Elected official on the defensive

HOUSTON Mike Stafford doesn't have to post job openings at the Harris County attorney's office...and he doesn't. They can hire who they want and that's one of the reasons we put our hidden camera to work.

It's sunrise and Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford is starting his work day, not from home, but from a house on Pine Lake in west Houston. It's the home of woman named Donna Lightfoot.

"How would you describe your relationship with her?" we asked him.

"Wayne, that's personal and I'm not going to get into that," said Stafford.

We asked because at the time of our surveillance, Lightfoot was a $47,000 a year aide in the county attorney's office.

On surveillance video, we saw them at Los Cucos Mexican restaurant on Memorial. And there's me.

"Do you think it's appropriate for someone sitting there to have a relationship with someone who works under you?" we asked him.

"I don't know," he answered.

"You don't have an opinion?" we asked.

"I don't know," said Stafford. "It would depend on a lot of things you haven't put out there."

"Like?" we asked.

"I don't know," said Stafford.

We know Donna Lightfoot used to be Stafford's neighbor in Indian Shores near Crosby. She lived a couple of doors down. There is no county policy forbidding hiring personal friends, but five weeks after she was hired, she got a 65 percent raise, six raises in two years. Her salary was in line with more senior assistants.

"There is no favoritism that's been practiced, regardless of any relationship," said Stafford. "The numbers don't lie."

In early 2007 Mike Stafford had to argue one of the county's biggest lawsuits in front of the New Orleans appeals court. It was the fight over the Bible that used to be in front of the courthouse. Part of the travelling legal team included Donna Lightfoot. She'd been with the county attorney's office just months as an administrative assistant.

"Her specific purpose was research," said Stafford. "She researched, found all the cases, collated the cases, digested the cases and set them up."

Lightfoot didn't have her paralegal certificate yet. Her previous job -- dental hygienist.

"In this case, yes, she did a great job," said Stafford.

Months later, the county attorney's office agreed to repay half her paralegal school tuition -- $2,300.

But how? Harris County does not allow tuition reimbursement. So where did the money come from?

Toll road fund 2315, money raised from fines imposed on unpaid tolls, the fund that paid for parties, the free parking and the bonuses for Mike Stafford's employees, instead of anything having to do with the toll road.

Seven hundred and sixty thousand dollars has been spent from the fund in a little more than two years. It's all legal thanks to the way the law was written.

More than $41,000 has been spent to pay for education for a number of employees, like Donna Lightfoot. They all got half their tuition paid, tuition reimbursements of up to $7,000.

"It's an investment in the future of this office," said Stafford.

But there's no requirement the people getting the tuition stay in Harris County government at all.

"In the private sector, that's just plain dumb," said taxpayer advocate Bob Lemur.

The same day we asked for records from Stafford's office, Donna Lightfoot interviewed and got a new job in another county office.

"You don't know if it's a coincidence?" we asked.

"No, I don't," said Stafford.

Lightfoot has refused to talk with 13 Undercover and even though she doesn't work in the county attorney's office anymore, look who was driving Lightfoot's car this week when we tried to talk to her -- Beverly Chambers, Mike Stafford's chief of staff and campaign aide.

Tomorrow, something else Mike Stafford doesn't want to talk about -- who he spends campaign cash on.

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