Conroe ISD, PBK Architects slither past violations of Texas Election Code by using public funds for political advertising

Conroe ISD, PBK Architects slither past violations of Texas Election Code by using public funds for political advertising

Image: A slimy reptile.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The Golden Hammer gratefully acknowledges the wonderful analytical and research skills of citizen activist Kelli Cook who contributed to this article.

Conroe, May 10 – Conroe Independent School District (CISD) and its vendor, PBK Architects, have slithered well past violating Section 255.003 of the Texas Election Code, which prohibits the use of public funds for political advertising. PBK Architects engages in the criminal conduct all across Texas in an effort to help school districts pass bond referendums and tax hikes, so that PBK Architects may act as lead architect on the billions of dollars of construction projects.

Very clearly, CISD deploys public funds from tax dollars to engage PBK’s political advertising team. PBK’s political consulting group managed both CISD and the outside political action committee’s campaign in favor of CISD’s proposed $807 million bond which failed in a May 4, 2019, voter referendum.

In comparison, by the way, The Golden Hammer polled all twelve of the top architectural firms in The Woodlands. None of them had a community relations employee nor did they engage in political consulting.

Kelli Cook, one of the leading citizen activists in Montgomery County, has said, “CISD Superintendent Null said time and time again Texas law does not allow for tax dollars to be spent advocating for the passage of the bond.  Yet they turned around and hire a professionals that execute campaign activities for bond referendums and political action committees? Using taxpayers funds to fleece the taxpayers and intimidate the CISD staff into supporting a wasteful bond that does nothing to improve education is immoral and offensive.”

Before presenting how the scam works, it’s important to remember that it’s against the law in the Texas Election Code:

Sec. 255.003. UNLAWFUL USE OF PUBLIC FUNDS FOR POLITICAL ADVERTISING. (a) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.

(b) Subsection (a) does not apply to a communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.

(b-1) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for a communication describing a measure if the communication contains information that:

(1) the officer or employee knows is false; and

(2) is sufficiently substantial and important as to be reasonably likely to influence a voter to vote for or against the measure.

(c) A person who violates Subsection (a) or (b-1) commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.

PBK is quite brash about what their Marketing Department does for school district clients, which, of course, include CISD. The firm’s Media Relations Manager, Emily Neyland of Houston, told The Golden Hammer, “Our marketing people deal with monitoring campaigns and helping our school districts pass their bonds.” According to Neyland, the Marketing Director of PBK is Ryan Gregory, who manages political consultant for PBK.

As a matter of fact, Gregory, while involved in political campaigns, was not as directly involved in the CISD’s $807 million bond referendum for PBK as Anna Chernier, PBK’s Director of “The Educated Vote” group, a political consultant organization within PBK which runs political campaigns for CISD as well as many other school districts. In Chernier’s official PBK firm resume, she brags about her success as a consultant for CISD for whom she “leverage[s] social media and craft[s] compelling messages for both the district and political action committee communication campaigns.”

In actuality, it didn’t require a lot of effort to tie Chenier directly to CISD’s failed $807 million bond campaign. This newspaper spoke to Bryan Fowler, Treasurer of the Community for Conroe ISD’s Future PAC who was also a member of CISD’s Facilities Planning Committee for the $807 million bond. Fowler confirmed that Chenier prepared the campaign literature on the pro-bond political action committee’s website and other campaign materials.

Payments to PBK, however, don’t appear on Fowler’s Treasurer reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission for Community for Conroe ISD’s Future PAC. When asked who actually paid for PBK’s and Chenier’s political consulting services, Fowler explained that he believes CISD paid for those services. Of course, PBK’s Neyland confirmed that CISD was PBK’s client for the political consulting services the supposedly architectural firm provided.

PBK’s “The Educated Vote” Director Anna Chenier of the supposedly architectural firm’s San Antonio office.

Chenier didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment. Her boss Gregory didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.

CISD’s Spokesman failed to respond to a direct inquiry to confirm that CISD paid for PBK’s political consulting services. A source inside of CISD’s Finance Office, who spoke with this newspaper on the condition of anonymity, did confirm, however, that PBK has billed CISD for the firm’s political consulting services for this bond referendum (May 4) and for previous ones as well.

PBK’s Chenier wrote all of the political literature attacking opponents of the $807 million bond, which appeared on the PAC’s website. PBK directly advised CISD’s Board of Trustees on strategy and campaign law to win the bond election during at least one executive session during 2019 and in many executive sessions during previous bond campaigns. Those executive sessions, of course, are boldly illegal, because there is no exception to the open meetings requirement in the Texas Open Meetings Act, which would allow a governmental body to meet secretly to discuss political strategy.

PBK is actually quite open and brash about its political consulting services to help school districts win approval of bond referendums using public funds to pay for those campaigns.

PBK’s political consulting services brochure for its school district clients.
Screen shot of PBK Architects’ list through 2017 of bond campaigns it successfully won for political consultant clients. CISD appears on the list three times.
Screen shot of PBK’s brochure describing the firm’s political consultant services.

Interestingly, none of Fowler’s Campaign Finance Reports disclose payments to PBK as “in-kind contributions” from CISD to the PAC, another different violation of Texas Election law. Those “in-kind contributions” require disclosure. It does seem rather awkward that neither Fowler nor any member of the PAC questioned why CISD failed to disclose those in-kind contributions to pay for political consulting services, especially since PBK’s Chenier worked directly with the PAC during the election and during the Facilities Planning Committee meetings where they discussed formation of a PAC to win the bond referendum.

Amazingly, PBK includes among its political services:

  • consulting on Texas Ethics Commission laws, even though the firm does not have an election attorney on staff;
  • acting as a “liaison between District & PAC Campaigns” which is illegal and a violation of several provisions of the Texas Election Code (!!!);
  • organizing campaign leadership, such as PBK’s work with CISD to select an appropriate Facilities Planning Committee which would also act as the PAC in favor of the bond referendum; and
  • preparing and distributing campaign materials.

PBK presently is interviewing for a political position within its firm for which the successful candidate would work with the political consulting team to win bond referendums, so PBK’s architects could swallow billions in tax dollars through bond financing.

PBK’s job search for political consultant staff person. The posting states, “PBK’s community engagement services focus exclusively on assisting our school district and community college clients with all activities that ultimately culminate in a bond referendum as well as with comprehensive communications campaigns for these clients and political action committees.”

PBK’s job search for political consultant staff person posting states, “PBK’s community engagement services focus exclusively on assisting our school district and community college clients with all activities that ultimately culminate in a bond referendum as well as with comprehensive communications campaigns for these clients and political action committees.”

PBK’s job search for political consultant staff person posting states, “PBK’s community engagement services focus exclusively on assisting our school district and community college clients with all activities that ultimately culminate in a bond referendum as well as with comprehensive communications campaigns for these clients and political action committees.”

It’s important to note that PBK and CISD have gone far, far, far beyond the limits of the law. By engaging in these activities, both the school district and the architecture firm are engaging in direct violations of the Texas Election Code.

In comparison, Kelli Cook, the Director of Strategy and Operations for the Children’s Hope PAC, which opposed the CISD’s $807 million bond, told this newspaper, “We didn’t need an outside consultant for our campaign. Instead, we relied on the diligence of the taxpayers that would have to carry this heavy burden of debt to study the issue and come up with a plan to defeat the bad bond.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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