The Raveling of NELCDC

It began with an empty shopping center.
The Sandstorm Scholar would have never investigated the North & East Lubbock Community Development Corporation (NELCDC) if it hadn’t been for the near empty shopping center called Parkway Place. It wasn’t just an empty shopping center, it was an empty shopping center without a “for lease” sign.

It started with an empty shopping center.
Parkway Place (Aug. 2013)

It was in the winter of 2013 when traveling Marsha Sharp Freeway and Parkway Drive through east Lubbock several dozen times that the Sandstorm Scholar began to wonder why a new shopping center was 75% vacant but had no “for lease” sign.

Who owns Parkway Place? In this economy what kind of business can afford to feel no urgency in leasing empty space?

The answer: Parkway Place is owned (in a partnership) by a non-profit corporation supported by tax dollars called the North & East Lubbock Community Development Corporation. NELCDC is a development corporation authorized by the city of Lubbock in 2004.

An organization that, to quote its executive director, was “flat-lining” last winter before the Lubbock City Council voted to shore it up with a $251,000 grant in March. The grant dollars were used to pay administrative costs. Salaries. Or at least that’s what the vague budget submitted to the Council indicated.

What we found while investigating NELCDC is secrecy and the appearance of impropriety.

In May 2013 NELCDC was back at the city trough. This time it was a resolution to give to it 75% of 90% of all of the city of Lubbock mineral royalties for the fiscal year ending September 2013. This, subject to Council approval, amounts to somewhere between $700,000 and $1,000,000.

In September 2012, NELCDC was again asking for money. This time Council gave it another $251,000 grant for administrative and overhead expenses.

All of this money was given to NELCDC in exchange for a dozen lines or less of proposed budget numbers that probably haven’t been adhered to.

We say “probably”, because your tax dollars are at work to prevent the public from knowing what really goes on at NELCDC.

The Development Corporation Act specifies that development corporations are subject to open meetings and open records law. But NELCDC has hired a law firm in an attempt to keep from disclosing its records. What may surprise you is whose law firm is being paid to assert that NELCDC’s records are secret.

Unethical? Is there better word for institutional incest?

What we found while investigating NELCDC is secrecy and the appearance of impropriety.

We found the appearance of impropriety in a city employee who is double-dipping at taxpayer expense.

We found it in city employees lobbying the City Council to fund an organization from which they profit and/or for which they sit on the board of directors. One employee even operated as advocate for NELCDC, city staff signer of the grant contracts, check signer for NELCDC and member of its board of directors.

And we found the appearance of impropriety in a City Council member who voted three times last year to fund NELCDC but whose partnership takes money from the organization.

All of this happened with no disclosure. Indeed some of it happened through outright deceit.

Illegal? We’re not attorneys, but the city seems able to justify anything it wants to do.

Unethical? It appears so from here. Is there better word for institutional incest?

What is NELCDC hiding?

Let’s be clear what is the issue: it is the mechanism, not the need, that we question when we ask about funding to NELCDC.

We don’t argue against the need to dedicate money to north and east Lubbock. It is the mechanism that is suspect and whether public funds should be spent under the cloak of secrecy.

The question becomes, what is NELCDC hiding?

That’s what the Sandstorm Scholar hopes to find out.

A near-empty shopping center with no “for lease” sign. It is a symptom of what happens when people are spending someone else’s money. Your money.

Check out Sarah-Blake Morgan’s KCBD/Sandstorm Scholar two-part investigative report Wednesday and Thursday. And stay tuned as more information comes to light.

Debut: KCBD/Sandstorm Scholar Investigates

Tonight at 10:30 p.m., after the prime time Winter Olympics broadcast, the Sandstorm Scholar begins an endeavor with KCBD as an independent contributor with the Investigative Reports team. This is a partnership that has been several months in the making and we’re excited to be working with the KCBD news professionals.

KCBD-Sandstorm Scholar Investigates will carry the same tough investigative work you’ve grown accustomed to on the Sandstorm Scholar combined with the impact of television and the investigative professionals at KCBD. I would be less than candid if I didn’t say I’m proud of this opportunity.

KCBD investigative reporter Sarah-Blake Morgan.

Sarah-Blake Morgan will deliver the reports with her own unique style and the Sandstorm Scholar will contribute and, in many cases, co-write the stories.

KCBD and the Sandstorm Scholar remain separate and independent entities and each will be ultimately responsible for its own content but we will work together on KCBD/Sandstorm Scholar Investigates in hopes that you will find that the whole is better than the sum of the parts.

After the newscast check here for the back story, more information and the decidedly unsweetened editorials you have come to expect from the Sandstorm Scholar.

Wednesday and Thursday nights we examine the North & East Lubbock Community Development Corporation.

What we’ve found may surprise you.

Why the Ashcroft report changes nothing at LP&L

Lubbock Power and Light has received the Ashcroft report. But before LP&L staff starts its victory lap citizens should consider what it is they bought with that report. 

Suffice it to say that the most impressive thing about the Ashcroft report is its name. It’s all downhill from there.

Bureaucracies are not naturally self-policing; criminal bureaucracies are less so. It is irrational to think that if staff had committed criminal acts that it would hire a competent law firm, provide full access to incriminating evidence and voluntarily self-disclose. 

One needn’t hire an incompetent investigator or make it a co-conspirator to stymie an investigation. It is enough that staff defined the parameters of the investigation and controlled access to the evidence. Did anyone really believe the results would be different than we received?

If the model LP&L used for self-investigation and vindication was valid, then our justice system would adopt it and save us all the expense of independent prosecutors and defense attorneys. 

The justice system has over hundreds of years evolved a model that calls for an independent investigator/prosecutor; not one hired by the accused.

If what LP&L undertook is viable, then perhaps we should also allow Bernie Madoff to hire his own attorney/investigator, explain what he wants investigated and the public should then accept the hireling’s conclusions in lieu of a criminal prosecutor.

Not all improprieties are criminal. 

It probably isn’t criminal to fail to be forthcoming with your board of directors. But that is the conclusion that the independent investigator came to with regard to Director of Electric Utilities Gary Zheng’s admissions to the Electric Utility Board. 

Zheng even denied talking with the Sandstorm Scholar for more than ten minutes until confronted with the phone logs that showed differently. He then accused us of fabricating the phone logs. Verizon records refute that.

Whether it is difficulty with the English language or simply serial prevarication we have maintained for months that what we have here is failure to communicate. 

It may not be criminal to allow a bidder to write the foundation and template for your bid document but it certainly is irregular and the fact that Zheng first denied doing so then admitted it would get someone fired in the private sector. 

That Zheng is still employed is more testimony to the dependency of a largely inexperienced board that is over its head in a highly technical field than it is to Zheng’s competence. 

Regardless of the conclusions of the Ashcroft report, there can be little doubt that the bid process is fatally flawed and cannot move forward with staff’s recommendation to award the bid to a bidder with a checkered past and no comparable experience with a project of this size.

Irregularities aside, it makes no sense for a city that lies in a proven tornado zone to build a single generation plant to provide power for the entire city. 

But that decision pales in comparison to the folly of entrusting the project to a company that was virtually drummed out of the Virgin Islands and that has never built a 60 megawatt power plant, much less one ten times that size.

Dr. Zheng’s ego is writing checks his performance can’t cash.

Zheng need not be criminal for his plan to be corrupt. In its best light, his ambition has overshadowed common sense and his reach has exceeded his grasp.

Gary Zheng has proven and continues to prove that he cannot manage well a small reseller of electricity. It is beyond reason that we are still contemplating entrusting him with the largest public works project this region has ever considered.

All that has been accomplished with the Ashcroft report is that the public utility is about $100,000 lighter (but hey, what’s $100 grand among friends?) and we have an a naive executive committee being led by a staff that will be wiser and wilier next time. 

Every issue that existed six months ago still exists and staff is even more emboldened. That’s the negative.

The good news is that when bad actors think they’ve gotten away with something their arrogance is what usually trips them up.

In Zheng’s case, there’s a lot to trip over.

“He’s our sonofabitch”

A political lesson learned more than twenty years ago is as apropos today as it was then, particularly when the players on the field haven’t changed all that much.

The county chairman of political party was contacted by a city councilman and member of the opposing party for an informal meeting. Being young, naive and trusting of all involved he consented to the meeting. The councilman brought his best friend and partner-in-slime to the meeting.

The councilman’s friend was a candidate for judge running against a long time incumbent. The two laid their cards on the table: either the incumbent judge resigns or they would make public allegations of child-molesting against the judge. Even if false, the whisper of such a thing is every man’s worst nightmare.

The judge in question could have been accused of many things, but child molester? Not a shred of evidence.

The threat itself was arguably extortion however the only other witness was concerned for his own political future and declined to testify. The county chairman did the only thing he knew to do. He went to his mentor.

Jane Anne Stinnett quietly ruled West Texas politics. A nod or a glance from her could change the course of Texas politics and did more than once.

When she heard the story her her reaction was swift and resolute. She picked up the phone and called the judge and told him the story.

“All I want to know, Judge, is whether this is true?” The judge not only denied the allegations but he also filled in the blanks as to where the accusation came from.

A friend of the judge and his wife who had stayed in their home while in the midst of an acrimonious divorce and custody dispute was accused by his soon-to-be-ex-wife of molesting their children. The accusation was false and had had nothing to do with judge.

Jane Anne hung up the phone and counted the lessons on two fingers.

“First, I know you don’t like him, but the Judge is our sonofabitch. Until we find someone better, and the Councilman’s lying friend is no better, he stays our sonofabitch.”

“Second, don’t believe every accusation that comes out of a divorce. Desperate people will say anything for money and custody.”

Four years later Stinnett found a better candidate. The challenger won with integrity, hard work and without making a single false allegation and remains a fine judge to this day.

Yesterday, respected former judge and Lubbock city attorney Sam Medina announced that the had voluntarily placed himself on leave pending City Council action.

The release by his attorney, Rod Hobson, states that as part of divorce proceedings between Medina’s son, Erik, and Erik’s wife Angelina, Angelina has accused the city attorney of sexually assaulting her.

It is our understanding that these are historical, not contemporaneous accusations. Angelina’s attorney, Audie Reese, had not returned our call for comment at the time of publication of this article.

One question the Sandstorm Scholar would ask Reese is whether, as his licensing date might suggest, he failed his ethics exam or bar exam at least once prior to becoming licensed in December 2011.

For those having trouble connecting the dots here’s a little help.

First, like our incumbent judge two decades past, Sam Medina is ours. We don’t always agree with his rulings, but his integrity is above question.

Second, desperate people regularly make false allegations in course of divorce proceedings. Judge Medina has chosen to step aside as city attorney while these allegations are investigated. That is the appropriate course of action.

Finally, and we’ll add our own lesson to our mentor’s, not all the actors in this drama are evident to the public. It is probably nothing more than an interesting coincidence that a close friend and confidant of Councilman Victor Hernandez offices at the same street address as the accuser’s attorney. That incidental aside, the reader is well-advised to question the role of the background players.

glen_robertson_20140113There are forces on the City Council who would prefer a more malleable city attorney, arguably the most powerful city officer because his can be the final word interpreting the city charter.

We will all do well to withhold judgement and to allow the wheels of justice to grind on this issue.

Mayor Glen Robertson is rarely a word-smith, but his closing statement is the best we can offer in this situation: “There are few things as fundamental to our justice system as the presumption of innocence. That presumption is fully in place in this instance.”

Mayor censors citizen comments

One thing you’ll not see tonight if you watch the Lubbock City Council meetings from your home is the citizen comment portion of the meeting; citizen comments are now censored by order of the Mayor.

Mayor Glen Robertson told the Sandstorm Scholar that while the Council “wants to hear from the citizens it is not Council’s responsibility to give the citizens a platform to broadcast their ideas.”

It seems the Mayor is concerned with citizens who use their three minutes in front of the Council cameras to address subjects that have nothing to do with city issues.

“It is not Council’s responsibility to give the citizens a platform to broadcast their ideas.” –Mayor Robertson

Mayor Robertson also feels the dignity of that portion of the meetings has fallen below his standard for what is appropriate for public consumption.

“It is my job to maintain the civility and decorum of the proceedings,” says Robertson in a phone interview. Since the Mayor didn’t laugh after saying that we assume he said it with a straight face.

Perhaps calling Victor an expletive after the meeting doesn’t count.

The Mayor is concerned with the tenor of statements by people like Armando Gonzales. Last month Gonzales, a private citizen, used the citizen comment opportunity to respond to accusations he says Councilman Victor Hernandez has made against him on Hernandez’ Facebook page.

Gonzales gave the Sandstorm Scholar this statement:

On the fb [Facebook] page Victor says that I called his Catholic Priest from Guadalupe Catholic Church a “communist”. I have only met the priest two or three times and don’t know him personally.

On his fb page Victor has consistently claimed that I have been at the lead of his recall. I have not. I did not participate in Victor’s recall petition. I cannot walk more than 1 block at a time due to spinal surgery and a heart condition.

Plus, I do not live in Victor’s district, I live in Floyd Price’s district. I could not sign the petition even if I wanted. Then when the election came around he accused me again on fb saying that I was helping him get recalled. This is false.

People on his fb page called me “Satan” and said “I should pray on my knees to the priest”.

Victor’s Facebook page comes to us compliments of the iPad taxpayers provide to the Councilman. No one at the Sandstorm Scholar is critical of Councilman Hernandez’ sophomoric use of his Facebook page. Without it we’d have never known about the Foolish Five’s Football Frolic.

The Mayor’s actions are unilateral. He says he is enforcing a past City Council policy to not broadcast citizen comments.

Did we hear someone groan “lame”? We agree. Past City Councils did not allow citizen comment before every meeting. And this City Council can’t manage to follow the City Charter.

Why is Robertson suddenly concerned about a non-binding policy?

Anyone who has tuned into the city of Lubbock channel knows that its programming consists of hours of silent repetitive graphics encouraging viewers to “Like us on Facebook” interspersed with Council meetings and fascinating Texas Parks and Wildlife features.

Nothing is preempted by having an extra hour of citizen comment broadcast except an hour of graphics informing you where to get your measles vaccinations and notice of the bid for chemical toilet rentals (Bid #ITB14-11702-TF if you’re interested).

Robertson should learn the difference between censure and censor.

If speakers depart from accepted guidelines for the citizen comment portion of the meeting they should have their rights to speak suspended for a meeting or two.

But the Mayor ought to remember that the citizens, not the Council, own the city broadcast channel. What he has to say in the meetings is no more important than what citizens have to say back to him.

Mayor Robertson should learn the difference between censure and censor. We can abide the first; the second is always intolerable.

Councilman Hernandez is a big boy and can take up for himself. Rumor has it he can even tie his own shoes though that is unconfirmed.

If a Council member is going to use taxpayer provided equipment to ridicule private citizens she or he ought to be able to endure three minutes of civil response.

The Mayor has been reading too many of his own press clippings and needs to step back and remember where he came from. If the meetings are broadcast, broadcast the entire meeting including citizens comments.

Confidential TTU/City Deal Maybe Secret No More – has learned that the officials from TTU and the city have been negotiating behind the scenes to release each other from confidentiality. If a mutual release is signed by both sides, the City Council could take action this week because the 2004 contract is already on the December 19 agenda in executive session.

Read the full story here..