Police officer can’t get records he wants despite Texas open records law

For the Fourth of July, 2010, I decided to play watchdog by sharing the story of the man with the noble idea that he can ask for and receive public information from a city government? It’s a true symbol of our freedom, our liberty, our right to know how we are governed, right?

Only when it isn’t.

Meet Dan St. Clair, who is one little piece in the puzzle that is the part of Fort Worth government that doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of people. He asked for public information 16 months ago. He never got it. The city admits it mishandled his request. It wasn’t until this week, with prodding from The Watchdog, that the city even told him that what he wanted is no longer available. (The reason it’s not available is something we’ll discover — and you may not like it.)

Recently, my colleague, Star-Telegram reporter Gene Trainor, reported that Fort Worth is one of the toughest cities from which to retrieve public records. It filed more requests for attorney general rulings than other cities its size. Critics call that a delaying tactic. “I can go to Euless and request the same information; they turn it over. Fort Worth — no,” a defense attorney told Trainor.

St. Clair is quick to agree. The 38-year-old retired Air Force captain has gung-ho ideas about what it means when you say government of the people, by the people, for the people. For the last three years, he has worked as a Fort Worth police officer. And in a move that seems to be from a TV detective show, he began investigating the behavior of a police sergeant who he fears may have railroaded a colleague off the force unfairly.

It takes guts to request records from your own employer. Here, in words worthy of the Fourth of July, is St. Clair’s reason:

“I don’t see it as a fight with the entire department. I see it as a fight with what I’ve seen is a very corrupt element of the department. If I’m trying to uphold the law and the lawyers for us are blatantly breaking the law, to me, there’s no place for that.

“When I was in the military, I didn’t let things like that slide. If someone was doing something wrong, I did what I could to take care of it. I want to take ownership of the job I have, which I believe is a public service. If I see something like this, I have to do something.”

In February 2009, St. Clair asked for e-mails and other computer terminal messages sent by a police sergeant while she was on duty. He believes that the sergeant sent messages stating her intention to remove the other officer from the force.

After St. Clair filed his request, the city missed deadlines for informing him about the status of the records. After agreeing to pay $71 for the records, he didn’t hear from the city for seven months.

The city told him that parts of the records had to be edited to delete confidential information. Eventually, he received three sets of squad car messages, the kind police send from computers in their cars, but they were almost all police-related checks of license plates and other data. There were few personal e-mails.

St. Clair knows that there were many more because he received some of them originally, he says.

Now the matter is before the Texas attorney general. The city acknowledges the screw-up. Assistant City Attorney Patrick Phillips wrote to the attorney general last week that “the city acknowledges that it has failed to comply with the time periods prescribed … in seeking a ruling from your office and recognizes that this failure results in the presumption that the information is public.”


But the city has another argument to make. Phillips told me the city doesn’t have the information anymore. Why? E-mails and squad car messages are kept on the city’s computer servers for “not that long.”

Once e-mails are deleted from the system and removed from the servers, “we are not required to go to backup systems and backup tapes. … The attorney general’s office considers anything on a backup tape, that it’s no longer public information. … That’s a distinction made at the attorney general’s office, and we’re bound to follow.”

He may be right. In two open-records rulings for other government bodies, released in April, the attorney general’s office says that because e-mails are sometimes deleted from computers, “the data may be overwritten and permanently removed.”

To use backup tapes to retrieve old information, the attorney general’s office says, “the city would be required to restore data from the city’s back-up tapes onto a separate server. … Therefore, we find that any of the requested information that existed only in back-up tapes at the time of the request was no longer being ‘maintained’ by the city at the time of the request, and is not public information subject to disclosure.”

Read the two April 2010 opinions here and here.

Ouch. The Watchdog doesn’t like that. Did the city miss deadlines so that the information would be gone? The Library of Congress can accept an archive of every public tweet on Twitter since 2006, so electronic storage of records by governments should not be a problem.

St. Clair wants copies of messages that he believes he is entitled to have. He will apparently never see them, but until now, nobody bothered to tell him why.

“It’s not our ideal,” Phillips said. “We know the process is ugly. … We would like it to be better.”

Happy Fourth.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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

Fake ‘mystery shopper’ job lands innocent man in jail

Wells Fargo Bank and DeSoto, Texas police thought they caught a check forger when Randolph Shaheed walked into a bank in November and presented a check to be cashed for his new job as a mystery shopper.

The check was an obvious fake, police said, and they arrested Shaheed. He spent four days in jail and, after a Dallas grand jury indicted him, faced a felony charge for forgery that could have sent him back to prison for the rest of his life.

Dave Lieber exposes wrongdoing on WatchdogNation.com

Shaheed, 60, is a convicted murderer who served his time for crimes committed as a gang member decades ago in Fort Worth. But he has spent the past quarter-century working to do the right thing and help ex-cons fit back into society through his prison ministry.

Dave Lieber exposes wrongdoing on WatchdogNation.com

Randolph Shaheed. Photo by Mickey Grant

Two days before his arrest, he was honored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for his work helping ex-offenders. State officials told me he was an “ideal” ex-offender who tried to “promote positive change within our community.”

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, looked at the correspondence between Shaheed and the supposed mystery shopper company. I quickly concluded that the company was a fraud. Shaheed had been scammed, not the other way around.

But DeSoto Police Capt. Ron Smith was not so believing. He told me in December, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” He warned, “It’s not his first experience in the criminal justice system.” He added that he would be “surprised if it turned out to be a scam.”

Well, surprise!

The Dallas district attorney’s office dropped the charges against Shaheed last month. The office didn’t respond to my requests for comment, but Shaheed’s lawyer told me what happened.

“Fortunately, we had a very reasonable prosecutor who asked to see the evidence,” lawyer Valencia Bush said. “When you see all the correspondence back and forth, you can see these people are being duped.”

Bush told me she recently represented four clients who fell for the same scam and were wrongly arrested. But Shaheed’s was the most difficult to get charges dropped because of his criminal record.

Dave Lieber exposes wrongdoing on WatchdogNation.com

Valencia Bush. Photo by Mickey Grant

“He’s a good guy that’s been doing nothing but good works in the community,” she said. “Certainly, he wasn’t about to risk his freedom for a couple of hundred bucks.”

Here’s how the scam worked: Shaheed thought he found a job on the Internet as a shopper who would test customer service at Western Union and other stores.

Here’s the job description in the original email.

Here's the job description in the original email.

He was sent a check for $1,950. All he had to do, he was told in written instructions, was cash the check and send $200 back to the company as a Western Union money transfer. The rest was for him to use for mystery shopping to evaluate businesses, he was told. Afterward, he would file reports about his experiences.

Dave Lieber exposes wrongdoing on WatchdogNation.com

Randolph Shaheed in a recreation of his Wells Fargo visit. Photo by Mickey Grant

The scam comes in when a bank cashes a check, then later realizes it is a fake. The supposed mystery shopper had already spent the money and wired the rest to the scammers.

The shopper is responsible for the losses. But arrests for the crime are rare. Most banks know about the scam and warn off customers before it’s too late.

The Wells Fargo bank branch manager and a corporate spokeswoman both declined to answer questions about this.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which represents legitimate mystery shopper programs, is based in Dallas. Executive Director John Swinburn told me the scam works because victims are often desperate for money.

“They feel this is something that was put in their lap to help them out, and they fall for it.”

The way legitimate mystery shopping typically works, he said, is that shoppers are asked to make very small purchases for a few dollars or may not make any purchases at all. Their subsequent reports to the companies that hire them are more about customer service and store appearance.

“If they make a purchase, they get reimbursed,” he said. “Nobody would send you a big check if they don’t know you, and if they haven’t already established a relationship with you.”

Shaheed told me, “The lesson I learned from this is to be very, very skeptical about things that you read about on the Internet that are offering you a job opportunity.” He now owes several thousand dollars in legal fees that he says he doesn’t have.

I checked back with the DeSoto police captain who originally told me to be suspicious about Shaheed’s story.

“What’s the old saying about a leopard not changing his spots?” the captain asked. “Some people do, but that’s not usually the case. That’s been my experience.

“It’s not our job to judge people. It’s our job to determine if a crime has been committed. If we think it has, then we file a case. … Obviously, when we file these cases, we have probable cause to file it, unless we have something to indicate this is a scam.”

The police captain urged me to check with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to find out what the recidivism rate is for ex-cons in Texas. How many offenders commit other crimes and get sent back to prison?

I did as he suggested. The answer: 27 percent go back within three years. (Here’s the report.)

Randolph Shaheed is not one of them.

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Final note: After a reader read this initial story in the Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the mystery reader came forward and paid off Shaheed’s legal bill. “I’m ecstatic,” Shaheed told Dave afterward.

Read the original WatchdogNation.com report here.

Watch a documentary film on Randolph Shaheed by filmmaker Mickey Grant, still incomplete by clicking on this Mickey Grant link.

Dave Lieber appears in the Mickey Grant documentary on Shaheed's life and this case.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber's new award-winning book helps American save time and money.