The Calhoun Port Authority’s $400-an-hour lawyer claimed in court that he didn’t know what public notice was lacking before former Congressman Blake Farenthold was hired May 9.
Thankfully, District Judge Bobby Bell took a no-nonsense approach to the circular arguments presented by the port’s specially hired Austin lawyer, Bill Cobb. The comments came during a pretrial hearing regarding the Victoria Advocate’s lawsuit against the port. The suit contends the board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to provide a proper public notice of an action of high public interest.
During the hearing, Cobb contended he didn’t know what the newspaper, which sued on behalf of the public, wanted. Judge Bell asked the newspaper’s Victoria attorney, John Griffin, this question for Cobb.
Griffin replied by repeating what the newspaper has said from the outset — do what the law requires. Texas law requires public bodies to provide specific public notice before spending public money on matters of special interest.
In this case, Griffin said, the board should have listed on its May 9 agenda that it planned to hire Farenthold for a salary of $160,000 to work as a lobbyist. The public should have had an opportunity to comment on the hiring before its elected representatives on the port board took action. Public bodies can’t hide behind the catch-all posting of “personnel matters.”
“There you go, Mr. Cox, now you know what he wants,” Bell said.
The name of the port’s lawyer was the only thing Bell got wrong in his comments during the July 18 hearing. The judge’s mistake was understandable. Cox is the name of the Texas Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling that stands as the precedent for public notice.
In that ruling, the Supreme Court held the Austin school district could not secretly hire a superintendent. This is exactly what the Calhoun Port Authority did when it hired Farenthold without any notice or discussion of the action during a public meeting.
Also during the hearing, Cobb offered a strange test for deciding public interest in a hiring. He said the standard was the position had to set public policy or be “public-facing” to require a public notice of the hiring.
Judge Bell saw the standard quite a bit differently.
“If someone has appropriated public funds for private interest,” Bell said, “would that be something that the public would be entitled to know because they have a special interest in seeing that all employees who are hired or voted in do not take public funds for private use? Wouldn’t that be something that would be not only of special interest but of hyper-interest?“
Cobb responded to the judge, “That’s not how the system works.”
Sorry, counselor, that’s exactly how the system is supposed to work.
Based on the hearing, Judge Bell ruled Monday that Farenthold, Port Director Charles Hausmann and Board Chairman Randy Boyd must testify about the May 9 secret hiring. He denied all of the port’s motions to quash their testimony. They will have to answer why a disgraced former congressman would be an effective lobbyist. This huge question raises so many more that Judge Bell referred to it as “the 800-pound gorilla” during the hearing.
The judge also ordered the port to produce a copy of the certified agenda from the May 9 closed meeting. The open meetings act requires all public bodies to either keep an audio recording or a certified agenda – detailed notes of what was discussed – for all closed meetings.
This is required so that a judge may review the recording or notes to be sure the public body adhered to the open meetings act. It’s highly unlikely the port board kept these detailed notes, as the law requires.
These rulings move the case full steam ahead toward a trial date in either September or October.
The justice system can get incredibly twisted by legal gymnastics. Fortunately, Judge Bell, longtime district attorney in Jackson County before taking the bench, saw through the contortions of the port’s attorney. During the hearing, the judge offered a simple assessment that went to the core of the case, saying, “If someone took public funds for private use, as an old DA, that’s stealing, so it seems like Calhoun would have an interest if someone stole.”
Yes, indeed, the public has an interest in someone stealing public funds.