Have we reached an ethics dead end?

June 27, 2012 8:20:03 PM PDT
The watchdog you pay for is spending tens of thousands of extra tax dollars fighting your right to know. Now, the Texas AG has agreed to investigate Vince Ryan's office and 13 Undercover is keeping the heat on.

Channel 13 has even filed a rare formal complaint seeking help, as the county attorney fights to keep you from ever seeing the misconduct they've uncovered in some constables' offices.

There are thousands of miles of roads here in Harris County, so don't you just hate it when you turn down a street and hit a dead end? Now, rub your eyes. In Harris County, maybe this is what the sign should say.

"You've reached an ethics dead end. I don't know where you go," Texas Watchdog editor Trent Siebert said.

Is the County Attorney Vince Ryan the one to blame?

"If you believe in limited government -- and any good conservative Texan has to believe in limited government -- then you are going to have to know what your government is doing; otherwise the government takes over," public records expert Joe Larsen said.

You pay a staff of county lawyers to make sure you get public information. They helped us for months get records about the constables and talked tough about a their own investigation of possible misconduct.

"At the end of the day, does Numero Uno, the public, deserve to know exactly what you found so they can make a determination about whether or not these people are fit to remain in office?" we asked Vince Ryan.

"To the extent it is appropriate at time they run for re-election, I think you're right," he said.

But now we know Vince Ryan didn't keep his promise. Ryan faces voters in November. But the primaries are clearly over and the county attorney fought hard to keep you from ever seeing the whole truth, releasing only legal advice but not the facts of who did what wrong.

What Ryan's office already knows must be pretty bad. Here's an email from one of his own lawyers: "The revelations could be the source of high embarrassment and black eyes for the justice system."

That was about evidence some constables pocketed cash from the eviction process. That wasn't even the heart of the possible misuse of county workers.

"Is the county attorney the public's lawyer or the constables' lawyer?" we asked Vince Ryan.

"The people of Harris County's attorney," Ryan said.

Ryan's office even got $40,000 more of your money to hire an outside law firm to help them.

"Right, and it is troubling. I don't mind saying that," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

The county attorney doesn't even think you have the right to see who his top staff are calling on cell phones, ones you pay for.

"I would like to see the attorney general look at it more closely," Larsen said.

Trent Siebert runs a watchdog website that's been doing its own reporting on Harris County.

"We've moved beyond stonewalling, we've moved beyond slow walking. We're now into a full-fledged cover up, there can't be any other reason," Siebert said.

But the county attorney now says the report was never going to be seen by you, that it was prepared for his clients, protected by attorney client privilege. A sworn affidavit from Ryan's chief of staff was good enough for the attorney general, who said they could keep the report private.

"Who's the client? Seriously, who is the client?" Larsen said.

Good question, because Ryan refuses to show the report to the county judge or the commissioners or the constables -- even the guy who asked him for the review in the first place.

"I mean I've heard the county attorney say my client is the Harris County public. Well if that's the case, I've waived the privilege, you can release it," Larsen said.

So maybe you're confused now, because usually the client is the one who pays the bills. And don't you pay Vince Ryan's bills, including his $177,000 a year salary?

"He's certainly anything but the lawyer of the people," Siebert said.

It's hard not to question the pattern emerging in an election year. Vince Ryan is a Democrat -- so is Victor Trevino, May Walker, Jack Abercia and El Franco Lee. No, he's not a constable, but 13 Undercover caught Lee driving a county car while he was taking $525 a month from you for expenses to drive his own car instead.

"So are you now representing the public's business?" Lee asked us.

"Yes," we said.

"The county business?" he asked.

"Yes," we said.

"OK."

The county auditor asked Ryan's office for a formal legal opinion. They're still waiting nearly a month later. So we asked El Franco Lee if he'd give you a refund instead.

"When they tell me that, then I'm going to deal with it accordingly," Lee told us.

Now can you see the sign?

"The people that we are supposed to go for help do anything but help," Siebert said.

On Thursday night, we turn to the DA to help us. Did we run into another ethics dead end?

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