TPA Hotline May 2015

Q&A: EEOC complaints, council nepotism and school board settlements 

Q:  I am hovering at the edges of a potential story that’s brewing at the county courthouse. It has to do with allegations of employment discrimination. Can I get my hands on written complaints that are rumored to exist?

A:  Employment discrimination complaints are federal in nature, and if formalized are filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC office for your region of Texas is in San Antonio. You can reach a representative at this toll-free number: 1-800-669-4000. However, before making that phone call, you can check out the commission’s Q&A page, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/foia/qanda_foiarequest.cfm

Here’s question #15 on that page: What types of EEOC records are not disclosed to the public?

“EEOC will not disclose to the public charges of employment discrimination, charge conciliation information and unaggregated EEO survey data. Federal sector complaint files are not disclosable to third parties. Records containing inter- or intra-agency pre-decisional deliberations, recommendations, analyses and opinions, attorney-client, attorney work-product, information given to EEOC by confidential sources and matters involving the personal privacy and personnel or medical records of a third party will not be disclosed. As examples, EEOC does not disclose the Investigative Memorandum; categorization codes; or the name, telephone number, address, social security number or other personal information concerning a third party.”

Q: At a city council meeting last night our city secretary announced her resignation. It’s widely known that a council member’s spouse wants the job. What happens if the decision to hire the council member’s spouse comes to a vote at a meeting in the near future? Does the law require the council member to resign, abstain from voting, or what? And if the city council hires the spouse, what about the vote on pay and benefits? Can the council member vote on that?

A: In 2006, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office published a handy volume titled, “Public Officers: Traps for the Unwary.” It’s a guide to our state laws regarding conflict of interest, nepotism, dual office holding, automatic resignation and the Whistleblower Act. While the publication is no longer posted on the current attorney general’s official website, it can still be accessed online at www.scribd.com.

On page 18, you will find the following Government Code citation and commentary concerning nepotistic issues: “Section 573.041 generally prohibits a public official from appointing a close relative of the official to a paid position. A public official may not appoint, confirm the appointment of, or vote for the appointment or confirmation of the appointment of an individual to a position that is to be directly or indirectly compensated from public funds or fees of office if . . . the individual is related to the public official within a degree described by Section 573.002” (Degrees of Relationship) and that would include the officer’s spouse. Also noteworthy, under the nepotism statute, a city council member is considered a public official.

Q: Our school board recently held a hearing regarding a lawsuit filed against the school district by the parents of a student. The board voted to accept a deal made in mediation but refused to disclose the amount of the settlement. It’s a matter of great interest to taxpayers. Isn’t this public information?

A: The Texas Public Information Act, Government Code Sec. 552.022, lists categories of public information. Under that section, the following paragraphs appear to address your question:

(16) information that is in a bill for attorney’s fees and that is not privileged under the attorney-client privilege;

(17) information that is also contained in a public court record; and

(18) a settlement agreement to which a governmental body is a party.

Furthermore, see paragraph (b) under (18), which says: “A court in this state may not order a governmental body or an officer for public information to withhold from public inspection any category of public information . . . or to not produce the category of public information for inspection or duplication, unless the category of information is confidential under this chapter or other law.”

Q: Do political ads have to have “paid for by” on the ad?

A: Here’s what the Texas Ethics Commission says in its “Political Advertising: What You Need to Know” publication:

“What Should The Disclosure Statement Say? A disclosure statement must include the following: 1. the words “political advertising” or a recognizable abbreviation such as “pol. adv.”; and 2. the full name of one of the following: (a) the person who paid for the political advertising; (b) the political committee authorizing the political advertising; or (c) the candidate or specific-purpose committee supporting the candidate, if the political advertising is authorized by the candidate. The disclosure statement must appear on the face of the political advertising. The advertising should not be attributed to entities such as “Committee to Elect John Doe” unless a specific-purpose committee named “Committee to Elect John Doe” has filed a campaign treasurer appointment with the Ethics Commission or a local filing authority.”

Source: http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/guides/Gpolad.pdf.