- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
Throughout 2017, Statesman reporters shone a light on scandals, conflicts of interest and plans that government powers tried to keep hidden from the public. Their stories have resulted in the reopening of a homicide prosecution, forced the Austin City Council to bring more sunlight into their deliberations and led to a series of legislative changes.
What follows is a compilation of the Statesman’s most consequential watchdog reporting from the previous year. It’s just a sample of the accountability journalism the newspaper practices on a daily basis.
Police custody death case re-opened
As part of the Statesman’s “A Question of Restraint” series examining in-custody deaths in Texas, reporter Eric Dexheimer detailed the disturbing case of 18-year-old Graham Dyer, who died after Mesquite police shocked his testicles with a Taser while he was handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser — a fact the officers failed to mention in their incident reports. Police video obtained by Dyer’s parents showed police failed to properly restrain Dyer, allowing him to fatally slam his head dozens of times against the cruiser’s interior, and the officers had threatened to kill the teenager, who was in the throes of a bad LSD trip.
Two months after the story ran in April, the Dallas County district attorney said the officers should be charged with criminally negligent homicide in Dyer’s 2013 death, but that because the crime’s three-year statute of limitations had passed, the officers could not be charged.
Prosecutors originally did not pursue charges against Mesquite police after a medical examiner concluded Dyer died of self-inflicted injuries. The case was never presented to a grand jury and none of the officers involved was disciplined, a pattern the Statesman investigation found throughout the state over the past decade.
Despite not being able to reopen the case locally, prosecutors have asked the FBI to look into the case and federal officials continue to investigate Dyer’s death, according to Dallas officials.
Lawmakers address improper student relationships
In February, an investigation by Statesman reporter Julie Chang found that just 40 percent of Texas teachers accused of improper relationships with students are criminally charged and that the Texas Education Agency doesn’t even track whether suspected misconduct leads to charges or a conviction. What information the agency does maintain about troubled teachers isn’t readily available to the public.
The investigation also revealed that many accused teachers who voluntarily gave up their teaching certificates were able to find work at charter or private schools while evading scrutiny from future employers and the public.
Days later, Texas lawmakers proposed a $3 million registry of teachers who have been convicted of a crime that led to the loss of their teaching license. In May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 7, which made it easier to charge teachers accused of improper relationships with students and required better reporting of incidents to the Texas Education Agency.
While the Legislature did not make the registry a reality, the newspaper launched its own database to help the public identify former teachers accused of such misconduct and where they’ve worked in the past.
Dam safety investigation prompts review
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz found hundreds of substandard dams upstream of populated areas in Texas that could fail in a catastrophic flood. The investigation also found that few residents are aware of the danger of living in the potential inundation zone, which includes areas well outside the 100-year flood plain. Development in such zones is largely unregulated by local, state and federal authorities.
Two weeks after the report, key members of the Legislature, as well as officials in Austin, home to six of the substandard dams, said they will review the safety and regulation of Texas dams.
“We will revisit the issue dealing with dam infrastructure and make sure we’re not putting people at risk,” pledged state Rep. Lyle Larson, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “We need to look if there’s a real and present danger to people and take corrective action if we’ve got dams that are substandard.”
City Hall backs down on city manager secrecy
The city of Austin’s push for secrecy reached new, and at moments absurd, heights this year when officials refused to reveal the identities of finalists for the open position of city manager, the city’s top administrator. The city, claiming it was in competition for candidates with other Texas cities such as Alice and Watauga, fought a Statesman request under the Texas Public Information Act and secretly changed the location of interviews in an effort to maintain secrecy.
The secret change of venue was the culmination of the City Council’s decision in March to put the job search in the hands of a consultant who urged a level of secrecy unusual for top-level municipal jobs. The council’s original plans were to only reveal the final candidate to lead the city’s 17,000 employees.
Despite the city’s efforts, Statesman reporters Elizabeth Findell and Philip Jankowski unmasked five of the finalists. The reporters staked out an airport hotel, and in several cases identified candidates by snapping photos of them and using social media to identify them. Texts and emails later obtained by the Statesman show that consultants encouraged finalists to wear Halloween masks and wigs to their interviews or pretend they were tourists.
On Day 2 of the interviews, city officials tried to give the reporters the slip by boarding vans and driving to a room inside the airport inaccessible to the public. Consultants tried to trick reporters into thinking interviews were still being held at the hotel by planting an employee there, emails show.
But shortly before Thanksgiving, Mayor Steve Adler reversed course and publicly identified six finalists, most of whom had already been revealed by the newspaper. The Statesman has sued the city over its secrecy and alleged a violation of the Open Meetings Act when the city changed the meeting location to the airport terminal.
Adler aide benefited from contract
In October, a seven-month investigation into the city of Austin’s procurement system found that a nonprofit run by a City Hall insider reaped $1 million in contracts for programs he helped create.
Frank Rodriguez, an aide to Mayor Adler, previously ran the nonprofit Latino HealthCare Forum, which paid him $74,000 as its executive director and his wife $66,000 as its treasurer. At the same time, he led the city’s Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission, which made spending recommendations to the City Council.
After joining the mayor’s staff in 2015, Rodriguez tipped off his former colleagues and wife about an upcoming city contract opportunity, emails obtained under the Texas Public Information Act by reporter Nolan Hicks revealed. Rodriguez denied providing the forum with insider information. A month after the Statesman presented its findings to Rodriguez, he announced he was resigning due to health reasons.
After the story was published, City Council Member Leslie Pool came out in opposition to Rodriguez’s appointment to a commission tasked with reviewing the city charter. Adler ultimately withdrew his nomination of Rodriguez to the commission, citing the fact that Rodriguez lived outside the city limits.
Revealing plans to close East Austin schools
In July 2016, Statesman reporter Melissa Taboada obtained internal Austin school district documents that indicated district leaders, in an effort to lower the overall cost of a bond package for school renovations and improvements, were considering shuttering several East Austin schools, which educate primarily low-income Latino and black students. District officials had taken steps to keep the school closure plans confidential until after the bond election.
Soon after the successful passage of the $1.1 billion bond, Taboada obtained new documents that showed district leaders were aggressively moving forward with plans to close several schools, with two expected to be shuttered as early as August.
After the story made the plans public, the superintendent apologized and district backed away from its timelines to close the campuses, promising to involve the community in future plans, and saying that the district would look for ways to keep the schools open.
Lawmakers boost funding for farmworker housing inspections
A year after an investigation by Statesman reporter Jeremy Schwartz revealed shortcomings in the state’s inspection program for migrant farmworker housing, lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session quadrupled the budget for the health and safety checks — from about $2,500 per year to $10,000.
The budget rider, which will ensure that money raised by licensing and inspection fees is funneled back into the inspection program, was the only piece of farmworkers housing legislation to survive the session. Bills that never made it out of committees would have overhauled the state’s inspection regimen in hopes of bringing more housing facilities into compliance.
Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who authored the rider along with Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, said that he and advocates would “put pressure on the agency to use that money and be more aggressive in their inspections and enforcement.”
The 2016 investigation found Texas badly trails other states when it comes to ensuring safe and healthy housing for farmworkers who travel across the state to harvest crops. Michigan, for example, spent $1.1 million on inspections in 2015.
Dukes’ AISD contract canceled after Statesman investigation
In October 2016, a Statesman investigation found that a consulting firm owned by embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was paid $1 million but made little progress in helping the Austin Independent School District recruit minority- and women-owned companies for contract work. Despite the lack of accomplishments, the firm was set to make an additional $500,000 over the next two years, reporter Sean Collins Walsh found.
After the story ran, school district officials canceled the $253,000 per year contract with Dukes’ firm, according to documents obtained under the Texas Public Information Act by Walsh and reporter Melissa Taboada in January.
Some trustees were unaware that Dukes’ contract had been extended for an additional two years — despite the district launching its own effort to carry out the same functions — until being informed by the Statesman.
“I’m glad we did terminate that contract,” Trustee Ann Teich said. “We were not getting the results from her company that they claimed to be giving us.”
Congressman demands answers on Temple VA scandal
In November, the Statesman unearthed allegations of corruption and abuse at the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in Temple, where VA bosses were accused of stealing VA equipment and forcing veterans who were in a vocational program to perform personal labor for them and their family members.
A preliminary VA investigation also found a complex scheme to profit from fraudulent VA purchases through phony invoices. An investigative board concluded employees had funneled business to a small Killeen firm that investigators said made at least $400,000 by padding purchases with 30 percent surcharges. In all, the report found, more than $1.3 million was “funneled through” the business, Whitetail Industrial Parts and Service, in recent years.
The veterans who testified about abuse at the Temple VA’s motor pool and grounds crew were in a VA vocational program designed to help veterans with addiction problems and at risk of homelessness get work experience. As a result of their experiences, several dropped out of the program and relapsed, according to a VA employee.
At least one VA employee was fired as a result of the allegations and other VA officials face an investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General that could lead to criminal charges.
A day after the Statesman’s story was published, U.S. Rep. John Carter, the Round Rock Republican who represents the Temple area, announced he would also launch an inquiry into the situation in Temple, saying he was “shocked, outraged, and exasperated to hear of these issues.”
Readers pay off school lunch debt
In April, a column by food columnist Addie Broyles revealed that, on any given day, about 700 Austin students are unable to pay for a school lunch and receive “courtesy” meals of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, vegetables and milk. While many students are enrolled in a free or reduced lunch program, in some cases parents make too much money to qualify, but still have trouble affording a hot lunch. Nationally, the issue of “lunch shaming” became a big issue in 2017.
The column went viral and within 24 hours, the Austin school district received almost $10,000 to help pay off student lunch debt. Within a week, the total had climbed to nearly $20,000, enough to clear the debt of all 3,500 students whose lunch accounts had fallen below zero.
Crackdown on city of Austin moonlighters
Despite city of Austin policies that say employees cannot work outside jobs that interfere with their city duties or represent a conflict of interest, only 12 of 36 city departments require employees to notify a supervisor of secondary employment, according to responses to a Statesman public information request. Only seven were able to say how many workers do.
Instances of questionable moonlighting by city employees included an Austin Energy worker responsible for approving developers’ electric service plans who provided consulting services on the side to some of those same companies, and an Austin Water spokesman who approved a marketing contract with a firm that built him a free website for his real estate business.
Four days after reporter Elizabeth Findell submitted a request for records on city workers’ second jobs, Human Resources Director Joya Hayes sent a memo to the City Council saying her office was working on new policy language regarding secondary employment.
Health care woes for retired teachers
In July, Statesman reporter Julie Chang revealed how Texas Legislature-approved changes to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas will drive up premiums and deductibles for many of the state’s 270,000 retired teachers by January.
Without legislative action, Chang found, many retired teachers, particularly those under the age of 65, would see their out-of-pocket costs grow as much as 10 times what they’re paying now. The impact would be particularly painful for married couples and those still caring for children with disabilities.
Ten days later, lawmakers announced a proposal to give retired teachers up to $1,200 more a year and pump $200 million into their health care over the next two years.
A bill signed into law during the August special session of the Legislature added $212 million into the retirement system, decreasing deductibles for retired teachers younger than 65 from $3,000 to $1,500, and premiums for them and their children by $25 a month to $408. Retired teachers older than 65 will see premiums drop from $146 per month to $135.
Even with the extra infusion of money, the retirement system is still expected to face up to a $700 million deficit next legislative session, a shortfall that will likely be exacerbated by the nearly 8,000 Texas teachers seeking to opt out of the health insurance program.
‘The Talk’ brings community leaders, police together
Two high-profile incidents involving police and race shook the city of Austin in 2016: the February shooting of David Joseph, an unarmed black teen who ran at an officer, and the July release of a video showing an Austin police officer slamming a black woman to the ground during a routine traffic stop.
Officer Geoffrey Freeman was fired after the fatal shooting of Joseph, but was not charged in his death; Breaion King’s treatment at the hands of officer Bryan Richter and a subsequent video in which another officer told King that black people have “violent tendencies” provoked a strong reaction from city officials.
In response, former Statesman reporter James Barragán and multimedia journalist Reshma Kirpalani produced a special project in February 2017 called The Talk, which explored the tense relationship between Austin police and the city’s African-American community.
The project focused on the dialogue between black parents and their children about how to interact with police and the need for an “equally frank discussion” involving the whole community.
Two weeks later, the Statesman led a community forum, co-hosted by KLRU-TV, that featured interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, Mayor Adler, community activists and relatives of Joseph.
“My dad told me, ‘There are two realities: the world we live in, and the world we want to have,’” said Vincent Harding, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, during the forum. “Do everything you can to make it home. Then when you come home, try to change things.”