March 18, 2006
DA seizes computers from Alvarado's district office

The search for evidence in the investigation of improper bonuses to Mayor Pro Tem staff continues.

The key issue of whether city employees implicated in a payroll-padding scandal had approval from Councilwoman and former Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado led prosecutors back to City Hall on Friday.

Armed with grand jury subpoenas, investigators from the Harris County District Attorney's office and the Houston Police Department took computers from Alvarado's district office.


Prosecutors are seeking evidence of whether Alvarado, once charged with overseeing the pro tem office, knew about those payments. The former office manager, Rosita Hernandez, has told investigators the councilwoman did, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said. Another fired employee has also made that allegation.

"What we heard was that there were communications back and forth between the pro tem office and the district office," Rosenthal said. "We're basically looking to see if we can find any communications that either confirms or does not confirm whether or not Rosie Hernandez had the authority to do the things that she did."

He said the councilwoman and her staff members weren't targets at this stage of the investigation.

Alvarado has said she gave Hernandez autonomy to make budget decisions in the pro tem office, which handles some administrative functions for council offices. That trust was betrayed by employees, who she said forged her signature on documents authorizing some payments.

Alvarado's spokesman, Joe Householder, characterized Friday's action as routine for such a probe. "This is a normal part of the process, nothing we hadn't expected," he said.

Gerald Treece, an associate dean and law professor at South Texas College of Law, agreed. He called the move "pretty predictable."

"This may be exculpatory instead of incriminatory," he said."It could be to help her, not to hurt her."

Prosecutors likely think something criminal happened, he said. "The question is: Is this an isolated incident or systemic? They are looking to see whether the mayor pro tem's office is a de facto ATM."

Seems routine to me, too. Even in the absence of claims by Rosita Hernandez that Alvarado authorized her actions, for Rosenthal to not explore this avenue would be a dereliction of duty on his part. Maybe he'll find something and maybe he won't, but he surely can't allow for the possibility that Hernandez's attorney will some day claim that his failure to check into their claims about Alvarado constitutes reasonable doubt.

One more thing:

The subpoenas also sought information from BlackBerry e-mail devices carried by Alvarado's staff, and data archived on city servers housed outside council offices.

Free advice from a BlackBerry administrator to Chuck Rosenthal: The main thing that you should look for on those BlackBerries is PIN-to-PIN messages. Everything else can be found on the city's Exchange servers or with the users' ISPs if they set their handhelds up to receive email from more than one source. Maybe if the city has a policy of only retaining Exchange server backup tapes for a short period (a fairly common practice), you might be able to find something archived on a handheld that had been deleted in Outlook. I'd consider that a longshot.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 18, 2006 to Local politics | TrackBack