead for help. Previous appearances have yielded only disclaimers that these problems are beyond the power of the Commissioners Court to remedy.

This is a last-ditch attempt to get a so-far resistant Commissioners Court to establish a Domestic Relations Office, similar to one operated in Travis County for decades. This office would provide essential services focused solely on achieving the best outcomes for Williamson County parents going through divorce and child-custody disputes.

Joseph GaleJoseph GaleJoseph Gale, TACF’s executive director, will tell commissioners that parental rights are being abused and children are being damaged by a number of professionals involved in family law cases in Williamson County, who are allegedly more interested in extracting fees than achieving the best outcomes.

TACF and these parents seek the Commissioners Court’s cooperation in initiating a remedy. If that assistance is not forthcoming by June 1, TACF says Williamson County will be named as a defendant in a lawsuit.

Gale will deliver signed letters to the Commissioners Court on behalf of TACF, four mothers, and one father. These and possibly other parents are expected to be plaintiffs if a lawsuit is necessary. The parents claim their families and their children were and are being harmed by the failure of the Commissioners Court to supervise the judges and court appointed professionals.

‘Racketeering enterprise’ alleged

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(5 votes, average 4.20 out of 5)

 Big Win for Public’s Right to Know

No more hiding identities of the public officials
who do government business on private e-mails

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Posted Monday April 11, 2016 2:09pm
Updated Tuesday April 12, 2016 10:54am (to add link to Corpus Christi Caller-Times coverage)
Updated Wednesday April 13, 2016 1:28pm (to add link to Texas Bureau coverage)
Updated Thursday April 14, 2016 1:46pm (to add link to FierceGovernmentIT coverage)
Updated Wednesday April 20, 2016 3:07pm (to add link to FindLaw publication of opinion)

The 2011 City Council investigated by the county attorneyThe 2011 City Council investigated by the county attorneyMore than five years after The Austin Bulldog filed a lawsuit against Mayor Lee Leffingwell, the other six council members, and the City of Austin, the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals on April 8, 2016, handed down a landmark legal decision. The court ruled that government officials are not “members of the public” and when they use private e-mail accounts to conduct public business they will forfeit the right to keep their e-mail addresses concealed from the public.

The Third Court’s ruling advances the public’s interest in holding government officials accountable. The decision is of vital interest in government and legal circles, and it triggered a front-page story in the Austin American-Statesman as well as articles in both the Texas Tribune and, a national publication covering the legal industry.

The decision serves notice to elected officials and others in government service that they ought to do the public’s business through their government-issued e-mail addresses—and not hide public information by using personal accounts.

Joseph LarsenJoseph Larsen“Any time a public official uses a private e-mail account for public business—that’s highly suspect,” said Attorney Joseph Larsen, special counsel to Sedgwick Law in Houston and a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Decision will have wide impact

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(11 votes, average 3.91 out of 5)

 A Tale of Two Counties

Child custody cases get help in Travis County but in
Williamson and most other counties you're on your own

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 1 in a Series
Posted March 15, 2016 1:22pm

In the State of Texas in 2013 there were 76,423 divorces involving 59,135 children, according to statistics provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Center for Health Statistics. Some of those divorces resulted in amicable arrangements for child custody in which the parents rose above self-interest and focused on sharing their responsibility to shepherd happy and well-adjusted children into adulthood.

But there is all too much evidence of divorce cases in which the bitterness bestowed by bickering parents pervades every aspect of their children’s lives. In those cases, money may be the least of concerns in the combat for control and custody of children borne out of love and delivered into the war zone of a contentious divorce.

Divorces are emotionally exhausting and can leave parting parents drained, both emotionally and financially. When minor children are involved, the romance may have ended but the parents remain connected to jointly look after their custody, housing, education, medical care, and emotional well-being until they come of age.

Even long after the divorce is final, the ties that bind divorced parents together over issues of child custody may fray and grow contentious.

Divorced parents may continue to struggle for control over critical issues: Where will the children live? Where they will be educated? In which extracurricular activities will they participate? What kind of medical care will they will receive? Not the least of these stressful issues is which parent will pay for these and the myriad other expenses involved in raising children?

When one parent’s behavior appears to threaten or endanger the children—or for whatever reason becomes unacceptable to the other parent—the deadlocked former mates may jump to hire lawyers and seek to air their grievances in a court of law.

The children’s welfare—the thing that should be uppermost in the minds of deadlocked parents—may get shoved aside, become a casualty of family warfare. At that point the overriding goal of looking out for the children becomes a concern for the court. The judge may choose to appoint someone to look after the best interests of the children.

Whoever’s appointed has to come in and objectively examine the circumstances and then make an informed recommendation to the court about what’s best for the children. That person is usually an attorney ad litem or a guardian ad litem. Translated from the original Latin, ad litem means “for the lawsuit.”

The key difference between the two types of ad litems is explained in an informative guide for parents published online, along with a lot of other information important to divorcing couples, by the Travis County Domestic Relations Office:

The Guardian Ad Litem, who is often a licensed professional counselor, focuses on the child's best interests in making recommendations to the court, even if that is not what the child says he or she wants (emphasis added).

An Attorney Ad Litem is appointed by the court to represent the child's best interests and wishes. However, if the child's best interests are different from the child's wishes, the Attorney Ad Litem will represent the child's wishes (emphasis added).

Typically a given custody case would involve one or the other of these kinds of ad litems and not both.

Once appointed, the ad litem will investigate, complete written reports for the court, and testify in court hearings.

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Daugherty’s Civil Case to Continue

SOS Alliance also seeks a new special prosecutor and
judge to reinstate criminal complaint against Commissioner

by Ken Martin
© 2015 The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday January 5, 2016 2:15pm

Gerald DaughertyGerald DaughertyThe Save Our Springs Alliance won a victory in the form of a December 10, 2015, ruling by District Judge Stephen Yelonosky that will allow a trial on the merits in the civil case against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

If the case goes to trial the SOS Alliance will seek to persuade the court to order Commissioner Daugherty or Travis County, or both, to change policies enacted last spring regarding retention of and access to public records.

Bill BunchBill BunchBill Bunch, executive director of the SOS Alliance, told The Austin Bulldog he will seek a finding by the court that violations of the Texas Public Information Act did, in fact, occur.

Bunch said such a finding would provide a basis for changing the policies to make sure that no violations like this occur again in the future.

In the beginning the lawsuit was about whether Daugherty had properly complied with the Act by providing all records requested by the SOS Alliance May 31, 2013. In Daugherty’s deposition and a court hearing held July 13, 2015, it was clear that he had not done so, but those records are no longer available. The larger issue for the SOS Alliance was whether it could find ammunition in those records for slowing or halting plans to build State Highway 45 Southwest over the sensitive Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

The case for getting more records is now moot, but Bunch wants to prevent the commissioner and Travis County from ever again failing to retain public records or allowing their destruction.

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(5 votes, average 4.60 out of 5)

Auditor Alleges City Supervisor’s Misconduct

Disciplinary action hangs fire while department
director and human resources confer and decide

by Ken Martin
Additional Research by Mark Henricks
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday December 15, 2015 3:18pm
Updated Wednesday December 16, 2015 9:50am (to correct last name of Rodney Gonzales)
Updated Wednesday December 16, 2015 1:18pm (to clarify auditor interaction with Ethics Review Commission)

Eric GomezEric GomezThe report of an investigation released by the Austin City Auditor in October 2015 found evidence that Eric Leal Gomez, an environmental compliance supervisor in the Development Services Department, allegedly misused his position, misused city resources, and inappropriately entered into a business relationship with a subordinate. The report provided details for the three findings.

Gomez addressed these findings in a 10-page e-mail addressed to department management September 23, 2015. Gomez conceded that he misused his city computer and Internet access in connection with efforts to establish a private business but stated the infraction had been cured and would not be a problem going forward. He argued the other two findings were inappropriate and requested they be retracted.

Nathan WiebeNathan WiebeNathan Wiebe, chief of investigations for in the City Auditor’s Office, said that Gomez’ responses have been considered but the findings will not be retracted.

“We allow the subject of an investigation to respond in writing,” Wiebe said. “If they present evidence that may potentially affect the findings we investigate and modify the report. In cases where they have presented their side of the story but the response hasn’t changed anything, then the report goes out. In this case, he requested redaction of two findings but what you see in the final report—that’s our response.”

The auditor’s investigation of Gomez was conducted in response to an anonymous complaint, Wiebe said.

While the complaint was anonymously filed with the auditor, Gomez said, “The problem was she started bragging about turning me into the auditor, resulting in this investigation.” He named a former employee that he said he had once pursued disciplinary action against the woman for allegedly falsifying timesheets.

Still, it would be up to the auditor to investigate, substantiate the allegations, and bear the burden of proof. An investigation published by the previous auditor was discredited, the City Council issued a formal apology to the accused, and a lawsuit is pending to get the documentation that supported that flawed report.

Disciplinary action pending

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Austin’s Failing Public Information System

Well-intentioned reforms were made during county attorney’s
investigation but the City’s TPIA compliance is still shaky

© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Investigative Report by Ken Martin
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Monday November 23, 2015 1:40pm

Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees....” —Texas Public Information Act

Major flaws in the City of Austin’s response to public information requests were exposed in The Austin Bulldog’s stories about the experiences of requestor Brian Rodgers in his lawsuit, Brian Rodgers v. City of Austin.

The City not only failed to provide the information but ignored complaints from Rodgers’ attorney, Bill Aleshire—even his final warning that litigation would ensue if the information were not provided. Then when the lawsuit did hit, the City heedlessly claimed in its original answer that the information had already been provided. During discovery that claim was proven to be patently false.

The lawsuit was settled with the City agreeing to pay Rodgers $5,000 for its poor handling of his several information requests and to avoid a motion for sanctions for its inept response to the lawsuit. That’s only about half the amount he spent to force the City to pay attention.

This article will detail how and why the City’s system for processing public information requests became what it is today. Later articles will show that what happened to Rodgers was not an isolated incident but rather an indication of systemic problems.

Big changes made but flaws remain

These problems have persisted despite numerous major initiatives.

The City created a team of senior advisors to review its practices and make recommendations to enhance compliance and oversight, and streamline the process for public information requests.

The City moved responsibility for processing public information requests to the Law Department and established within it a Public Information Request (PIR) Team whose salaries now total more than $300,000 a year.

The City committed more than $360,000 to contract for a PIR software system and provided training on the new software to more than a hundred PIR Team and departmental employees who process requests.

Despite these efforts the city has not maintained complete and consistent compliance with the TPIA and the statutory requirements and deadlines it imposes.

To appreciate the City’s current system for responding to PIRs it is necessary to first understand in more detail the major changes that have been made and the forces that necessitated these efforts.

One thing is certain: these changes were not made as a result of some entrepreneurial spirit rising up spontaneously within the City bureaucracy. They were not prompted by an elected leadership that suddenly chose to seek the Holy Grail of transparency and open government.

These changes were made to amend for criminal conduct that could have landed the entire governing body in jail. In fact the City spent more than $600,000 on outside attorneys to fend off prosecution for criminal violations that led to these reforms and provide advice about how to achieve better compliance. These reforms were initiated while being investigated to convince prosecutors that the City was serious about doing better.

Turning over a new leaf

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(3 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)

 Experts Discuss Money in Politics

Diverse views on the effects of campaign finance,
the current state of regulation, and action needed

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:04am

“The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that the methods of financing political campaigns should ensure the public's right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, enable candidates to compete more equitably for public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process....”

—League of Women Voters National Board

Panelists Kurt Hildebrand, Michael Schneider, Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, and Roger BorgeltPanelists Kurt Hildebrand, Michael Schneider, Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, and Roger BorgeltThe League of Women Voters Austin Area brought the League’s national study on Money in Politics into local focus with a Sunday afternoon panel discussion. A more politically diverse panel of five speakers would be difficult to imagine. The audience of nearly 50 people paid close attention and posed a number of questions for the panelists.

Kurt Hildebrand, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, said his party has taken no position on campaign finance or on money in politics, as the views of Libertarians encompass a broad range. Some believe there should be tight regulations and some believe there should be no regulation at all, he said.

“We want people to be as free as they possibly can be with equality, justice, and equal protection under the law.”

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Depositions Expose Public Information Flaws

An assistant city manager who doesn’t like to write,
a public information manager who is inexperienced

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday November 9, 2015 3:44pm

“The City of Austin is committed to an open and transparent government. I believe this is an integral part of maintaining a vital and robust democracy.” — City Manager Marc Ott

Marc OttMarc OttOtt published this oft-repeated pledge in an April 8, 2015, memo titled “City of Austin Open Data Initiative 2.0.”

Yet, the City has failed to consistently live up to that commitment. By actual performance the City has demonstrated that it receives and routes public information requests to departments or offices thought to have the applicable records but fails to follow up and ensure compliance with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) Government Code Chapter 552.

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersA prime example of the City’s spotty performance was evidenced in the outcome of the lawsuit Brian Rodgers v. City of Austin. As reported November 2, 2015, by The Austin Bulldog, the City agreed to pay Rodgers $5,000 to settle the case and thereby avoid a motion for sanctions or a full-blown trial over its gross mishandling of his public information requests and its inept response to the lawsuit.

Rodgers, who spent about twice the amount he’s getting back in settling the lawsuit, considers the expense to be a good investment in his education as a civic activist. As the plaintiff he sat in on the two depositions taken in this case and observed firsthand how the public officials answered.

“I finally get to understand how the process works—I no longer have to wonder,” Rodgers told The Austin Bulldog. “It's a lack of power by public information manager, a lack of cooperation by city staff, and no one responsible to comply with the law. So it’s set up to gum up the work of activists. Justice delayed is justice denied.

“If they intentionally wanted to thwart people from getting to the root of things before the City Council decides, this will do it,” Rodgers said. “It's easily gamed.”

Although Ott’s commitment to open government, cited above, was made within the context of expanding an existing initiative to publish more of the valuable data the City collects on the City’s website—and in the process possibly reduce the number of public information requests—the City cannot achieve openness, transparency, and accountability if the public’s right to know, which is enshrined in the TPIA, is thwarted.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireTwo sworn depositions taken by Rodgers’ attorney, Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, as part of the discovery process in the lawsuit provide significant insights about the shortcomings in the City’s public information system.

(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in three lawsuits, two of which were TPIA actions against the City of Austin (see links to related stories below.)

Deposition of assistant city manager

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Rodgers Settles TPIA Suit for $5,000

City’s bungled response to Rodgers’ public information
requests compounded by inept handling of lawsuit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday November 2, 2015 1:34pm

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersIn a relatively rare but not unheard of result in a civil lawsuit filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), the City of Austin will pay civic activist Brian Rodgers $5,000 to settle. He filed the lawsuit June 11, 2015, after the City failed to provide public records he had requested about three high-profile matters of public interest.

From his point of view the roughly $10,000 Rodgers spent on this lawsuit was a good investment, even though he will recoup only half that amount.

“Central to my effectiveness as an activist is my ability to get information from the city, facts on how decisions are made,” Rodgers told The Austin Bulldog. “Without transparency there is no way to do it. I can't interview every staff person. The lawsuit was necessary because I had reached an impasse on getting documents. They were stalling, redacting things they shouldn't have.”

Rodgers’ public information requests sought records about how plans were formulated to lease 700 acres of land at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in East Austin for a private, for-profit golf development; the City’s failure to procure 75 acres of surplus state land along Bull Creek Road for an inner-city park; and City officials’ communication with the Downtown Austin Alliance leading up to a light-rail election in which the organization spent $440,000 of tax funds on political advertising to back the plan.

Sue EdwardsSue EdwardsThe $5,000 payment will be made pursuant to a settlement offered by Rodgers, accepted by the city, and signed October 27 by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards.

The settlement requires the city to pay Rodgers within 30 days, and requires Rodgers to within 10 business days of receiving payment to file a request to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning Rodgers is forbidden from filing another lawsuit based on the same grounds.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireRodgers attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC said, “The City settled the case rather than face a hearing on sanctions or a full-blown trial over the way they handled Rodgers’ public information requests in the first place, and then how they handled his lawsuit.”

Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in three lawsuits, two of which were TPIA actions against the City of Austin (see links to related stories below).

No admission of guilt

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Commissioner Daugherty Won’t Be Prosecuted

Prosecutor filed motion to dismiss criminal complaint
over alleged violations of Texas Public information Act

by Ken MartIn
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Friday October 23, 2015 3:00pm

Gerald DaughertyGerald DaughertyThe special prosecutor who investigated a criminal complaint against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty told The Austin Bulldog he has presented to the presiding judge a motion to dismiss the case and a proposed order.

“There's no evidence of probable cause,” said Leslie B. Vance of Marble Falls, the former district attorney handling the complaint.

The criminal complaint filed March 17, 2014, alleged that Daugherty violated sections of the Texas Public Information Act through “willful destruction of public information and ... criminally negligent failure and refusal to give SOS Alliance, as requestor, access to public information.”

Bill BunchBill BunchBill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, who signed the criminal complaint, strongly disagrees with Vance’s decision to seek dismissal.

“Suggesting there was no violation is rather absurd in this case when Commissioner Daugherty admitted under oath that he deleted e-mails, deleted text messages, and did not produce some of the documents until months after the request because he overlooked them,” Bunch said, referring to Daugherty’s sworn deposition taken in a related civil case, which is still pending.

Vance said, “He didn’t do anything that violates the law, there’s been no crime committed by him. That’s why the civil case has all but been dismissed—and it’ll be dismissed too.”

The civil case was argued before District Judge Stephen Yelonosky July 13, as reported by The Austin Bulldog. Both Travis County and the SOS Alliance have filed additional briefs as recently as October 6 that Yelonosky will consider in deciding jurisdictional issues.

Calls seeking comment from Commissioner Daugherty and his criminal defense attorney, Randy Leavitt, were not immediately returned.

The argument for prosecution

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Big Brother’s Still Watching

But mass surveillance is being reined in a bit,
technology companies are fighting for our privacy

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday, October 5, 2015 3:13pm

It happened yet again. This time hackers accessed the computer system of credit reporting agency Experian and stole personal information about some 15 million T-Mobile wireless customers and potential customers, The New York Times reported October 1. The information stolen from Experian servers included social security numbers, home addresses, birthdates and more.

As if to underline the topic’s importance, news of this latest data breach broke the day after the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas hosted its Privacy and Technology Conference at The University of Texas at Austin. The conference featured ACLU experts from Washington, D.C., and New York City, faculty from UT San Antonio and Texas A&M, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition, and private companies engaged in providing encryption (Merlin Cryption) and preventing computer fraud (ZapFraud).

While some of the speakers talked about our vulnerability to nefarious parties who seek to wreak havoc or make money by hacking the kind of personal information lost in the Experian breach, others talked about another kind of vulnerability: the loss of privacy through mass surveillance conducted by our own government.

The shift to mass surveillance

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Ethics Reforms an Ongoing Struggle

Win some, lose some in the sausage
making of the Texas Legislature

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted September 22, 2015 2:49pm

The TV cameras and press coverage of presentations at the annual conference hosted by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas September 17 focused heavily on a session featuring Wallace L. Hall Jr., the embattled regent of the University of Texas System, who was interviewed by Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

Hall is big news, after all. His open-records crusade to investigate the flagship UT Austin campus triggered Travis County grand jury proceedings against him as well as attempts to impeach, neither of which were successful.

The other important discussions at the conference drew no coverage, as they involved no flashy controversial issues that dominate headlines. Instead they centered on more mundane but vital ongoing struggles to improve ethics and financial disclosures by public officials—meat and potatoes issues fundamental to open government.

Emily RamshawEmily RamshawAn important panel discussion among two members of the Texas Ethics Commission board and a state representative who pushed the Commission’s legislative agenda in the last session was moderated by Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw. The discussion covered the Commission’s weak enforcement powers, improved registration and reporting by state lobbyists paid to influence legislation and regulations, and the unhappy influence of so-called “dark money” spent to tilt election outcomes without reporting who contributed the funding.

Jim ClancyJim ClancyAttorney Jim Clancy, president of the Corpus Christi-based law firm Branscomb PC, is a former chairman and still a board member of the Commission. He was appointed by then Governor Rick Perry.

Clancy said lawmakers considering proposed ethics legislation “are not looking at what the public needs but what your next opponent will do.”

He advocates overhauling the state-mandated Personal Financial Statements required of state and local officeholders (and the Austin city manager and city attorney) by Local Government Code Chapter 145. “The reason why we disclose personal assets is to identify conflicts of interest.”

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Top Gun to Defend City Charter

City of Austin has hired attorney Renea Hicks to
defeat Council Member Zimmerman’s challenge

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Thursday August 27, 2015 2:35pm

Anne MorganAnne MorganRenea HicksRenea HicksInterim City Attorney Anne Morgan has hired veteran attorney Max Renea Hicks, a sole practitioner based in Austin, to defend the city in the federal lawsuit brought by District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman. Via a letter dated August 13, 2015, the City has agreed to pay him $350 an hour and a total amount not to exceed $55,000.

As previously reported by The Austin Bulldog (see links to stories, below) Zimmerman’s lawsuit seeks to overturn numerous provisions of Article III, Section 8 of the Austin City Charter to allow him to immediately start raising money for his reelection bid in 2016 and accept money from anywhere in the country. The Charter allows money to be solicited or accepted only within 180 days of the election and limits the amounts that may be accepted from sources outside the City of Austin.

The lawsuit also challenges limits on individual campaign contributions, currently $350, and would if successful allow incumbents to raise money year-round and build unlimited campaign war chests—in essence, giving the mayor and council members the same kind of incumbent protection enjoyed by state and federal lawmakers.

Hiring Hicks is somewhat ironic because in 1997 he defended the City of Austin in a federal suit brought by the group that won voter approval for the very restrictions that Zimmerman is challenging.

Activists happy Hicks will defend charter

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(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

 Zimmerman Lawsuit Not First Challenge

City has a mixed record of defending attacks on
City Charter’s restrictions for campaign finance

© The Austin Bulldog 2015
by Ken Martin
Posted Friday August 14, 2015 2:11pm

In 1998 with more than $672 million in bond propositions at stake in an upcoming election, The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Texas Society of Association Executives wanted to leave nothing to chance. They sued the City and won, overturning City Charter restrictions on the $100 limit for contributions to support or oppose ballot measures.

Marc KatzMarc KatzIn 2003 mayoral candidate Marc Katz, owner of the now-defunct Katz’s Deli, figured he needed to raise $300,000 for a strong campaign and then do it again if he got into a runoff. He sued the City to challenge the City Charter’s $100 limit on how much an individual could contribute to a candidate’s campaign. He lost the lawsuit and placed a distant third to then-Council Member Will Wynn, who won without a runoff.

Don ZimmermanDon ZimmermanNow comes District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, who sued July 27 to challenge not only contribution limits (currently $350) but several other restrictions on campaign finance. We are far from knowing whether he will succeed in overturning City Charter restrictions twice approved by Austin voters.

The Zimmerman suit against the City of Austin seeks to overturn multiple aspects of the Austin City Charter with the explicit goal of building his campaign war chest and boosting his odds for reelection in November 2016.

The Charter restrictions attacked

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Mayor Moves to Downtown Austin

Mid-year reports must show changes in
‘substantial interests’ for first half 2015

by Ken Martin
Posted August 7, 2015 Friday 10:09am

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerMayor Steve Adler no longer has an interest in or draws income from the Barron & Adler LLP law firm, Council Member Greg Casar now has a domestic partner, and Council Member Don Zimmerman did not timely file the required mid-year report—despite reminders of July 17 and July 29 sent by the City Clerk’s office.

The Austin Bulldog notified Zimmerman August 5 that his report was overdue and Austin City Code Section 2-7-99 provides that failure to file financial statements “shall be punished by a fine in an amount not exceeding $500.” Zimmerman filed his update August 6, six days late.

The mayor reported that he sold his homestead in West Austin and now resides in two condominiums he already owned in the W Hotel, across Second Street from City Hall. The Travis Central Appraisal District website lists the combined values of these two units at $3.5 million, but does not indicate that he has claimed a homestead exemption. Adler in a sense follows in the footsteps of another mayor, Will Wynn, who lived in West Austin when first elected and later moved downtown.

These are a few of the highlights gleaned from a review of the mid-year updates to sworn Statements of Financial Information (SFI) that Austin’s elected officials are required to file per Austin City Code Section 2-7-72(A). (Copies of these reports are linked at the bottom of this article.)

Out of sight, out of mind

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(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

 Council Member Zimmerman Sues City

Wants to overturn campaign finance restrictions
and could gain himself a direct personal benefit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Wednesday July 29, 2015 2:02am
Updated Wednesday August 5, 2015 10:46am (Houston court’s injunction was temporary, not permanent)

District 6 Council Member Don ZimmermanDistrict 6 Council Member Don ZimmermanDon Zimmerman had a long history of filing lawsuits even before he won election to the District 6 seat on the Austin City Council last December.

In fact, while a candidate he sued The Austin Bulldog for defamation last October, lost the case in early January, and still owes $10,000 in attorney’s fees and sanctions for filing a baseless lawsuit. More than six months later he has not paid the debt despite efforts to collect.

Now he’s filed a federal lawsuit to overturn several aspects of the rules under which he ran for and won office. In his latest lawsuit filed July 27, 2015, Zimmerman seeks to eliminate or modify restrictions on political fundraising found in Article III Section 8 of the Austin City Charter.

The lawsuit explicitly states that Zimmerman seeks to eliminate these restrictions to prepare for his campaign for reelection in November 2016.

Jerad NajvarJerad Najvar“Political speech is the very core of the First Amendment, but Austin’s campaign finance system seeks to control debate by controlling fundraising and spending,” said attorney Jerad Najvar of the Houston-based Najvar Law Firm, in a prepared statement. He represents Zimmerman in this lawsuit. “The result is that everybody in the world is free to speak, except for City candidates themselves.”

Campaign finance experts—and even seasoned political consultants who run Austin mayoral and city council elections—say rolling back the restrictions that Austin voters overwhelmingly approved in two City Charter elections would be a disaster for democracy at the local level. (More about that later.)

Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative has in effect sued his employer, the City of Austin, which will have to spend money to defend the City Charter.

What the lawsuit seeks

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Daugherty Wins SOS Round One

Judge Yelonosky rules mostly in favor of county
commissioner but leaves room for further action

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday July 27, 2015 4:20pm

Stephen YelonoskyStephen YelonoskyIn the public information lawsuit the Save Our Springs Alliance initiated against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, which was argued in court July 13, District Judge Stephen Yelonosky denied most of what the plaintiff sought.

But the judge left the door open as to whether the SOS Alliance could persuade the court to order Commissioner Daugherty or Travis County, or both, to change recently enacted policies regarding retention of and access to public records.

“There remains a question of the court's jurisdiction, as a pure question of law, over a Declaratory Judgment Action seeking to enforce the Public Information Act. The parties have not adequately briefed this, so the court must defer a ruling on the plea to the jurisdiction in this regard until they have,” the ruling states.

Although the lawsuit is technically about whether Daugherty has properly complied with the Texas Public Information Act by providing all records requested by the SOS Alliance May 31, 2013, the larger issue is whether SOS can find ammunition in those records for slowing or halting plans to build State Highway 45 Southwest over the sensitive Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

SOS may seek to settle out of court

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