Darian Ward, ex-press secretary for Houston mayor, indicted over withheld emails

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A grand jury indicted former press secretary Darian Ward Thursday after an ABC13 investigation uncovered Ward was caught spending countless hours of city time on personal projects and lied to her boss in response to an open records act concerning the matter.

Ward was initially suspended, and then resigned as press secretary in January.

If convicted, Ward could face a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in jail.

INTERACTIVE: The seven days and 5,000 emails that brought down Darian Ward

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"Ms. Ward is quite upset this happened, quite shocked, frankly," said Chris Tritico, defense attorney hired by Ward.

Tritico explained that the indictment alleges that Ward did not turn over public information. However, Tritico points out that the original request is for Ward's personal emails. Personal emails, says Tritico, are not covered under the Texas Public Information Act and not subject to disclosure.

"The Texas Public Information Act makes it very clear that even if you're using a government computer, your personal emails are exempted from the Texas Public Information Act, and they're not disclosable," he said. "Darian Ward did not violate the law, period."

Houston City council members were shocked by the indictment.

"You're sharing this for the first time, I hadn't heard the news but if she's guilty of that, I'm glad they caught her," said council member Karla Cisneros.

"This is first I've seen the indictment," said council member Michael Kubosh. "This is a strong message being sent by the grand jury, making it well known that city officials and elected officials are subject to the open records request, and failure to comply with that has serious consequences."

Mayor Sylvester Turner is out of the country on business. Current press secretary Mary Benton released a statement, saying that "Mayor Turner expects every city of Houston employee to comply with the Texas Public Information Act."

Benton referred further questions to the Harris County District Attorney's office.

Ward is scheduled to appear in court for the first time next Tuesday.

The trouble started with Ward when Trent Siebert, a reporter at the Texas Monitor requested emails Ward was sending on private projects. That request only came after Ward repeatedly refused to return his calls as press secretary, Siebert said.

Had she returned a press call, a key component of her job, Siebert would never have sent the initial request, he said.

Today, Siebert applauded the action as one defending the rights of citizens and reporters.

"I hope this indictment sends a message to public officials that open records laws are important and should not be defied," Siebert said."Not complying with open records laws is a significant problem in the city of Houston."

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Houston's embattled press secretary Darian Ward resigns.

Emails from the inbox of Ward released showed a years-long campaign of use for side projects, ranging from her work with a charity to a representative of an airline showing serious concern he was being asked for consideration from a government employee. The founder of that charity then implied Ward use her connections to get someone in a "powerful position" to make it happen anyway.

Read some of the emails below - on mobile? Tap here to read open the documents full screen

RELATED: Press secretary used city TV show to promote her projects

Turner had said he considered the case closed after he suspended Ward for two weeks.

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In a screen capture from a Houston TV program, press secretary Darian Ward hosts contestants to her reality show.

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