Thursday, September 6, 2012

Is It Time for a Harris County Recall Law? – Part 1

Republican_RINO_2This is the first in a series showing how far one group of elected Republican Harris County officials has veered from the Texas Republican Platform, thus arguing the need for a county recall law.

(For those who don’t already know, Harris County still elects County School Trustees who  collect a countywide education property tax almost 50 years after all students in Harris County moved out of the countywide school system and into ISDs. It is the only school board in Texas elected by Party. Currently there are 5 “Republicans” and 2 Democrats on the Board. You can read more here. Also, to prevent confusion, know that Harris County’s School Trustees operate and tax under the “assumed name” -  HCDE.)


I would like to propose a new law. A law that allows voters to recall any elected official who runs for office on a party ticket in Harris County, Texas  and then votes to use public funds AGAIST the party platform. Such a law would allow voters to get rid of phony Republicans -  like  “Republican” Harris County School Trustees – quickly, instead of having to wait 6 years for their term of office to expire.

Take a look at how far this group of GOP elected public officials has veered from the Texas Republican Platform using our education dollars even though the Platform specifically states:
“Every Republican is responsible for implementing this platform”

Example #1   Texas GOP Platform reads:

We urge that taxes established for a particular purpose shall not be used for any other purpose.”


Yet, the  “Republican” HCDE Board of Trustees is treating Texas Education Code 18.14(b) the same way President Obama treats The Defense of Marriage Act – with complete disregard. Because DOMA does not fit into our President’s political agenda, he just ignores it or refuses to enforce it. 

tec18.14So, even though TEC 18.14(b) specifically states that the countywide education property tax called the “Equalization Tax” levied by the County School Trustees “shall be distributed to the …independent school districts of the county” according to the number of students per district, the HCDE Trustees have followed the lead of President Obama and chosen to simply ignore that particular law. I guess they have decided that they know better how to spend  education dollars than ISD Trustees, because HCDE spends the funds themselves and distributes NONE to the ISDs.


The “Republican” HCDE Board of Trustees also uses education funds to suit its desires by toying with words – just as we see The White House do with Obamacare - they claim for one purpose  it’s a “tax” and for another it is a “penalty.”

tec 18.26 So, even though TEC 18.26 specifically states that the countywide education property tax levied by the County School Trustees is for the advancement of public free schools in the county, the “Republican” HCDE Trustees simply remove the words “public,” “free", “schools,” or “county” when desired.


The website of one program they oversee describes its clientele  as:

schools, colleges and universities, municipalities, counties, education-related organizations and other governmental entities across the United States.”
Another example of the HCDE Trustees toying with words using our tax dollars:

MGT082 On their website when they are soliciting clients from all over the country, the County School Trustees add the word “beyond” to allow their jurisdiction to move outside Harris County and imply that they are elected to serve the entire nationwide education community by using the words  “education public.” 


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Yet in their press release about the lawsuit the County School Trustees filed against Harris County, HCDE leaves out the words “beyond” and “education public” and sticks closer to Texas law by stating they provide services to “the general public and 26 school districts throughout Harris County.”





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The HCDE “Republican” Trustees  can also be compared to President Obama when he signs “Executive Orders” to advance his governmental authority. They have approved so many activities and enterprises so far beyond the boundaries of their county authority that the State Director of Texas Learns, Joanie Rethlake,  is  now listed as a “Local Government Officerof HCDE in purchasing coop requests for proposals.



Guess they have never bothered to read the Texas Republican Platform to know that Republicans in Texas expect Republican elected officials to use our tax dollars the way the law originally intended, not just any way they please.



Example #2     Texas GOP Platform reads:

 “We oppose paying lobbyists with tax dollars”…“We support legislation to prevent lobbying by any organization receiving federal grants except that relating to its tax status” …“We support the prohibition of any paid public school employee or contractor to lobby the legislature or the SBOE, unless on an unpaid basis and in an unofficial capacity”

First let’s define Lobbying: “the practice and profession of influencing governmental decisions, carried out by agents who present the concerns of special interests to legislators and administrators. The term originated in the United States of the 1830s, when representatives of interest groups tended to congregate in the lobbies of Congress and state legislatures. It is now used in a broader sense to include attempts to influence any governmental actions.”

MGT086 Many Harris County Republicans would be shocked to find that the five “Republican” Harris County School Trustees have used county education dollars to hire a Democrat Political Strategist, Pat Strong, to oversee  HCDE’s extensive lobbying efforts for years. Of course, they don’t give her the title of “HCDE Lobbyist”. That would be too honest. Instead they call her their “External Relations Liaison Officer” and list her as a member of the Harris County School Administration.



On her company website Pat Strong, who is also the owner of Strong Strategies, boasts a strong career with the Democrat Party:
“Pat served as Chief-of-Staff to Congressman Ken Bentsen (TX-25) for eight years until he left office in 2002.  Prior to working for Congress, Pat served as statewide field director for Governor Ann Richards’ campaign.  After working as local press secretary and Harris County early vote coordinator for Clinton/Gore in 1992, Pat joined the Democratic National Committee as the Texas State Coordinator on the National Healthcare Campaign.  All of these opportunities availed themselves as a result of Pat’s role as Senior Council Aide to Houston City Council Member Vince Ryan in the 80’s.”
Just what are the “Republican” HCDE Trustees approving county education funds for Pat Strong to do for HCDE?

Records show she regularly updates the “Republican” Trustees  via The HCDE  Government Relations Committee where the HCDE Trustees, administration, consultants, and lobbyists discuss their “Strategy with State Legislators.”

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She meets with Federal officials to discuss “HCDE’s role in bill considerations.”

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She even provided a private phone consultation with Trustee Roy Morales concerning The DREAM Act.

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Pat Strong is the tour guide when the HCDE Trustees or Administration take a trip to Washington, DC to lobby IN PERSON, even though HCDE receives a large portion of their budget from Federal Grants.  Receipts acquired through open records show HCDE “Republican” Trustees approved Pat Strong traveling to DC three times in one 14 month period.

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One trip was approved for $24,000 of our county education funds. That covered Pat Strong, 1 HCDE Assistant Superintendent, the 2 Democrat Trustees and 1 “Republican'” Trustee to spend three nights in Washington, DC at The Hotel Palomar  to attend “Congregational meetings.”





(I think they meant to write “Congressional Meetings.”)

The HCDE Request to Attend  documentation states the reason for the trip is “Congregational visits with US department of Education,” but the trip agenda outlines meetings with both members of Congress and the US Department of Education.



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Records show the “Republican” HCDE Trustees allow Pat Strong to use county education funds like a corporate expense account while traveling to lobby. On the first night of this particular trip in DC, Strong picked up the dinner tab for the group.

Dinner was $216.07 plus a $43.21 tip to total $259.28 in county education dollars.  But hand written on the receipt is the list of those dining. There is an extra person listed  who was not named on the HCDE travel request - “Wynn.”

Why are Harris County taxpayers picking up the tab for someone not listed by HCDE as traveling with their group? I have no idea. What I do know is that this wasn’t the only time taxpayers picked up the tab for an extra person on this trip.


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The same thing happened again the next night. Only this time Pat Strong identified the expense on her trip Itinerary as “Dinner with Special Guest: Former Congressman Jim Chapman.”

Two points stand out about this dinner.

First, only four names are written on the receipt as having dined with this group - and they happen to all be Democrats  -  Pat Strong, the 2 Democrat Trustees,  and a former Democrat Congressman.

They all dined together on a meal costing $267.85 plus a $55.00 tip for a grand total of $322.85 in Harris County education funds - all given the stamp of approval by a “Republican" Board.





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But, much more interesting is the second point about this dinner. Notice there are two separate receipts. One for “refreshments” and one for “dinner.”
Now, had they gone to one location for appetizers and another for dinner, there would be no eyebrows raised.

But take a closer look.

Both receipts were paid by Patti Strong at 9:15 pm.
Both receipts were for table #142.
Both receipts were from server, Mat  and
Both receipts are NOT ITEMIZED.

The old saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a  duck, it most likely is a duck  - but you will have to decide for yourself.


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For her next trip to Washington, DC , “Republican” Trustees approved $8,400  of our county education dollars for Pat Strong, as well as ,the HCDE Superintendent and 2 Assistant Superintendents to spend three nights at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City to attend the “AASA 2010 Legislative Advocacy Conference.”



The HCDE Request to Attend Document  states the reason for the trip is “To hear briefings on what will be the current status of the reauthorization of ESEA in Congress and also visit our Congressional delegation on Capital Hill.”



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But in her Monthly Status Report as HCDE External Relations Liaison Officer, Pat Strong stated that she met with Massie Ritsch and the US Department of Education concerning not only ESEA, but also the “HCDE role during bill consideration.”



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For her third trip to Washington, DC  during that 14 month period,  “Republican” Trustees approved $1,575.00  of our county education dollars for Pat Strong to spend three nights at the Hilton Washington Hotel to attend the “National School Board Association Federal Relations Network Conference.”



Her HCDE Itinerary shows the event included:

Legislative Seminars on Advocacy”   and

Congressional Visits.”



There are other questionable practices found inside the documents from this open records request besides “Republican” Trustees approving county education funds for lobbying, expensive trips and questionable “meal” purchases.

Pat Strong is being PAID with COUNTY EDUCATION DOLLARS to attend regularly scheduled meetings of the HCDE Board of Trustees and the Houston City Council, both of which have meeting minutes available online. She is also being PAID with COUNTY EDUCATION DOLLARS to meet with various politicians and activist groups – groups like The League of Women Voters, One Voice, and the AFL-CIO.

To understand the concern I have with the  Monthly Status Reports Pat Strong filed with HCDE to justify her work as a County School Administrator, you must first take a close look at the clients she lists on her own company’s website.
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Pat Strong’s Clients at Strong Strategies include:

HCDE

KIPP Houston

Houston City Council Members  Melissa Noriega (D)  & Sue Lovell (D)

Senator Rodney Ellis (D)

Congressman Al Green (D) 


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And according to Harris County campaign financial records

Harris County Attorney
 Vince Ryan (D)

is also a client of Strong Strategies.



Normally, none of this would be a concern.

But when you take a close look at the Monthly Status Reports Pat Strong filed with HCDE to justify her work as an HCDE Administrator, some red flags appear.






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As you can see above,  Pat Strong  listed four  “external meetings” that  she attended on behalf of HCDE from Nov. 1 – 30, 2010.

But 7 of the 8 persons listed are connected to another Strong Strategy client or actually are themselves  Strong Strategy clients.

Sue Lovell is a client.

Terry O’Rourke is the First Assistant to client, Vince Ryan.

KIPP Houston, a client, employs Mike Feinberg, Chris Gonzales, Amy Ward, and Sharon Simpson.

Licia Green is the wife of client, Rodney Ellis.



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And, when you look closely at the records from the trip Pat Strong took to Washington, DC for HCDE in September 2010 – a trip paid for with county education dollars – you can see that on Sept. 23, 2010, Pat Strong met twice in the same day with another of her own clients, Congressman Al Green.


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And the same problem is found again in her Quarterly Status Report covering April 1 – June 20, 2011. Of the 16 “external events and meetings” Pat Strong attended on behalf of The County School Trustees, 9 were with her other Strong Strategies clients or staff of those other clients.






Examples:

April 7, 2011 – Melissa Noreiga (D) “event”
May 17, 2011 – Vince Ryan (D) “event”
June 30, 2011 – Congressman Al Green (D) “event”

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And what a coincidence to find that  HAR Connect  posted a fundraising reception honoring Congressman Al Green, a client of Strong Strategies,  on the exact same date that Pat Strong attended a Congressman Al Green “event” on  on behalf of the HCDE “Republican” Trustees.



lobby094Records show that 5 of the 6 Meetings Pat Strong listed on another Quarterly Status Report  - also dated April 1 – June 20, 2011, but listing July meetings - were affiliated with other Strong Strategy clients.

KIPP is a client.

2 Clients serve on Huston City Council.

Terry O’Rourke is an assistant to client, Vince Ryan.

Congressman Al Green is a client.

Sue Lovell is a client.


(NOTICE  (1) the dates on the top read April 1 – June 20, 2011 but the events say July. (2) after July 20, 2011 was blacked out by HCDE.)


Read closely the details of “Visits With Elected Officials” reported on July 5 + 20, 2011.  It lets us know that the “Republican” County School Trustees are not only paying Pat Strong to lobby in Washington, but paying her to take her own clients out for breakfast and lunch.

This is how the HCDE “Republican” Trustees choose to spend our county education dollars

But that is for the next story – just how far the “Republican” HCDE Trustees have swayed  from:

Example #3   Texas GOP Platform reads:

 Frugal Government – We encourage all governments and agencies to live as frugally as all taxpayers do and to abhor the excessive spending on non-critical items such as this administration has indulged in.”


Who are the 5 “Republican” HCDE Trustees?
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Angie Chesnut (R)
Board President (Precinct 4)   
achesnut@hcde-texas.org


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Louis D. Evans, III (R)
Board Vice-President  (Precinct 3)
levans@hcde-texas.org




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LT. COL. (Ret.) Roy Morales (R)
(Precinct 1)
rmorales@hcde-texas.org



morris facebook photo cropped

Marvin W. Morris (R)
(Precinct 2)
mmorris@hcde-texas.org


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Michael Wolfe  (R)
(At Large)
mwolfe@hcde-texas.org

2 comments :

Anonymous said...

This should be on the front page of the Houston Chronicle so that all the taxpayers in Harris County can see how these "trustees" are so untrustworthy!

Anonymous said...

Arrogant bastards all...first, cancel Strong's deal; next, demand restitution of all monies spent on visits with her other 'clients'; third, terminate HCDE.

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