“How Texas Officials Use Your Money to Help Their Friends”
December 31, 2015
In late 2014, the Texas health commission shocked the state by acknowledging that its top lawyer had inappropriately given a $20 million no-bid contract to a company associated with his former business partner. The deal was canceled, the lawyer resigned, and the FBI opened a probe. It was the biggest contracting scandal in recent state history.
For Houston Chronicle reporter Brian M. Rosenthal, it also was a wake-up call.
How could one lawyer have almost gotten away with handing out $20 million – and what were other state officials doing with the public’s money? Rosenthal resolved to find out.
The resulting year-long investigation explored nearly half a dozen ways in which weak Texas laws allow state officials to use hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to help their friends. It uncovered wrongdoing by everybody from Gov. Greg Abbott to the Office of Injured Employee Counsel’s former deputy director, and it sparked legislative reforms, policy changes and at least one resignation.
Rosenthal began by focusing on contracting, exposing a $965 million no-bid contract and discovering a flaw in a $2 billion purchasing program that surprised even its director. Then he dug into the crony hiring practices of the state’s elected officials and revealed tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for employees on their way out of public service and in tuition gifts to pay for favored staffers to get graduate degrees.
The impacts came quickly: The day after the investigation of tuition gifts was published, for example, the agency that gave out the most gifts suspended all payments. Eventually, the agency permanently limited the gifts, while lawmakers passed their own reforms and the official who got the biggest sum was forced to resign. The Legislature also acted to revamp the purchasing program, and two lawmakers vowed to pursue legislation to address big bonuses. And in response to the story about crony hiring, the official who had violated the law the most promised to change his practices.
The Houston Chronicle demonstrated persistence in repeatedly using data to expose how state officials use public money to help their friends, holding leaders accountable and forcing changes that may save the state millions of dollars. Please consider the project for the Showcase Award.
Submitted by Brian Rosenthal.