Sunday, July 26, 2015

IS HCDE PLANNING TO SILENCE CRITICS WITH LEGAL ACTION...AGAIN?


Is HCDE planning to silence critics with legal action...again?

Follow the trail and see what you think.

Then please take action if you think it’s true

A brief history:

HCDE is the dba of The Harris County School Trustees. They are a leftover government entity from a past era in Texas Education when Counties ran the public schools. All 252 other counties in Texas closed their county boards when Texas moved from county run schools to our current “independent” school district system. Only Dallas and Harris Counties continue to elect County School Trustees. HCDE is only school board in Texas elected by political party. Harris County citizens have been working to close ours since the 1980s – but HCDE uses the property tax they still collect to lobby the Legislature to stay open.

What we know happened:

In 2015, Senator Paul Bettencourt(R) sponsored SB 1216 to place HCDE under Sunset Review - which identifies waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies. The bill passed the Senate 31-0 but died in the House.


Two persons paid by HCDE traveled to Austin and testified as “representatives” of the HCDE Trustees AGAINST SB1216 - the Superintendent and the Trustees’ “outside general counsel.”





Two HCDE Trustees traveled on their own time and expense to Austin and testified as private citizens in SUPPORT of SB1216.

 



Three private citizens (including myself) traveled on our own time and expense to Austin and testified in SUPPORT of SB1216.


The above facts are clear and ordinary. But what happened next reads more like a Tom Clancy novel.

Request for Public Information

I simply wanted to know how many education tax dollars (intended to benefit students) had been spent by HCDE to fight against SB1216. Through review of public records, I already had the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbyists, the salary and travel expenses of the Superintendent, but I was missing the attorney fees. 


I also wanted the directive from the Trustees sending the superintendent and board attorney to testify on their behalf against SB1216.

So I filed a simple request to view meeting minutes and the billing documents for attorney fees related to SB1216, including travel expenses.



The Result:

The result was SHOCKING to me…


First, HCDE has no records showing the Trustees ever voted to approve or ever issued a directive to either person who testified against SB1216 on their behalf. So it seems that the Superintendent and the Trustees’ chief legal counsel spent public funds on travel and accommodations in Austin to “represent” the Harris County School Trustees, WITHOUT approval of the Harris County School Trustees.

Second, HCDE is now trying to hide from the public the fees their attorney charged in relation to SB1216.

HCDE has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to block public release of their attorney fee billing related to SB1216 for two reasons:


  • Attorney-Client Privilege and
  • Work Product Privilege because:
The party resisting discovery believed in good faith that there was a substantial chance that litigation would ensue and [created or obtained the information] for the purpose of preparing for such litigation


You can read HCDE’s full 

letter to Ken Paxton: here






Litigation related to SB1216???   Against whom???

Who is HCDE preparing to sue related to a simple bill to place them under Sunset Review? 

Certainly not:
  • Senator Bettencourt for sponsoring the bill or
  • The Texas Senate for voting 31-0 to pass it.

So, the only people left that HCDE could be preparing to sue over SB1216 are the five citizens who testified in support of the bill:




  • Me,
  • two other private citizens and/or
  • two Harris County School Trustees who testified as private citizens IN FAVOR of the bill



The Texas Citizens Participation Act passed in 2011 protects citizens’ right of free speech and the right to petition our government. The purpose of that legislation was to prevent “civil lawsuits . . . aimed at preventing citizens from exercising their political rights or punishing those who have done so. “

It makes it virtually impossible for an organization to successfully sue a person for speaking out on issues related to government and allows a judge to dismiss frivolous lawsuits filed against one who speaks out about a “matter of public concern.

Why would HCDE file a lawsuit they can’t win?

Could HCDE be so AFRAID of the waste and inefficacy a Sunset Review would reveal, that the purpose of a potential lawsuit has nothing to do with WINNING in court?

What if the real purpose is to intimidate those who speak out with the threat of lawsuits, either regular citizens, activists or elected officials?

Would HCDE actually waste taxpayer dollars pursuing litigation to shut people up?

They’ve done something similar before.




In 2007, a newly elected HCDE Trustee began speaking out in public about the waste, duplication and inefficient use of taxpayer funds he was finding at HCDE.  

Some other Trustees accused him of “circulating and disseminating” “misinformation” and asked him to resign. He refused. 




Four Trustees voted to use tax dollars for legal action to remove him from office. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court – HCDE LOST. The Trustee remained in office.





But this time, meeting minutes show HCDE Trustees have never discussed or voted on SB1216 or filing lawsuits related to SB1216.

Does that mean the HCDE administration is using public funds (without board approval) to prepare to attack elected officials that question their activities? 

Or does it mean one or more Trustees is using public funds to prepare an attack on political opponents?

The public won’t know for sure what HCDE is doing unless the full billing documents are released.


What can you do?

1. You may contact the HCDE Trustees and tell them to release ALL attorney billing records related to SB1216 to the public.

Angie Chesnut (R), Board President  
(Up for re-election in 2016)
Email: achesnut@hcde-texas.org
Phone: 713-696-0715



2. You may also contact Sen Bettencourt and urge his office to investigate HCDE’s use of property tax dollars to prepare litigation related to his SB1216.
                                                  
Email: paul.bettencourt@senate.state.tx.us
Phone:  (713) 464-0282


Colleen Vere
colleen@TexasTrashTalk.com