All the talk has been good so far about a new regime at Dallas City Hall under recently hired Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax and the new city attorney, Larry Casto. Their new byword is supposed to be transparency.
You could fool me. On my first real challenge to them, I just got stonewalled about as hard as I ever have been under previous City Hall regimes. If this is the new City Hall’s idea of transparency, I’d hate to see what it considers a cover-up.
I presented the city with what looks to me like strong evidence that a key member of Broadnax’s staff has engaged in forgery. If I’m right about what I’m looking at — I am not a cop, not a lawyer, but my opinion is based on a lot of experience — then she did it to hide her attempt to obstruct a legal investigative process.
It’s a serious business, one way or the other, having to do with whether the city illegally concealed a document that it was required by law to provide in response to an open records request. And at first, when I started asking about it last week, the city couldn’t have been more helpful.
But this week when I told staffers I had evidence that certain documents they had sent me were forged, they tossed the whole matter to the guy in the public information department who sends out mosquito spray alerts. Richard Hill, director of dallascitynews.net, wrote me saying: “The city has provided all the public information that was requested. We have no further comment.”
Yeah, well, excuse me, Dr. Dallascitynews, but I have a lot more comment. Back story: In 2014, volunteer naturalists, including Ben Sandifer and Hal and Ted Barker, discovered that the city had allowed a contractor to dig an immense crater, 20 feet deep and 20 acres in area, in the middle of the Great Trinity Forest to provide free fill dirt for a new private golf course.
Subsequent investigation showed that the city allowed the crater to be dug without any proper permitting or precautions required of private businesses and did nothing effective afterward to remediate the damage.
On Feb. 14, Sandifer, alarmed after three years that the hole seemed to be eroding and getting worse, filed a demand under the Texas Public Information Act for all emails and correspondence dealing with the crater from Susan Alvarez, the city official in charge of floodplain and drainage management. She is the person at City Hall directly responsible for the crater. And here is where things go dark.
Under a 2006 consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the city is required to maintain a staff of inspectors whose duties include inspecting city projects to make sure they meet federal law. It’s an odd situation — the city inspecting itself and potentially giving itself tickets. But that’s what the out-of-court settlement with the feds called for in 2006.
In 2016, those city inspectors began dinging Alvarez on almost a monthly basis with notices of violation related to the unremediated crater. On August 8, 2016, Alvarez sent the inspectors a cranky email arguing that the crater is not subject to state or federal regulation because it is entirely on city-owned property. She said falsely that state officials had “declined enforcement on this situation.”
The state officials in question didn’t know about the hole. This year, when state inspectors at Sandifer’s urging finally did go look at it, they issued a report backing up everything the city inspectors had been saying in their notices of violation to Alvarez.
What I will say next is my opinion and interpretation. I could be wrong. It certainly is what Sandifer thinks is true about the Aug. 8 Alvarez email. The email in question is reproduced below for you to read and judge for yourself.
I think the tone of that email, especially since it comes from a higher-ranking city official to lower-ranking employees, is bullying, as if she’s telling the pesky inspectors she’s had enough and better not get any more nasty little notices of violation.
Alvarez or somebody looking out for Alvarez must have thought there was something funky about the Aug. 8 email, because on March 3, 2017, when the city sent Sandifer the email string that it was required by law to produce, the Aug. 8 email was missing.
Somebody else at City Hall must also have thought the Aug. 8 email was important. An anonymous whistleblower took a screen grab or photograph of a computer screen showing the missing Aug. 8 email and sent it to Sandifer.
But, of course, that copy wasn’t official. It could even have been forged. Sandifer, an accountant, is extremely meticulous about documents and authenticity. He keeps a close accounting of every piece of paper or computer message he gets, even taking screen grabs of web pages that might change later. He wanted an authenticated copy of the Aug. 8 email from the city, as was his right under state law.
With the whistleblower’s copy of the email in hand, Sandifer sent letters to the attorney general of Texas, who is in charge of administering the state’s open records law. Sandifer complained that the city appeared to have illegally withheld an important email from the documents it was required by law to send him.
When the attorney general began sending the city threatening letters telling City Hall to pony up whatever was missing, I wrote about it. On June 7, I wrote a piece saying that the city appeared to be sitting on the Alvarez email. I said I thought this was the first pointed test of the new city manager’s purported doctrine of transparency.
I had asked the day before for comment from Alvarez, from the city manager and from the city attorney. I sent them all copies of the whistleblower version of the Aug. 8 email to let them know I had it. But by the filing deadline for my piece, I had heard back nothing from any of them.
On June 7, after my piece had appeared online, I received an email from Alvarez:
“I appreciate your reaching out on this matter, however, I am a little surprised by your inquiry. The screenshot below shows the files provided to Mr. Sandifer as a part of the information he originally requested back in April. The subject email is highlighted. This email was again provided in his second Open Records Inquiry. Under separate cover, I am directly forwarding the materials as provided to Mr. Sandifer by the Open Records staff. These materials show that the City responded to this request in a timely manner.”
Indeed, the missing email was included this time. But here’s the problem. Metadata from the PDF file Alvarez sent me June 7 showed that it was created June 6, six hours after I sent her my first email.
So let me count this out in order to make sure it’s clear: Sandifer has copies of all of the emails he received from the city in response to his open records demand. The Aug. 8, 2016, email was not in what the city sent. More to the point, he has kept dated screen grabs of the city’s open records web page where documents are provided. None of what Alvarez sent me was there until a couple of days ago.
Alvarez told me she was “a little surprised" by my inquiry. She says the Aug. 8 email was “provided to Mr. Sandifer as a part of the information he originally requested back in April.” (I don't know why she says he made the request in April when the original response to the request was made in March. There is a general sloppiness in the city's documents, as in someone getting Alvarez's name as "Salzar." Alvarez says the Aug. 8 email was sent to Sandifer again in response to a second open records request, but there was no second request.)
What Alvarez says in her email to me means Sandifer is either a fool or a liar for claiming he didn’t get the Aug. 8 email in the original batch. And it means I am either a fool or a liar for publishing a story saying she hadn’t sent the email originally.
The problem with what Alvarez says is twofold. First, Sandifer has kept a careful inventory of what he received, documenting it with screen grabs and other evidence. He says she’s not telling the truth. He says the document she sent me, which includes the Aug. 8 email, was not among the original batch of documents he received.
Second, the document Alvarez sent me, which she claimed had been part of the original production months ago, was created the same day she got my first question a week ago. Either it is a forgery, or there must be some other explanation that I need to hear.
I sent her my findings about all of this earlier this week because I wanted her to have a chance to explain the discrepancies. But here was the telltale for me: It was at that point, when I told Alvarez what I was finding and asked if she could explain, that I got the stonewall response from the mosquito bulletin guy:
“The city has provided all the public information that was requested,” he said. “We have no further comment.”
Look. They only don’t comment when they cannot comment. They only can’t comment when they’re caught. On something like this, the city manager doesn’t run squat. The guys who wanted that private golf course built are the ones running this show. They will have nothing more to say, and they will allow nothing more to be said.
The missing Aug. 8 email was not included in the original file sent to Sandifer, which was called, for some reason, “Emails_of_Susan_Salzar.” The claim the city is making is that the missing email was included in a second file called “Emails_of_Susan_Salzar2.” The email itself was titled “Sandy area including borrow pit at Simpkins remediation 2016.”
At 5:30 p.m. June 7, Alvarez sent me an email saying, “The subject email is the file named: ‘Emails of Susan Salzar2.pdf.’” She included the screen grab you see here captioned “Alvarez’s screen grab from 5:30 p.m. June 7.” Her screen grab shows “Sandy area including borrow pit at Simpkins remediation 2016” as included in the documents sent to Sandifer.”
I copied Alvarez’s email to Sandifer as soon as I got it. He said he had never seen or heard of a file called “Salzar2.” If he didn’t get “Salzar2,” he didn’t get the email in question.
Sandifer went immediately to the city’s open records portal web page where all of the documents sent to him were listed. No such file had ever been listed there before, he said, and no such file was listed when he checked.
At 6:13 p.m. June 7, he emailed me a screen grab of the portal page, which is captioned below as “Sandifer’s June 7 screen grab sent at 6:13 p.m. June 7.” Under "Attachments," in blue type at the bottom of the page, it shows no “Salzar2”
On Wednesday, June 14, he looked again at the open records portal. There it was: “Emails of Susan Salzar2.” That screen grab is captioned “Sandifer’s June 14 screen grab.”
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The lie, if it is a lie, is not about whether the city provided the full email string eventually. It did. The lie is about when. It is about attempting to illegally suppress the email in the first place. It’s about trying to shut down a legal investigation of the city. And it’s about the crater.