April 12, 2006
Pro Tem firings upheld

Checking in again on the story of the four employees of the Mayor Pro Tem's office who were fired (technically, suspended indefinitely without pay, which according to Houblog is a kind of administrative limbo designed to make the employee resign), I see that those after a long hearing with the Civil Service Commission for Municipal Employees, the firings were upheld.

The three-member commission decided to uphold the terminations of the four Office of Mayor Pro Tem employees accused of taking bonuses city officials have said weren't authorized.

The panel also ruled that two lower-level employees didn't conspire to receive unauthorized bonuses, though that didn't have an effect on the status of their employment.

The attorney for at least one of the employees acknowledged the uphill battle.

"It's not unexpected," said Walter A. Boyd III, who represents fired pro tem office manager Rosita Hernandez. "Effectively we were guilty until we could prove ourselves innocent."


The hearing - in which two FBI agents watched the testimony but refused to reveal their affiliation with the agencies when asked by a reporter - dealt mostly with information already made public in documents or statements by city officials.

But attorneys for the employees elicited revelations that Alvarado had been notified that pro tem employees were getting large bonuses, and that her council office employees received significant pay increases.

Alvarado denied ever reading the notification, saying she was copied an e-mail that she apparently never read. In it, finance officials said the pro tem employees received $18,000 in bonuses in fiscal 2005.

Wait a minute. Am I to understand now that Alvarado's defense is that she didn't read an email? Because if so, that's very much not the same as saying she never received any notification at all. Am I missing something?

Maybe it's just written poorly. This MSNBC story is less ambiguous:

During former Mayor Pro Tem Carol Alvarado's testimony Tuesday night, she said she was not aware of the pay increases and that her signature was forged.

"Every single one of the 13 bonuses that are listed in this document -- did you have any knowledge, I want to be very clear, did you have any knowledge whatsoever about these? Did you ever approve them?" asked Connie Acosta, with the city labor division. "No, I did not," Alvarado said.

Alvarado said she only approved two raises of 2 percent for the employees and that there was once a misunderstanding between her and Hernandez about raises.

"I said, very point blankly, there's no way I would ever give anyone in my office, no matter how good a job they were doing, an increase like that," Alvarado said.

Now that's a lot clearer. So what's the deal with that unread email?

Speaking of email, this story from yesterday looks at some of the correspondence between Alvarado and Hernandez.

Days before the city suspended an office manager amid accusations of unauthorized bonuses, she asked a top finance official not to direct budget memos to her boss, Councilwoman Carol Alvarado.

Rosita Hernandez, the former Office of Mayor Pro Tem manager, sent the Feb. 9 e-mail less than an hour after the finance official e-mailed city department heads, including Alvarado, a routine message about the budget process for the upcoming fiscal year.

"Per Council Member Alvarado, please do not send her any e-mails regarding budget issues or items," she wrote to Mel Trammell, the city's assistant finance and administration director. "All e-mails and/or hard copy correspondence should be sent to me directly."


Hernandez's e-mail was among hundreds examined by the Houston Chronicle, which recently obtained her electronic correspondence since December 2004, when she began running the pro tem office for Alvarado.

A spokesman for the councilwoman, who has stepped down temporarily as mayor pro tem while Harris County prosecutors investigate the bonuses, seized on the e-mail. He said it showed that Hernandez tried to keep documentation of the monthly payments from Alvarado.

"It appears to be pretty damning evidence that she attempted to conceal budgetary issues in the mayor pro tem's office," said the spokesman, Joe Householder of Public Strategies, Inc. "We view this e-mail as a clear implication of Ms. Hernandez's efforts to conceal what was going on."

Hernandez's attorney, Walter A. Boyd III, sees the document differently. He noted as key the fact that Alvarado had forwarded the original budget message to Hernandez.

"It's evidence consistent with Alvarado not wanting to be bothered with this kind of stuff," he said.

The Chronicle searched the e-mail files for the words "bonus," "salary" or "raise," and the search revealed no correspondence suggesting Alvarado knew of the bonuses - a charge Boyd has made and the councilwoman has denied.

Most of the e-mail exchanges between Alvarado and Hernandez related to the councilwoman's schedule. The day before Mayor Bill White's Feb. 15 announcement about an investigation into the bonuses, the correspondence between them offered no hint of the pending scandal.

I'm inclined to believe Alvarado on this one. Even if you accept Boyd's explanation, Alvarado being disinterested in the process is not the same as Alvarado approving the bonuses. If anything, that supports the notion that Hernandez acted on her own, even if she believed she had her boss' implicit okay. This is the sort of thing for which you need to get permission in writing, and for precisely this reason.

I linked to it at the top of this post, but Houblog has some observations on the hearings and the coverage of same that's worth a look. We'll see what happens next.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 12, 2006 to Local politics | TrackBack