BARC Sued By Another Whistleblower; Still Stonewalling On Releasing Information
A former Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care employee filed a whistleblower suit against the City of Houston Tuesday, claiming she was fired after she notified investigators of animal cruelty and record-tampering.
You said you would change, BARC
Hope Bennett's complaint states that she notified the Houston Police Department's Office of Inspector General in March, and that on April 5 was informed by BARC's human resources director that BARC General Manager David Atencio was firing her for "trying to undermine him."
"Plaintiff was terminated in retaliation for reporting a violating of law to an appropriate law enforcement authority," the suit states. Bennett is also requesting "a civil penalty not to exceed $15,000 against Atencio...and Alfred Moran, Director of the Office of Administrative & Regulatory Affairs....for taking adverse action against Bennett."
Bennett's attorney, Martin Shellist, also represented former BARC veterinarian Sam Levingston in his 2000 whistleblower suit against the city. Levingston alleged he was fired after complaining about faulty air-conditioners in BARC trucks that sometimes resulted in dogs dying before they reached the shelter. Levingston was awarded $1.2 million, but ultimately settled with the City for $875,000.
While the complaint doesn't state the details of the alleged violations, BARC veterinarians performed a risky surgery on a severely injured, blind dog in March, the month that Bennett went to the OIG. The dog died. Some in the animal welfare community believed BARC did not ensure the dog received adequate diagnostics, and that the facility lacked the equipment for such surgery.
The Houston Press had filed a public information request in April for e-mails among Moran, Atencio, Bennett, BARC vets, and other employees. The Press was first told by an employee in the IT department that the Press would be able to view all documents electronically and without cost.
However, despite Mayor Annise Parker's assurance in February that, under her watch, BARC would no longer stonewall public information requests by automatically requesting Attorney General's opinions, the IT employee's offer was quashed.
BARC Spokesman Chris Newport told the Press that, because some of the e-mails may contain information protected by attorney-client privilege, the city was forwarding the request to the AG's office. The AG received the City's request April 23 and waited the full 45 days allowed by law to respond. The opinion stated that some of the information was indeed protected, but that all other information must be released.
What the City initially offered the Press a free look at was then priced at $22,566.60. The Press narrowed the scope of the request considerably and is now waiting two more weeks for e-mails among Moran and a few others sent during the week of the blind dog's surgery.
So five months after the fact, we hope to find out what the people in charge of BARC -- people who work for the public -- were discussing during the month a fired employee complained of animal cruelty. We are truly grateful to Mayor Annise Parker for making sure that, when it comes to BARC, the new boss is the same as the old boss.
We haven't sought a comment from the City yet, but we hope to get around to that by January.