Exhibit A is J.D. Granger, son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and the head of the TRWD’s sister agency, the Trinity River Vision Authority, the legislatively created economic-development arm of TRWD that has been criticized for its $909 million taxpayer-funded development of the river basin.
With little experience in economic development, J.D. was named head of the TRVA out of the Tarrant County district attorney’s office with almost no public input.
Also in question are contracts with those tight with the TRWD establishment.
A year after his Love Shack restaurant in the Stockyards hosted a poll-watching party in November 2010 for Kay Granger, celebrity chef Tim Love was handed a deal to open an eatery within the district, at a riverside location coveted by other local restaurateurs.
“There may have been people who wanted to do it,” TRWD board member Jim Lane responded to word of their dismay at the time. “But the law didn’t require” open bidding.
The reviews by the attorney general’s office and the Henderson grand jury represent the first time the TRWD, maligned by critics for its alleged opaque ways, has faced strict scrutiny with disciplinary power.
The legal veracity of that evidence is questionable. Is the district simply a public body that knows its way around the rules, bending them just enough for them to work in its favor? Or is there some serious malfeasance at play?
Chuck Ross was sure he was asking for something simple when he e-mailed a request on August 25, 2014, to the TRWD via the district’s open records portal.
Ross, a reporter for the conservative website Daily Caller, asked for “e-mail records sent to or from Sandra Newby, a.k.a. Sandy Newby, for the time period between 1/1/2013 to 5/1/2014 for any exchanges with persons using e-mail addresses using the domain @newbydavislaw.com.”
Also, he said, “please conduct a search for the same time period for the following key words: ‘Newby,’ ‘Davis,’ ‘Brian,’ and ‘Wendy.’ ”
He was covering the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Wendy Davis and had understood that she was connected to the district. Reporters from The Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News also filed requests, looking for anything with Davis’ name on it.
Ross got what they didn’t: a proposed bill for $122,602.45. It would include 6,807 hours at $15 an hour to find the e-mails in the four-month period, plus $50 for a flash drive onto which the material could be downloaded to be delivered to him in Wichita, Kans.
“My request was not detailed by any means,” Ross said.
The district contacted him and asked him to refine it, which he did.
“What happened is that I agreed to refine it, and then it jacked up the price,” Ross said.
The district defended the $50 flash drive, noting that a 64-gigabyte drive would be required to hold all of the requested records. A 64GB drive can be purchased for $20 at Walmart.
Ross did not purchase the records.
It’s what is called a “creative denial” in the open records business.
The maneuvers by the TRWD to avoid giving up records look like an assembly-line legal process that some conclude is designed to keep the public out of its business. For this story, the Weekly reviewed all requests referred by the district to the state attorney general’s office for a disclosure opinion between 2005 and 2014.
The Weekly also reviewed all open records requests submitted to the district between 2012 and 2014.
A review of requests found the time between the original request and the response from the district seeking clarity is most often the statutorily permitted 10 business days, ensuring a long, drawn-out process.
One request on May 29, 2013, sought internal e-mails related to print advertisements between March 10, 2013, and May 20, 2013. The district wrote back on June 11 asking if the requestor would like to narrow the simple query, “which may include advertisements for water conservation, water quality, bid solicitations, election notices, and other matters.”
After a clarification, the district extended the delay further by appealing to the state attorney general’s office, asking to withhold some of the information.
Such timed delays occur in virtually every request that involves a “clarification.”
A March 31, 2014, request for all communication between the Newby/Davis law firm and the TRWD did not receive a response until April 14, seeking clarification.
After the clarification, that request, too, was appealed to the AG’s office.
Hundreds of pages of records requests dating back four years, obtained through the Texas Public Records Act, show that the district has for years had trouble promptly responding to the simplest requests.
A representative from State Farm Insurance requested a police report for a theft on January 4, 2012. The request had still not been filled by January 23, when the agent again contacted the district.
On December 17, 2013, a request from TMG Imaging for the audio of that day’s meeting was requested. It took three weeks before the district got back to the requestor, advising that it would require a formal open records request. The recording, easily captured with free software, was already on the district’s website. Which is how the request was resolved by TMG.
Eight of the 19 requests referred by the TRWD to the AG’s office for an opinion or ruling on admissibility since 2006 began with a clarification letter sent to the requestor. In 11 cases, the time between a request for clarification or a referral for opinion to the AG’s office was the full 10 days.
In two cases, the district asserted that records were not subject to release without seeking an official opinion, including a September 2006 request for documents related to a land purchase by the district.
“In response to your request, we are enclosing herewith 19 pages of documents,” district records manager Nancy King wrote the requestor. “At this time, we are withholding two pages on the basis of the exception from disclosure set forth in Texas Government Code.”
In a January 2013 request for information on a proposed pipeline, “TRWD advises there is no information responsive to your request that is not exempt under the [public records] act,” wrote Kyle Gray, the Fort Worth attorney who handles much of the open records response work for the district and who works for Pope Hardwicke Christie Schell Kelly & Ray, which has overseen records requests for the district since at least 2006.
The requestor immediately demanded the district refer the matter to the attorney general.
Once again, thank you Weekly for speaking truth to power. The mere escalation of “open records requests” should have been concerning to current board members to review their behavior and operations as a board. They are a body of public citizens who are charged with responding to public concerns….not obstruct. I hope citizens of Fort Worth will read this article becoming more aware of the need for change. These are tax dollars being wasted on legal contracts versus being responsive to citizen inquiries. Oops your letter fell between the cracks is not reflective of a public entity taking care of public concerns.