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El Paso Housing Authority files suit to keep CEO contract and financial documents from public view

by Alberto Tomas Halpern // January 14, 2014 // Government

El Paso Housing Authority files suit to keep CEO contract and financial documents from public view

HACEP CEO Gerald Cichon speaks to city representatives in this file photo. (Alberto Tomas Halpern/Newspaper Tree)

The Housing Authority of the City of El Paso filed suit in Travis County in late December 2013 to keep its CEO’s employment contract and records of reimbursements from public disclosure.

Gerald Cichon, an attorney, is the housing authority’s chief executive officer.

In September last year, El Paso attorney John Wenke filed a state open records request with HACEP asking for a “copy of all employment contracts between HACEP and Gerry Cichon;” a “copy of all requests for reimbursement of expenses submitted by Gerry Cichon from January 1, 2010 to present;” and a “copy of documentation reflecting amounts HACEP has reimbursed Gerry Cichon for expenses from January 1, 2010 to the present.”

Six days after receiving Wenke’s request, a law firm representing HACEP, Gordon Davis Johnson & Shane P.C. of El Paso, sought a ruling from the Texas Attorney General to keep the requested documents from disclosure.

HACEP’s attorneys argued that the documents Wenke requested should not be disclosed because they are related to upcoming or pending litigation.

Woodrow Bare, HACEP’s former chief of security, is suing the housing authority for wrongful termination. Wenke is Bare’s attorney.

Wenke’s records request with HACEP, though, makes no reference to Bare or to Bare’s lawsuit.

HACEP cites Bare’s lawsuit in their letter to the Attorney General and contends that since Wenke is representing Bare, the housing authority is not required to disclose the documents.

HACEP, however, failed to provide the Attorney General’s office with a copy of the information they are seeking to withhold, a requirement of the Attorney General’s office.

HACEP’s failure to provide those documents to the Attorney General “results in the legal presumption that the information is public and must be released,” the Attorney General’s office told HACEP.

Further, the law that allows public information from being disclosed, if litigation is pending, is a “discretionary exception to disclosure” and “may be waived,” according to Attorney General’s office. And since HACEP didn’t provide the documents to the Attorney General, it waived its argument.

“Thus, we have no choice but to order the requested information released to the requestor,” the Attorney General’s December 6, 2013 ruling said.

HACEP doesn’t agree and is now challenging that ruling in the 98th District Court in Travis County.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Wenke said. “I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that they are hiding something, but it raises questions about why they’re keeping documents that the public has a right to review.”

Shane Griffith, HACEP’s public information and government relations officer, told Newspaper Tree in an email that HACEP cannot respond to questions pertaining to litigation.

It also appears that HACEP has different standards when it comes to open records requests.

Before Wenke filed his request, HACEP filed its own request on August 7, 2013 with the El Paso Police Department, seeking copies of any “founded or unfounded complaints” against Bare, a retired police department employee.

Wenke said it was ironic that HACEP is challenging his open records request into personnel documents while filing a similar request with another public entity.

“They’re using the same law,” Wenke said, “But also using it as a shield to others. It’s interesting.”

Newspaper Tree filed an open records request with HACEP seeking the same documents Wenke sought. Griffith, HACEP’s spokesman, said the request is being processed.

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