Sheriff media consultant works without contract

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Feb. 4, 2018 at 8 a.m.
Updated Feb. 5, 2018 at 6 a.m.

Ward Wyatt, left, and VISD president Lou Svetlik look for early voting election results for a VISD bond during an election-night watch party at Frances Marie's.

Ward Wyatt, left, and VISD president Lou Svetlik look for early voting election results for a VISD bond during an election-night watch party at Frances Marie's.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

A media consultant working without a contract or any written job duties is receiving about $4,000 every month from the Victoria County Sheriff's Office.

Since August 2016, William Ward Wyatt has received a total of $68,133.69 from the sheriff's office's forfeiture and professional services funds.

Wyatt owns W3 Strategies, which specializes in political campaigns.

Only two of the invoices are itemized. It is therefore difficult to know what tasks Wyatt has performed for the public. He started working for the sheriff several months before T. Michael O'Connor was re-elected in November 2016.

Neither O'Connor nor Chief Deputy Roy Boyd responded to repeated requests for an interview.

When the Advocate contacted Wyatt, he asked the newspaper to email him questions and then did not respond to them by deadline.

It's common for larger law enforcement agencies to hire a media consultant, experts say. But not having a contract with that consultant is not a best practice.

"It's definitely sloppy and not in the public interest. If public funds are used, the public should have expectation of a clear contract with an open bid process and decent evaluative metrics," Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen's Texas Office, wrote via email.

Dan Engster, a professor at the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, added, "While the lack of a contract on file does not necessarily constitute an ethics violation, it falls short of an ethical best practice because it invites speculation about a conflict of interest and lacks transparency."

The local government code requires municipalities to conduct a competitive bidding process to procure services valued at more than $50,000.

Neither expert nor others the Advocate contacted knew whether this code would apply to the sheriff or the commissioners court, though.

Businessman Omar Rachid, a former Victoria mayoral candidate, was concerned when he learned about Wyatt's lack of contract.

"If there is no signed contract, there's no accountability for anything, so basically, it's free money," Rachid said, adding he considers O'Connor a friend who has done well as sheriff.

Victoria County Republican Party Chairman Bill Pozzi also didn't know Wyatt was working without a contract, but he didn't share Rachid's concerns about it.

Pozzi said O'Connor was overwhelmingly popular among his constituents - and for good reason.

"I don't find any fault with the sheriff. I think he does a pretty good job. I think he's keeping the crime rate down, and if he thinks that it's important that he has a consultant, then I guess that's OK with me," Pozzi said.

Along with consulting for the sheriff, Wyatt also has worked for the campaigns of Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns, congressional candidate Bech Bruun, Victoria district attorney candidate Constance Filley Johnson and the campaign committee supporting the Victoria Independent School District bond issue that failed in 2017.

Delays in notifying public

Dec. 28, Wyatt said he had become the sole spokesman for the sheriff's office because Deputy Bryan Simons, who was serving as the public information officer, had been transferred to a new role.

In the weeks since then, Wyatt has had trouble getting information, especially after normal business hours.

"This is really annoying and has never happened," Wyatt texted a reporter who was seeking information about an 8-year-old gunshot victim, "but I called dispatch and, I guess for once, there was no one on shift that knew me, and they said, 'I can connect you to Bryan Simons, but I can't give you any info because your name isn't anywhere to be found.'"

Rachid said he was concerned such a breakdown would happen.

"Personally, I believe that (communication) should be handled internally," he said, "not by an independent contractor who may not actually be totally familiar with any of the particular topics the public may need to know about."

The sheriff's office also hasn't immediately notified the public about two homicides in which a suspect was at large.

In the first, the sheriff's office waited more than 48 hours to notify the public of a Jan. 20 homicide. During that time, the suspect killed himself, pulling out a gun on a public road.

In the second, the sheriff's office said nothing about a Jan. 29 killing for more than 60 hours. Even after the suspect was arrested in San Antonio, the sheriff's office waited another day to inform the public.

When asked why the sheriff's office had not promptly notified the public about the first homicide and an at-large suspect, Boyd said investigators were busy solving the crime.

"There's just not a lot of thought about, 'Man, we need to Facebook that,'" he said.

The sheriff's office's media policy calls for the agency to be both proactive and on-call to answer the public's questions about emergencies and critical incidents after hours.

The sheriff's office's media policy differs from the Victoria Police Department's in that it requires information to be released by only one person.

All Victoria police officers are encouraged to provide basic information as long as they use their names and ranks with the department. Victoria police also use a sworn officer to handle the duties of a media spokesman rather than an outside consultant.

How consultant is paid

The sheriff's office has had to replenish the professional services fund from which Wyatt is paid.

For example, the sheriff's office once submitted to the commissioners court a budget amendment that added $12,000 to that fund. That amount was previously allocated for the salaries of a captain of investigations, a captain of detention, corporals and courts and extradition officers.

Elected officials, such as the sheriff, are autonomous, and county commissioners control only the budget, Commissioner Clint Ives said.

He said the commissioners weren't concerned about the sheriff's budget amendments unless they draw from the county's general fund. Ives referred to the sheriff's budget amendments as line-item transfers.

"A line-item transfer is like your mom giving your dad $20, you know?" he said.

Adam Andrzejewski, the CEO and founder of Open the Books, which fights for fiscal transparency, said the funding could be challenged by the Dillon's Rule, though.

Under Dillon's Rule, a municipal government has authority to act only when the power is expressly granted or implied in statute or is essential to its purpose. He suggested the public ask the sheriff to point to the statute that allows him to pay a media consultant without a contract.

Open the Books reported the federal government spent more than $4 billion on public relation services from 2007 to 2014. About $2 billion went to independent contractors like Wyatt.

"Citizens from across the political continuum view taxpayer money spent on self-promotion to be waste," Andrzejewski said.


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