Why former Houston press secretary claims what she did wasn't wrong

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Darian Ward appears in court. (KTRK)

Darian Ward, former press secretary to Mayor Sylvester Turner, exited her first court appearance Tuesday to a crowd of reporters. She's used to crowds of reporters from her previous job. But then, she wasn't a criminal defendant.

Ward is charged with a single court of failing to turn over public information, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum $1,000 fine or six months in prison or both.

Ward's case began in October of 2017 when Trent Seibert, a journalist at the Texas Monitor, asked Ward for emails related to her side projects that she was working on during city hours. Ward turned over 30. She had 5,000.

ABC13 broke the story Jan. 2, 2018.

"If you read the law, Ted, there is an exception to the Public Information Act, that if if the request is merely for personal information, it's not subject to release under the Public Information Act. In this request was for personal information, not public," Ward's attorney, Chris Tritico, told ABC13's Ted Oberg.

"You're kidding, right?" Oberg responded.

"I am not," Tritico said. "Read the law and that's what it says."

Tritico is partially right. The law does exempt information that is "highly personal and embarrassing." But Ward would've had to submit the information to the Attorney General first for an opinion so a third party decided if the information could be withheld. Ward didn't do that.

Joe Larsen is an open government lawyer with Gregor Cassidy and longtime board member at the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Larsen tells ABC13, "It's not a terribly novel argument. It is the one for a defense attorney to make. The Texas Attorney General has in the past allowed a de minimis - meaning small - use of government assets to run a private business. In this case, the scale does not fit that test."

Prosecutors say proving their case isn't hard.

"She used her office to further her personal business and then in addition to that, when a reporter ended up getting wind of it... she again used her office to cover it up," assistant district attorney Stuart Tallichet said.

City officials are often asked to search their own records for information, instead of having a third party do the search. The process allows each employee to decide on their own what documents are responsive to a request. Ward's case shows that not all follow the law in turning everything over, especially when the documents are damaging to the employee.

After the story broke, Turner promised a review. No changes ever happened.

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