By Jessica Priest
Originally published May 18, 2018
The Calhoun Port Authority apparently violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it hired former Congressman Blake Farenthold as its lobbyist.
The Victoria Advocate is investigating its legal options in challenging the May 9 action on behalf of the public.
“This is one of the most clear-cut examples of a notice violation that I’ve ever seen,” said longtime media attorney Joe Larsen, who serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
Larsen said the notice the port posted at the Calhoun County courthouse May 4 was too vague to be legal. The posting said the board would go into closed session “for the purposes of deliberating the appointment, employment, compensation, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”
He said the Texas Supreme Court established in 1986 that the notice needs to be specific when it concerns high-profile people. The precedent-setting case involved the Austin American-Statesman, which sued the Austin school district for failing to notify the public its board intended to hire a superintendent.
“This case almost has stronger facts than the Austin ISD case because here we’re talking about a major public figure who is extremely controversial,” Larsen said.
Attorneys David Roberts and Sandra Witte, who represent the port, also known as the Port of Port Lavaca-Point Comfort, disagreed.
They said the port’s six-member board of directors gave the executive director of the port, Charles Hausmann, the authority to hire and fire port employees. At the May 9 meeting, they said, Hausmann was consulting with the board about Farenthold’s employment. They said the board did not vote to hire him because it was Hausmann’s decision.
“He has and always has had hiring authority. The board does not convene a meeting every time they hire an employee or fire an employee. That would be micromanaging. Can you imagine how that would work in a huge city like Houston?” Roberts said.
“I just don’t think they (the lawyers you talked to) have all the facts,” Witte added.
Larsen and John Griffin, a Victoria lawyer who has handled Texas Open Meetings Act complaints before, said that explanation just raises more questions and concerns.
“Where is the agenda and the minutes of any meeting where Mr. Hausmann was given the authority to hire a lobbyist for $160,000 like Farenthold? Either way, the public had no notice,” Griffin said.
Witte pointed to an employee policy and procedure manual adopted in 1999 that gave Hausmann the power to hire and fire port employees. She said Hausmann had not hired Farenthold before the May 9 meeting but didn’t say when he did.
A Texas Open Meetings complaint can be filed against the port in district court in Calhoun County. If a judge determines there was a violation, Farenthold’s hiring could be null and void.
“They could always go back and hire him again. They have the authority to do that,” Larsen said, “but what this would do is basically force them to properly post it and give the public notice.”
When the Advocate learned Farenthold’s first day as the port’s lobbyist was May 14, the newspaper sent the port two open records requests. The first was for copies of Farenthold’s employment contract and minutes from the May 9 meeting in which the board approved hiring him.
In response, Hausmann said Farenthold did not have an employment contract and neither did any other of the port’s employees as they are at-will employees. He said he could not provide the Advocate with a copy of the minutes until the board approved them at its next meeting June 13.
The Advocate’s second open records request was for text messages and emails between Farenthold and Hausmann between December and May. That period was significant because it was in December that Politico reported Farenthold used $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint brought against him by his former communications director, Lauren Greene. He had promised then to repay it, but this week he told ABC News that he would not.
Thursday, the port provided emails that show Farenthold asking about lobbying for the port just days after resigning from Congress. He resigned April 6 ahead of a ruling by the House Ethics Committee, which was investigating him.
“Any luck getting me officially hired today or tomorrow so I can try to work some magic here in Florida?” Farenthold asked Hausmann on April 20.
It’s unclear what Farenthold was doing in Florida.
In another email, Hausmann provided Farenthold with a draft employment contract and told Farenthold it had not been approved by the board.
This is the first time the port has employed a lobbyist.
According to a job description Hausmann provided for the “legislative liaison,” Farenthold will develop and advocate the port’s public policy agenda, provide analysis of legislation and regulatory activity that affects the port and the ship channel and implement strategies to influence policy positions and funding by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Farenthold also must submit a written report of his activities to Hausmann every week and file all paperwork needed to comply with the Ethics Reform Act in a timely and accurate manner.
Farenthold attended the May 15 meeting the port held with the corps to tell the public about its effort to deepen and widen the ship channel, but he did not give a presentation.
Some leaders, both locally and in Washington, D.C., were shocked when they learned of Farenthold’s hiring and did not think he could be an effective advocate for the port.
“I was not aware of them even advertising for a legislative liaison,” Calhoun County Commissioner Clyde Syma said.
Hausmann did not answer questions about whether the board had advertised the position or considered other applicants.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, has urged her colleagues in Washington not to take meetings with Farenthold.
“I think it’s very disheartening that, first of all, he lies and that, secondly, he would be hired by an entity who thinks he can be persuasive,” she said. “I really think his conduct has made him radioactive.”