In the past week, news emerged that Darian Ward, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary, had recently served a 10-day suspension for bad behavior.
Ward, a holdover from the Annise Parker administration, had apparently been spending a LOT of time working her side job (or perhaps her main job) on taxpayer time. She also (deceptively) mishandled a public records request related to the same.
According to KTRK-13 reporter Ted Oberg, who broke the story, Ward’s bad behavior came to light after she badly mishandled a public records request from journalist Trent Seibert, who apparently had requested emails related to Ward’s side business related to her side job. Ward, who apparently handles such requests, gave a laughably incomplete response to the request — which apparently raised some alarm bells with her boss, Alan Bernstein. Here is an excerpt from Oberg’s reporting:
Darian Ward was asked to turn over emails relating to her work on non-city related projects, including a private side business called “Joy in Motion Productions.”
Ward told Trent Siebert, the journalist who requested the records, and her bosses that she only had 30 emails relating to the request.
When asked again, Ward told her boss that she was providing 29 of the 30 emails “merely to demonstrate to [Siebert] that the request produced only one relevant email.
The city’s Office of Inspector General searched the city system and found about 5,000 emails dealing with Ward’s side business “Joy in Motion, or other personal, non-city business matters over the three year period” requested, a city memo said.
In those emails were proposals with film and TV companies for Ward’s “personal business ideas” for reality shows.
Ward was reprimanded for violating city computer use policies, undertaking outside employment without approval and for a city ordinance prohibiting city employees from using their city job to “secure special advantage”.
In addition to e-mails about Ward’s business, there was a “sustained promotional” campaign for a charity Ward worked for. That organization had no government functions and at least once, the emails were considered to be a solicitation from a government employee, the memo said.
“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law and you misinformed the Chief of Staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task. Your actions are in violation of… city policies,” Alan Berstein, Turner’s communication director, wrote to Ward.
“Ms. Ward, you not only understood, but also agree that your outside employment should in no way conflict or compete for your energy, mentally, or physically, with your City job nor shall it create a conflict between the public trust held by you in your capacity as an employee with [the City of Houston.] However, your actions proved otherwise,” Berstein said.
Bernstein’s note reads more like a termination letter than a reprimand, but Bernstein’s boss, Mayor Sylvester Turner, decided that Ward’s actions didn’t constitute a firing offense. Here is additional reporting on that decision from the Texas Monitor and original requester Trent Seibert:
Turner defended his press secretary.
“The matter is closed,” he said. “It’s been looked at by legal, it’s been looked at by HR.”
Turner said he even went “over and above the recommendation” that his staff gave him for Ward’s recommended suspension. He also said he would not be forwarding this issue to the Attorney General or the Harris County District Attorney, even though it appears state law may have been violated.
This is not the first time that Mayor Sylvester Turner has behaved strangely when it comes to disciplining staff. After his handpicked public works director (Karun Sreerama) was implicated in a bribery scandal by the FBI, the mayor initially placed Sreerama on paid leave for additional “vetting.” Sreerama eventually was asked to leave the administration permanently.
The Houston Chronicle editorial board was not impressed with Turner’s handling of the Ward situation:
Ward’s immediate supervisor wrote a disciplinary document last month that reads like a termination letter – all the way until the end. The mayor decided to suspend her without pay for ten days.
The mayor might as well have said, “Go to the beach for Christmas and learn your lesson.” The suspension stunned people at City Hall and left many of them shaking their heads in dismay, worrying that it reflected a lax attitude from the mayor toward wrongdoing by his staff. Just as troublesome was the mayor’s angry reaction to questions about Ward, striking a defensive posture about a management decision he needs to dispassionately revisit.
Houston taxpayers have a right to expect that city employees won’t spend their time at work operating businesses on the side. What’s more, a press secretary – of all people – should be expected to comply with state law regarding the release of public information. This mild punishment sets a bad precedent, basically telling city employees that if they’re caught running a side business out of a municipal office, all they’ve got to lose is two weeks’ pay.