Fort Worth Official resigns after boss finds backlog of open-records requests

Before he was forced to resign from his Fort Worth City Hall job for failing to properly handle open-records requests, Assistant City Attorney C. Patrick Phillips made a full confession to his superiors.

His boss, Deputy City Attorney Peter Vaky, had learned that my request was not the only one Phillips botched. Since 2008, Phillips had not properly handled 327 requests, the city reported later. For the vast majority of those, Phillips had either missed the deadline for asking the Texas attorney general to exempt the information or failed to release information as the AG’s office had ordered.

Vaky wrote to Phillips on April 1, “Patrick, if all the information I have received and set forth here is true, it is unacceptable.”

Phillips asked for a couple of days to collect his thoughts. Then, according to copies of e-mails I received last week through an open-records request, he wrote back April 4:

“They are my errors, and I take responsibility for them. … I apologize for my actions reflecting poorly on this department and this leadership.”

I had filed a request in November for e-mails from a Fort Worth police supervisor. The city asked for guidance from the attorney general. That action can delay a request for two or three months.

On Feb. 7, the attorney general’s office ordered the records released, saying in a letter that Phillips had missed a deadline to provide samples of e-mails the city wanted to keep secret. Then Phillips missed a second deadline: He never followed the attorney general’s order.

I complained to the attorney general, and seven weeks after being told to release the documents, Phillips sent them to me on a Saturday night. He also apologized.

That weekend, Phillips was writing the e-mail confession that he would send to Vaky the next Monday.

In his note, Phillips described how the backlog of 300-plus cases was a result of, in his words, miscommunication, conflicting priorities, computer difficulties and an increased workload.

“My errors were good-faith mistakes in time allocation, but they were mistakes nonetheless,” he wrote.

He suffered from “a level of stress, of which I believe you are all aware. In this environment the AG rulings became the piece that fell out because they do not carry specific statutory deadlines. I now realize that over time, I became desensitized to the problem of delaying rulings. … I fell into bad habits and the backlog grew.”

Fort Worth seeks more attorney general rulings than any Texas city of comparable size, a Star-Telegram study found last year. Critics cite the requests as a tactic to delay release of public information. The city says it needs to make sure it complies with the law.

The city told me that of 22,000 open-records requests received since October 2007, 3,300 were sent to the attorney general to see whether some could be kept secret. (Keep in mind that many such requests are for routine information such as traffic accident reports.)

A former assistant attorney general recalls Fort Worth’s reliance on rulings. Chris Schulz, now a Round Rock lawyer, said in an interview that Fort Worth’s constant reliance on rulings from Austin “seems like a waste of time.”

“There are much more efficient ways to work things out between governmental entities and requesters,” he said, adding, “Maybe the attorney general’s office shouldn’t be their first line of defense.”

If that philosophy had been followed, perhaps Phillips wouldn’t have fallen so far behind.

The attorney general’s office referred me to its open-records decision No. 684, dated Dec. 14, 2009, which offers a guide to governments about when they should seek its rulings.

The decision explains that it “is intended to encourage the prompt release of requested public information and increase the efficiency of the PIA [Public Information Act] review process by clearly identifying certain types of information that governmental bodies may withhold without the delay of requesting an attorney general decision.”

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on Phillips and his backlog. Phillips has also declined to comment.

A review of his personnel record shows he got good marks in annual job reviews, including a second-highest rating, superior, in October by then-City Attorney David Yett, who has retired.

Phillips wanted to keep his job. In his e-mail to Vaky, he came up with a strategy to eliminate the backlog: “I propose to process the rulings at a pace of at least 25 rulings per week.” At that rate, he could eliminate his backlog going back to 2008 by the end of June, he wrote.

Vaky and his boss, City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider, did not want to wait that long. Phillips was put on administrative leave the day Vaky received his e-mail explanation. The next day, Phillips wrote to Vaky, “I will take the opportunity to resign.”

The city notified the attorney general’s office of its backlog. Other city attorneys were assigned to clear Phillips’ cases as quickly as possible.

In a statement, the city told me it will do better in the future with “greater checks and balances between the City Attorney’s Office and the Records Management Office, including potential software upgrades, to ensure that multiple individuals have responsibility for tracking future public information requests.”

That, and proper supervision, should help the city follow the law.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber

Watchdog Nation explained in five minutes!

Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber is given five minutes to explain his simple method of protecting yourself for the rest of your life. This happened in February 2011 at the Granada Theater in Dallas, Texas as part of Ignite Dallas 3.

For Apple product users, watch it here.

Visit Watchdog Nation HeadquartersDave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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Twitter @DaveLieber

Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

VIDEO: 1 out of 10 of MoneyGram’s Canadian sales agents were crooks, FTC says

The $18 million settlement MoneyGram International has agreed to pay U.S. consumers who were tricked into transferring $84 million to the U.S. and Canada for fraudulent schemes is the tip of the iceberg. My video on this is here.

Worse, WatchdogNation believes, is the allegation leveled against MoneyGram by the Federal Trade Commission that 10 percent of MoneyGram’s Canadian agents (about 134 employees) were involved in the scams as willing partners.moneygram

But that’s not even the worst: MoneyGram executives were warned and did nothing. Company whistleblowers were disciplined or fired.

In damning language about the Minnesota-based company, the FTC states that MoneyGram “ignored warnings from law enforcement officials and even its own employees that widespread fraud was being conducted over its network, claiming that proposals to deal with the problem were too costly and were not the company’s responsibility.

“The company even discouraged its employees from enforcing its own fraud detection policies or taking action against suspicious or corrupt agents,” the FTC states. “Some employees who raised concerns were disciplined or fired.”ftc

During one month alone, the FTC says 8 out of 10 wire transfers through MoneyGram of $1,000 or more were fraudulent. You can read all the FTC’s legal documents here.

As first reported in the Dave Lieber column in the Nov. 6, 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the scams involved fake lotteries and sweepstakes, con jobs working as mystery shoppers, Internet  purchases, scams involving loans, e-mail, romance, employment ads and, one of the worst, the infamous grandparents scam where grandparents falsely believe they are wiring money to stranded grandchildren in Canada.

FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz says those scams are among the most evil because they prey on the elderly, many of whom already face financial troubles in tough economic times.

“They play on their emotions and financial insecurity to trick them out of their money, and that’s just not right,” Katz says. “That’s why we thought this was such a great case.”

The allegations against Minnesota-based MoneyGram go far deeper into the corporate culture than crooked agents.

FTC spokesman Katz tells The Watchdog: “Businesses have to keep in mind that you can’t just look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. You need to have a compliance program in place to make sure that the people working for you and doing your business are complying with the law.”

MoneyGram spokeswoman Lynda Michielutti released a statement:

“We don’t agree with the allegations made by the FTC. But we believed that it was in the best interest of our company and our consumers to put this matter behind us and focus our resources on delivering our valued service to consumers rather than battling it out through a long and costly trial.”

Some of the witnesses at that trial, undoubtedly would include, some of the 65 Canadian and U.S. employees of MoneyGram who already have been charged with crimes by law enforcement agencies in Canada and the U.S.

Under the settlement, MoneyGram must pay $18 million to victims and make the following changes:

– conduct background checks on all employees

– educate its employees on consumer fraud

– monitor its agents

– discipline those who break rules

– provide a clear fraud warning on its money transfer forms

– maintain a system for receiving consumer complaints that federal agents can periodically review.

WatchdogNation.com TIP

If you were scammed in a MoneyGram wire transfer, here’s how to apply for your part of the $18 million settlement:

1. File a written written complaint with MoneyGram. Contact them at 1-800-666-3947 to get started.

2. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by visiting Web site ftc.gov or by calling toll-free 1-877-382-4357.

3. File a complaint with your state’s Attorney General.

Source: FTC

Don’t fall for it

Don’t wire money to:

– someone you don’t know

– someone claiming to be a relative in the midst of a crisis who wants to keep the transfer a secret

– someone who says a money transfer is the only form of payment accepted

– someone who asks you to deposit a check and send some of the money back

Source: FTC

What MoneyGram now tells customers:

On MoneyGram’s Web site, clear warnings are now issued that many of the reasons Americans were using the company’s service were fraudulent. This is worth reprinting in full from MoneyGram’s Web site:

Don’t Send Money to Strangers

MoneyGram never recommends sending money to a stranger. Any monies received by a stranger cannot be recovered and unfortunately you will not get your money refunded back to you.

Lottery/Sweepstakes

Have you ever received a communication stating that you won something (money or a prize), but before you can collect you will need to send money to pay for taxes, customs, or any fees?  However, you didn’t actually buy a ticket or enter a sweepstakes. This is a SCAM.

Don’t send transfer money to the people who are stating you have “WON” something but need to send them funds before collecting your winnings. You will never have to pay money up front to receive any legitimate lottery or sweepstakes winnings

Internet Purchases

Have you found something online that interests you – a puppy, a car, an apartment for rent or any item for sale? Does the price for the item seem to be too good to be true and are you being asked to pay for the item through a MoneyGram money transfer?

Unfortunately, this is a SCAM.

Do not send money for the item to the seller. They may even send you a letter or e-mail of authentication telling you that you have purchased the item but need to wire funds first. Do not send the money. It is a SCAM. You will receive no merchandise. Once money is wired and received it cannot be recovered and unfortunately you will be at loss for any money transferred.

Loan Scams

Did you receive an e-mail or mailing about getting a loan? Were you asked to send money for loan fees, taxes, service fees, advance payments or any other reason? This is a SCAM.

Do not send money to a loan company to obtain a loan.  If the money is wired and received it can not be recovered. You will be at a loss for the money you have sent.

Checks/Money Orders in the Mail

Have you received a check or money order in the mail with instructions to first cash it at your bank and then send some of the funds to someone else through a MoneyGram money transfer? If so, the check/ money order is counterfeit and your bank will make you cover the loss.

Be aware that counterfeit checks are very hard to identify. You may have been promised a percentage of the check for employment or because of an over payment. This is a SCAM. Do not send the money and do not cash the check

E-mail Scams

Have you received a random e-mail from someone who needs help getting money back into the United States?  They may claim to be ill or inheriting a company and asking you to help them by wiring money – Do not send money to this person as this is a scam. Any money sent to the stranger will be lost and you will not get a refund.

Did you receive an e-mail from MoneyGram? The only time you will ever receive an e-mail from MoneyGram is if you sent money through www.emoneygram.com. If you receive an e-mail stating that a payment/or funds have been sent to you, and you didn’t use eMoney Transfer, the e-mail is fraudulent.

Romance Scams

Did you meet someone through a personal ad, e-mail, chat room or an instant message? Did they ask you to send them money for travel or to help them financially? Do not wire the money – This is a SCAM. Any money received by this person cannot be recovered and you will be at loss for any money sent.

Newspaper Ads

Have you found something for sale in the classifieds or any type of newspaper ad? Did they ask you to pay for the item through a MoneyGram money transfer? This is a SCAM.

Do not use a money transfer to purchase an item from a stranger. It is not safe to use a money transfer service when trying to purchase an item

Grandparent/Relative Scam

Did you receive a phone call from a grandchild or a family member? Are they in despair because they have been detained in Canada for not having a fishing license or for catching a protected species of fish? Have they been in a car accident? Are they asking for money to pay fines or for car repair? Did a relative call because they need money for a family member in medical need or for medicine? THIS IS A SCAM! Use precaution when sending money in this situation. These callers can request that you send money anywhere in the world. If you cannot verify with your family member that they are requesting the money and aren’t sure about the transaction, do not send the money. You will be at a loss for any money that is sent.

Finally, here is the latest FTC consumer alert on money transfer scams.

You can learn more about the latest scams and ways to protect yourself in the groundbreaking book by the author called Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, winner of two national book awards in 2009 for Social Change.

Watchdog Nation founder wins two national columnist awards

“Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

That’s what one judge said when awarding Dave, founder of Watchdog Nation, one of his two national writing awards at the 2009 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of Texas’ finest newspapers, won second place in the Herb Caen Memorial Items/Notes category and honorable mention for general-interest columns in newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation.

The general-interest columns were about a retired airline pilot who lost much of his life savings through scams, a government-sponsored research project that enrolled patients without their knowledge and a Baylor Health Care System employee whom hospital police believe stole $1.4 million. The notes columns were watchdog shorts about various items.

One judge commented, “Dave Lieber’s columns quickly and easily create a sense of outrage in a reader. He writes about rip-offs, scams and jerks who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. He exposes wrongs and wrong-doers. Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

Another judge stated, “Members of the Fourth Estate play many important roles in society. Among them is that of ‘watchdog’ — the reporter/writer/editor who is adept at ‘afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.’ Mr. Lieber fills that role very well.

“Mr. Lieber does not engage in the frequent chest thumping that accompanies many of the ‘I am on your side’ investigators who spend far too much time telling you how great they are rather than focusing on the problem.

“Mr. Lieber gets quickly to the point about who was wronged and how — and he does it covering topics of wide general interest. It’s a safe bet that businesses around Fort Worth read his articles faithfully — and with some trepidation.”

The columnists’ society (columnists.com), with 300 members, held its 33rd annual conference in Ventura, Ca. The group honored Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle with its Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

Full winners list here.

Watchdog Nation book wins national book award

Subject: 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards – Winner Social Change

Indie Award Logo

Watchdog Nation has received the following communiqué:

We are writing with some fabulous news. Your book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong — has been named the Winner in the Social Change category of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Congratulations!

Your achievement will be published at www.IndieBookAwards.com.

Additionally, your book will be listed as a Winner in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards catalog which will be distributed at Book Expo America in New York later this month to thousands of attendees including book buyers, library representatives, media, industry professionals, and others.

Once again congratulations from all of us at Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Here is a complete list of the 2009 Winner and Finalists for Social Change:

  • WinnerDave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

    by Dave Lieber

    Yankee Cowboy Publishing

  • FinalistAn Unlikely Family: Voices of Ethiopian and American Youth Who Are Turning Tragedy Into Hope

    by Ben Beisswenger, Christopher Beisswenger, Margaret Eldred, Zoe Dmitrovsky, Meron Foster, Carolynne Krusi

    Anemeone Publishing

  • FinalistAudrey on Nantucket

    by Audrey Obremski

    BookSurge

  • FinalistAutism ABC

    by Dr. Sherry L. Meinberg

    BookSurge

  • FinalistBusiness Revolution through Ancestral Wisdom

    by Tu Moonwalker and JoAnne O’Brien-Levin, Ph.D.

    Outskirts Press

  • FinalistGreat Peacemakers: True Stories from Around the World

    by Ken Beller and Heather Chase

    LTS Press

  • FinalistNegotiating with Giants: Get What You Want Against the Odds

    by Peter D. Johnston

    Negotiation Press

  • FinalistNo More Mr. Nice Guy

    by James Alston

    BookSurge

  • FinalistSaints in the City

    by Andie Andrews

    Outskirts Press

  • FinalistThe Thinking Person’s UFO Book

    by Gordon Chism

    Avenue Design, Inc.

  • FinalistThe Third Basic Instinct: How Religion Doesn’t Get You

    by Alex S. Key

    BookSurge