When Frank Rodriguez took a full-time job working for Austin Mayor Steve Adler in April 2015, he resigned his post atop the nonprofit he co-founded, the Latino HealthCare Forum.
But four months into his new government post, Rodriguez emailed his former colleagues at the forum, which still employed his wife, with a tip: Keep an eye out for a possible contract linked to the city’s massive development and zoning code rewrite, known as CodeNext.
The city wanted a “culturally competent public engagement process,” Rodriguez wrote in the Aug. 12, 2015, email. “Read the information and think about doing some of this work through the CHC.” The Center for Healthy Communities was a Latino HealthCare Forum program.
Linda Smith, Rodriguez’s wife and a top Latino HealthCare Forum official, responded, “If we get the proposal we can hire others to do the work on it and (the forum) would have an oversight role.”
The messages are among dozens of emails Rodriguez traded with his former colleagues at the forum since joining Adler’s staff.
Rodriguez, who denied any improper ties between his work as the mayor’s aide and the nonprofit’s projects, is stepping down Friday because of health issues, a spokesman for the mayor said.
“The fundamental principle in preventing conflict of interest is you should never act on insider information,” said longtime government watchdog Tom “Smitty” Smith, “to use your position to benefit yourself, your family members, or your business — whether it’s a for profit or nonprofit.”
“It would appear that Rodriguez has a history of blurring the lines between his role as a government official and the nonprofit that he previously received compensation from and which continues to employ his wife,” added Smith, who ran the consumer and political advocacy group Public Citizen in Texas for three decades before retiring this year.
In multiple interviews and statements, Rodriguez defended the exchanges. He said many of the emails he sent were meant to help the charity transition after his departure and denied any potential conflict of interest.
“I don’t recommend in this process. I don’t recommend vendors. I don’t recommend providers. I recommend needs,” he said. “I gave no advice on contracts.”
Rodriguez said the email exchange with his wife did not constitute tipping off the forum about potential government work. “There’s no (request for proposal) out here. There’s no contract out there,” he said. “This is simply the notion this work needs to get done.”
Rodriguez said he treated other nonprofits the same as the forum and notified others about the potential CodeNext opportunity.
However, he could not provide the American-Statesman with any similar emails sent that same year, nor did the Statesman find any while combing through more than 3,800 pages of city documents, many of which were obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.
Instead, Rodriguez provided a message he sent to another charity a year and a half later, in February, which described a similar outreach effort for CodeNext. It remains unclear if any contract for the project was ever issued.
Buck Wood, an attorney who has litigated ethics issues for decades, said the exchange appeared to show a husband tipping his wife off about possible city work.
“If I were the mayor, I wouldn’t want anybody on my staff advising their wife’s business how to bid on contracts,” Wood said. “I think it’s very bad policy. If I were a competitor, I would not be very happy.”
Adler stuck by Rodriguez, who he said reached out to other organizations at the time despite the lacking paper trail.
“I trust Frank, and he told me that he reached out to multiple organizations,” the mayor said. “I know that he talks to a lot of organizations because that was part of his job.”
The exchange is just one of dozens that illustrates the close relationship Rodriguez, as both chairman of the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission and later as a top aide in the mayor’s office, maintained with the charity he co-founded.
Another set of messages, from more than a year after he joined Adler’s office, shows Rodriguez worked on the budget request that funded the Latino HealthCare Forum’s $200,000 a year contract to conduct outreach and enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.
In August 2016, Rodriguez received an email from Jill Ramirez, his successor as executive director at the forum and leader of the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission.
Ramirez briefly detailed the commission’s wish list for the 2017 budget, which included an additional $300,000 installment that would fund the forum’s Affordable Care Act enrollment contract.
“I need to vet these with (Council Member Sabino ‘Pio’ Renteria),” Rodriguez wrote in a forward of the email to Adler in August 2016. “The list should probably come from him after he approves.”
The money funded the forum’s ACA enrollment program for its third year. So far, the city’s health department has paid the forum $600,000 for its ACA work, with an additional $125,000 set for 2018 after the City Council trimmed the program in its most recent budget, Austin Public Health spokeswoman Carole Barasch confirmed.
It remained unclear how the budget cut might affect the last $200,000 extension remaining in the forum’s contract for the 2019 budget year.
It’s also unclear how many people the forum has enrolled because the nonprofit was not required to report that figure for one of the three years so far, 2016.