Six current, ex-members of Pasadena economic development board indicted for private meetings

By Brooke A. Lewis and Mark Collette
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Jan. 23, 2018, updated Jan. 24, 2018

Six current and former members of Pasadena’s economic development board were indicted Tuesday by a grand jury for holding two private meetings in November 2016 with a contractor.

Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris were all indicted for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to a news release from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. If convicted, the six could face one to six months in jail and pay a fine of $100 to $500.

“The city has run too long with the good old boy system,” said Councilman Sammy Casados, who lodged the first formal complaint about the meetings, in a phone interview Tuesday. “This just proves that they were taking advantage of the system and keeping pertinent information from the public.”

Mease, then president of the board, told a Houston Chronicle reporter at the time that board members intentionally divided into two groups to meet separately with a contractor in order to avoid having a quorum that would trigger public meeting requirements. Such a scenario, known as a walking quorum, is prohibited by the Open Meetings Act.

Casados, who serves District D, asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office to investigate whether the board had violated the act in a complaint made public last February. Upon hearing news of the indictment, Casados said that he was shocked but satisfied with the results of the grand jury decision.

The six members of the board, known as the Pasadena Second Century Corp. allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts about potential designs for a major project – a new civic center. The designs discussed could have affected remodeling costs for Pasadena’s convention center and rodeo arena, according to the district attorney’s office.

A spokesman for Second Century said in an email Wednesday that the organization was just learning of the indictments.

“It is important to note that these indictments relate to the conduct of a prior board,” spokesman Dennis Winkler said. “A new board was sworn into office in April of 2017. Since that time, PSCC has made a number of changes, including new leadership and the involvement of outside legal counsel to advise on laws governing notice and conduct of PSCC’s meeting.”

He added that the current board would fully cooperate with authorities if contacted and was committed to transparency and good government, including adhering to the Open Meetings Act.

Prosecutions rare

Open Meetings Act prosecutions are rare, in part because they aren’t easy to prove, said Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney who serves on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. Participation in an illegal meeting must be done “knowingly” for a violation to occur, he said.

“Prosecutors have a lot of discretion as to what cases they will bring and will not be inclined to bring a case against what might be a political ally,” Larsen said. “In addition, an indictment against an officeholder will possibly draw claims of political motivation.”

In his formal complaint to Ryan’s office, Casados wrote: “In an attempt to avoid having a quorum (or a majority), half of the members were instructed to attend an early meeting and the other half were instructed to attend a second meeting later that same day.

“Neither the City Council nor any members of the public were made aware of the meetings,” he added in his complaint.

The economic board’s activities were under scrutiny because the panel was at the center of a local political power struggle. A federal judge had ruled then-Mayor Johnny Isbell’s city council redistricting plan unconstitutional because it sought to deprive Pasadena’s growing Hispanic electorate of its voting strength. The Second Century board was dogged by criticism that its sales tax-supported projects largely neglected the city’s mostly Hispanic north side.

A Chronicle investigation also showed Isbell and other officials misrepresented the amount of work Second Century had done on the north side of the city.

Casados said that when he first heard the board reportedly met in secret, he thought the members were trying to keep information from the Pasadena City Council. It only crossed his mind later that they could be violating the law.

“It was always the same people; the same players were always involved,” said Casados about the board. “They didn’t want any outsiders giving them information. It was just who they wanted there.”

Contract connection

The board had been led since 2009 by Mease, Isbell’s handpicked appointee and longtime friend. Mease, an attorney, also held the city’s delinquent tax and fine collections contract, for which he earned a fee of $180,000 per year while farming out most of the work to a national tax collection firm, according to city documents obtained by the Chronicle under the Texas Public Information Act.

Neither the development agency nor Mease could be reached for comment Tuesday night.

More than a decade ago, Mease built a multimillion dollar development in League City known as Victory Lakes and hired Richard Cansler with Civil Concepts to do the engineering. The firm was working on that project as recently as 2014. Civil Concepts received more than $1.1 million from Second Century during Mease’s tenure, which started in 2009.

Cansler was one of the top campaign donors to Isbell, who served for many years before stepping down last year.

This was not the first Open Meetings Act case in the region. Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal also faced an indictment on a charge of violating the act during discussions with county commissioners on an impending bond election. A judge dismissed the indictment, and that ruling is on appeal.

“The spirit of the law requiring open meetings is transparency in government,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “Intentional failure to notify taxpayers about meetings where their tax dollars are at stake is a crime because it destroys the public’s trust in their government to operate openly.”

Kristi Nix contributed to this report.