March 09, 2006
Pro Tem staffers fired

One more item on my catchup list: Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado has stepped down from that post (for now, anyway, or so she says), and the four staffers who got paid the illegal bonuses have been fired.

Mayor Bill White's chief administrative officer, Anthony Hall, said the employees who received more than $143,000 in bonuses had been fired and would be notified by letter of the decision.

"The letters were signed this morning advising them that they had been indefinitely suspended from employment with the city of Houston,'' Hall said. That suspension is the equivalent of a termination.

Hall, a former city attorney and councilman, presided over termination hearing Tuesday in which the four employees tried to save their jobs.

The employees - Rosita Hernandez, Florence Watkins, Christopher Mays and Theresa Orta - have the right to a public appeal hearing before the civil service commission for municipal employees.

They can appeal, but I doubt that will have any effect unless they can somehow prove their innocence. How they could do that is a mystery to me.

The attorney for Hernandez, Walter Boyd III, said Tuesday evening his client denies any wrongdoing and planned to appeal if terminated.

"The other side of the story is going to come out," said Boyd. "What you've been hearing up to this point has been merely an elected official posturing to make sure that their underlings, if you will, are the ones who ultimately are held responsible."

I'd put the odds of this being pure bluster in the 90%+ range, but I suppose one never knows. I mean, what are they waiting for, if they've got the goods? Why not wheel it out at this hearing before the firings happened? One way to prove they weren't responsible for what happened would be to prove that someone else was, after all.

The Houston Police Office of Inspector General investigation into the four employees is over and the results were forwarded to the Harris County District Attorney's office for possible criminal charges. But officials continue to investigate other city employees who received bonuses from late 2004 to this year to ensure they were properly approved, Hall said.

If the fired four start talking to Chuck Rosenthal and the word "deal" starts floating around, then I'll believe they've got something. As Kevin notes, the DA's office is involved because the city's Office of Inspector General had limited powers to investigate fully.

So as things stand now, I continue to believe that Carol Alvarado will not face any criminal liability for what happened. That doesn't mean she bears no responsibility for this - far from it. As Vernon commented here, about the best Alvarado can do is play the Ken Lay Idiot Defense card and hope that some day all will be forgiven, or at least forgotten. The question now is whether this will leave a mark on Mayor White. I don't think he'll take much of a hit, but until all the investigations are closed and the inevitable reforms are adopted, he's still in the picture.

What really strikes me as crazy in all this is how anyone thought they could get away with it. Sure, they went undetected for a few months, but this was not a sophisticated plot - hell, the Pro Tem's budget was going to run out well before the fiscal year ended, and then what? Ask for more and hope no one questions it? Pawn office supplies on eBay to cover the shortage? During our companywide ethics training last year, we were regaled by one of our attorneys about some of the things various now-former emplyees did to enrich themselves at the firm's expense. Some of the schemes were pretty darned clever, but from my perspective at least every single one of them was sure to be spotted sooner or later, as they all were. It's one thing to take the money and run, it's another altogether to keep taking it while staying in place. I just wish I knew what the decisionmaking process was for these folks.

UPDATE: The OIG may be finished with the Fired Four, but it still has work to do.

The police probe that led to the firings Wednesday of four mayor pro tem staffers will continue as investigators ensure that other city employees' bonuses were legitimate, officials said.

The ongoing Houston Police Office of Inspector General probe was revealed during a news conference in which Anthony Hall, the city's chief administrative officer, announced the termination of four employees who received a total of $143,000 in unauthorized bonuses.

Mayor Bill White and others in his administration said there's no evidence that other employees got large bonuses like those paid to the pro tem employees.

"The mayor said that there would be no cover-up, nobody would be exempt, so any situation where somebody got a bonus, they will be looking at them to make sure that none of these same issues were involved," Hall said.

"There's no indication that there was."

Hall, a former city attorney and councilman, presided over the hearings Tuesday in which the four employees appeared in response to termination notices.

The Inspector General, Assistant Police Chief Michael Dirden, has declined to comment. But the mayor and his staff have said the investigation into the pro tem employees was expedited because they were still drawing pay while under suspension.

Officials have said the investigation also would focus on any complicity by payroll or other employees in the pro tem scheme, which White called a "pattern of misconduct." White said the investigation so far has not uncovered complicity by others.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 09, 2006 to Local politics | TrackBack