The Victoria Advocate is asking the 13th Court of Appeals to order the Calhoun Port Authority to stop paying former U.S. Congressman Blake Farenthold as a lobbyist until a judge or jury decides whether his hiring was illegal.
The new motion is part of the newspaper’s lawsuit alleging the port failed to notify the public that its board would be meeting to discuss Farenthold’s hiring on May 9.
The port has countered that the board met May 24 to try to correct any violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. In that meeting, board members tied on a vote to fire Farenthold, so he remains working for the port without a contract or any requirement to document his work.
The newspaper filed the new motion this week because the Calhoun port’s legal team has dragged out the open meetings lawsuit for seven months, Advocate attorney John W. Griffin Jr. said. The lower-court rulings have gone in the newspaper’s favor, he said, but the port has appealed on technical grounds.
The public shouldn’t continue to foot the bill for an illegal hiring while the lawsuit plays out in court, Griffin said.
If Farenthold is worried about collecting his salary of more than $13,000 a month, Griffin said, “all he has to do is ask the port to schedule a public meeting and disclose to the public that the port is considering hiring him, but that has not happened.”
Griffin said he informally asked Bill Cobb, the attorney who represents the port, if the port would put Farenthold’s payments into escrow, but he did not respond.
Similarly, Cobb has never returned phone calls or emails from an Advocate reporter to share the port’s opinion of the case.
In the new court filing, Griffin and another attorney representing the Advocate in this matter, Robert E. McKnight Jr., explained why they think the appeals court should rule in the newspaper’s favor.
First, there remains a disagreement about who actually hired Farenthold, the board or the Port Director Charles Hausmann.
Cobb contends Hausmann hired Farenthold, so the Advocate’s lawsuit to void Farenthold’s hiring is pointless. A judge cannot void the board hiring Farenthold because the board didn’t hire him. But according to the minutes from the May 9 meeting, Board Chairman Randy L. Boyd “directed (Hausmann) to proceed with hiring the person discussed in closed session.”
Griffin and McKnight also pointed out that the Advocate’s case is different from another Texas Open Meetings Act case the 13th Court of Appeals ruled was moot in 2017.
In that case, a man alleged a school district had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it hired a superintendent and sought to void that superintendent’s contract. The superintendent resigned before the case was resolved, so the 13th Court of Appeals ruled it was moot.
Griffin and McKnight pointed out that Farenthold has not resigned and so his hiring is still voidable.
The newspaper lawyers said they were trying to prevent the port from continuing to take money from the taxpayers to pay Farenthold and from delaying the case’s resolution.
They said they suspect the port also did not keep adequate records of what happened during the board’s closed sessions on May 9 and May 24 and so a judge must order the port not to violate the Texas Open Meetings Act again or face criminal prosecution.
”The newspaper is not simply going to go away without having the public’s right to know be vindicated,” Griffin said.
Farenthold was elected to serve the 27th congressional district in 2010. He resigned April 6 after facing criticism for how he handled staffers’ complaints that he had sexually harassed them. He is the port’s first full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Stalwart Strategies Inc. has lobbied the Texas Legislature on behalf of the port for the last two years. Its fee is $7,500 per month, plus any expenses.
”They have been able to get us into meetings with the head of the General Land Office and in meetings with the governor’s office plus they’ve been able to maintain and keep up with any legislation that could possibly affect the port,” Hausmann said before the board renewed Stalwart Strategies Inc.’s contract for another two years at its most recent meeting Nov. 14.