HOUSTON (FOX 26) - Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary is back at work after being suspended for using city time and resources to benefit her own side business and for failing to turn over thousands of public documents about that business as required by law.
A letter from the Mayor's Office to press secretary Darian Ward suspending her without pay for two weeks in December says she misinformed people and misrepresented the information requested under the Texas Public Information Act when she failed to produce about 5,000 emails regarding private business that she was conducting on city time using her government email account.
The letter dated December 11 is signed by Mayor Turner and Darian Ward herself, agreeing to the suspension.
Assistant director Alan Bernstein writes, "Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requester the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the Chief of Staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task. Your actions are in violation of city policies."
We wanted to know if the mayor thought Ward’s actions violated any law and should be investigated by the Texas Attorney General.
"No, it was a personnel matter that we dealt with, and the letter speaks for itself,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
The letter states the "5,000 emails" were related to her private business, "Joy in Motion Productions and/or other non-city work-related topics”, and that when asked for these emails, she produced just "30 documents".
We asked the mayor whether there will be any further discipline for Ward.
"No, the matter is closed. It was looked at by legal as well as HR. I went over and above the recommendation," Mayor Turner said.
City Councilman Michael Kubosh says the discipline was too lenient.
"If the documents she signed are correct and she hid 5,000 emails from the public records request, and if on city time, she used her influence as a city employee, and she worked on things that weren't a part of the city, then that's theft, and she should be terminated," Kobosh said.
Trent Seibert, Editor of the Texas Monitor, made the original open records request and received the email from Ward that "we've located 30 documents."
We asked Seibert if he was the one who said it needed to be looked into further.
"No, the city actually did that, believe it or not. The city looked into it. I was suspicious. Thirty seemed low to me. But get this: 5,000 documents? I mean, it's sort of mind blowing," Seibert said.
When we asked the mayor how he'll ensure transparency in his administration going forward, he had this to say.
"With all of our employees, we expect for them to adhere to our policies, and we expect when these matters are brought to our attention – just like in this case – when they're looked at by legal and by HR, and when they submit to me a recommendation, I will evaluate it, and in this particular case, I went over and above the recommendation that was handed to me," Mayor Turner said.
Darian Ward declined our interview request.
Mayor Turner says after this incident, he did send an email to all city employees, reminding them that while they are on city time, he expects them to do city work.