Texas Ethics Commission response to Public Information Act request makes clear Rieser, Bunch falsely told public Woodland Township had obtained “advisory opinions” permitting tax dollar expenditures on pro-incorporation campaign materials

Texas Ethics Commission response to Public Information Act request makes clear Rieser, Bunch falsely told public Woodland Township had obtained “advisory opinions” permitting tax dollar expenditures on pro-incorporation campaign materials

The Golden Hammer Staff Reports

The Woodlands, November 8 – When Woodlands Township Director Bruce Rieser and Board Chairman Gordy Bunch on October 21, 2021, angrily responded to this newspaper’s report, based entirely upon documents which the Township reluctantly provided in response to a Texas Public Information Act request, that the Township had “cleared” each Woodlands residents tax dollar-funded pro-incorporation campaign material with the Texas Ethics Commission prior to distribution, they knowingly provided false information to the public. The story gets a lot worse, however, as a reader (not an employee) of The Golden Hammer sent her own Public Information Act request to the Texas Ethics Commission and discovered more about Rieser’s and Bunch’s fabrications.

For the original story, please see “The Folly of Woodlands Incorporation, Part 4: Township Board, General Manager abuse office by spending tax dollars on pro-incorporation political campaign (no Board approval),” The Golden Hammer, October 21, 2021, https://thegoldenhammer.net/the-folly-of-woodlands-incorporation-part-4-township-board-general-manager-abuse-office-by-spending-tax-dollars-on-pro-incorporation-political-campaign-no-board-approval/

This newspaper obtained the secret expenditure documents on October 20. The documents revealed the following expenditures:

  • $4,525.00 to do a video shoot on a green screen set of Board members urging Woodlands residents to vote for incorporation, including $950.00 for the video shoot, $200.00 for a teleprompter, and 15 hours (at $225.00 per hour) for video editing, paid to Silver Rock Productions;
  • $9,703.30 for room rental of $4,192.05, coffee in the amount of $2,550.00, and service charges of $2,961.25, paid to the Woodlands Waterway Marriott, for the pro-incorporation “information” session on September 23, 2021, at which the canned presenters did not permit questions from the floor of the event;
  • $35,000.00 to Cooksey Strategic Communications for providing voter list development, build a comprehensive “campaign timeline with print deadlines,” designing a campaign theme along with three direct mail pieces, banners, signage, power point presentations, a one-page informational handout for meetings, and advertisements, and “monitoring social media platforms day-to-day and provide pre-approved responses”;
  • $7,604.00 to Community Impact Newspaper for pro-incorporation advertising twice during the month of October;
  • $35.00 to the Woodlands Courier Service to have 12 signs picked up and delivered to the Woodlands Waterway Marriott loading dock on September 23;
  • $2,025.00 to Signsational Signs for pro-incorporation signs including “steps to incorporation” and “American Rescue Plan” among others;
  • $1,833.00 for 5 versions of pro-incorporation flyers;
  • $2,792.68 to Champions Printing for postage and mailing services;
  • $4,075.00 for a video shoot of Gordy Bunch ($950.00), teleprompter ($200.00), and 13 hours of video editing ($2,925.00);
  • $5,844.00 to Community Impact Newspaper for pro-incorporation advertising two more times during the month of October;
  • $6,489.00 to Community Impact Newspaper for pro-incorporation advertising once during the month of September.

The total expenditures are $79,925.98 of Woodlands residents’ tax dollars paid through taxation to the Woodlands Township. Since that time, Woodlands Township staff employees, on the condition of anonymity have confirmed more than $30,000.00 of additional expenditures on the pro-incorporation campaign using Woodlands residents’ tax dollars.

Rieser failed to respond to the critical issues: (1) the campaign materials included hiring a campaign strategist to prepare voter lists, a very odd assignment for a governmental entity which should be neutral in politically-charged elections, (2) the campaign materials included hiring that strategist to prepare “campaign themes,” also an odd assignment for what Rieser claims is merely an “information” campaign, and (3) the Township Board never voted to authorize any of those expenditures. Rieser’s failures are not surprising, as he seemed to rely more on his angry passion to try to convince Woodlands residents than upon any sort of facts or logic.

It turns out, however, that none of the campaign materials, which Woodlands residents’ tax dollars funded, were provided to the Texas Ethics Commission. Perhaps, most significantly, the Texas Ethics Commission never provided the Township’s requested advisory opinion approving any of the pro-incorporation campaign materials.

The day after this newspaper’s story came out, a reader sent the following request under the Texas Public Information Act to the Texas Ethics Commission:

From: NAME WITHHELD
Sent: Friday, October 22, 2021 4:11 PM
To: openrecords <openrecords@ethics.state.tx.us>
Subject: Open Records Request – non-privileged documents only

 Please provide copies of any non-privileged documents related to incorporation submitted by or on behalf of The Woodlands Township to determine whether or not their use could constitute a violation of Texas law prohibiting the use of a political subdivision in connection with an election or other state law.  Please also provide any cover letters or other correspondence including letter, email, text or other communication, referencing the documents.

On November 4, 2021, two days after the incorporation referendum election, the Texas Ethics Commission responded:

From: openrecords <openrecords@ethics.state.tx.us>
Date: Thu, Nov 4, 2021 at 1:02 PM
Subject: RE: Open Records Request – non-privileged documents only PIR 21060
To: NAME WITHHELD

Ms. NAME WITHHELD

 We are providing electronic copies of the documents responsive to your request.  The information is included as an attachment in PDF format. Due to the small volume of information being delivered by e-mail, there is no charge for this information.

 Please note that an e-mail address of a member of the public that is provided for the purpose of communicating electronically with a governmental body is confidential and not subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.137. The confidentiality does not apply to certain e-mail addresses, including an e-mail address provided to a governmental body on letterhead, a government employee’s work e-mail address, an institutional e-mail address, or a business’s general e-mail address.  Id.; Open Records Decision No. 684 (2009). A confidential e-mail address may be disclosed if the member of the public affirmatively consents to its release. Tex. Gov’t Code § 552.137(b). The member of the public identified in the responsive documents have not affirmatively consented to the release of his e-mail address. Therefore, the confidential e-mail address may not be disclosed and has been redacted.

 If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our office.

 Sincerely,

 Preston Tom, Assistant General Counsel, Texas Ethics Commission

There were only 15 pages of responsive documents, all of which came to the Texas Ethics Commission through one email from the lawyers for the Woodlands Township on May 21, 2021, almost three months prior to August 13 when the Township Board approved the placement of the referendum on the November 2 ballot!

The first page of the email from the Woodlands Township follows:

Request for Advisory Opinion by Woodlands Township lawyers to Texas Ethics Commission, dated May 21, 2021. The Texas Ethics Commission never provided an advisory opinion approving any of the pro-incorporation campaign materials.

Interestingly, the Austin-based law firm, which sent the request on behalf of the Woodlands Township to the Texas Ethics Commission, misrepresented to the Commission that it did so on behalf of “the Board of Directors of the Township [which] desires to” seen an ethics advisory opinion. This newspaper has confirmed that the Township Board never voted to authorize any lawyers to seek such an opinion, both by reviewing the meeting minutes and through two Board members who have spoke with this newspaper on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Woodlands Township’s lawyer letter to Texas Ethics Commission, dated May 21, 2021.

The thirteen (13) pages of proposed material did mostly appear on the Woodlands Township’s website. Nevertheless, none of the brochures and none of the materials the Township Board and staff used during the actual incorporation referendum campaign received any sort of “clearance” or Ethics Advisory Opinion from the Texas Ethics Commissioner.

An example of a pro-incorporation campaign material, which the Woodlands Township Board developed through the use of residents’ tax dollars and which the Township never submitted to nor received approval from the Texas Ethics Commission is this brochure accusing anti-incorporation advocates of “misinformation” and clearly advocating for a “yes” vote in the incorporation referendum. This material appeared in Township e-blasts to Woodlands residents during the two days prior to the Tuesday, November 2, 2021, election. It follows.

Pro-incorporation campaign material advocating a “yes” vote in the November 2 Woodlands incorporation referendum, which Woodlands residents’ tax dollars funded.

 

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