13 Undercover

Will you get refund for Comm. Lee's car use?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

There are more developments in that car controversy involving Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee. 13 Undercover broke the story Thursday night, and now the county has promised a countywide audit.

When Constable Ruben Tejeda got caught pocketing a car allowance while driving a county car, the auditor told to pay taxpayers back. And he did, $5,000.

But that was Bexar County, San Antonio. This is Harris County.

"So you're now representing the public's business, the county business?" Lee told us.

"Yes," we said.

"Ok," he said.

On Thursday night, we told you Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee's been getting a car allowance for years, $75,000 so far. But our exclusive video shows he's also driving a county car.

The auditor tell us they need evidence. Well, here it is.

"If you're using a pool car owned by the county for those same trips, then it would be wrong. You would be being paid twice basically," CPA Bob Martin said.

The rules were even tightened last November. County employees were told to fill out a sworn affidavit to explain why they needed to use a county car if they already got an allowance.

Lee has never bothered to fill it out, even on days we know he used the car; he even takes it home.

"But you're still doing it?" we asked Lee.

"No, no. What I need to do is understand your question in relation to the rules," Lee replied.

"Can't the auditor just stop the payments?" we asked Assistant Harris Co. Auditor Mike Post.

"Without a legal basis, I don't think we can," he said.

And they asked for legal advice. Who'd they ask? The watchdog. Well, actually it was Robert Soard; he's Vince Ryan's chief of staff.

"Statutorily, we asked county attorney, is this a violation of statute, and they said 'no,'" Post said.

So why should anyone else bother to fill out the sworn affidavit, to follow the rules? There's no evidence Vince Ryan ever asked his inspector general to investigate the ethics of it all. You remember Ryan's now-famous quote: "A watchdog who bites the person as they're running out the door is not as good as the watchdog who prevents somebody coming in the door," Ryan said.

Vince Ryan has been in the news a lot lately, exaggerating claims he's cracked down on dogfighting, human trafficking, criticized for an expensive video that features him and his dog frolicking on the beach and now refusing to show the public what his office found during a so-called investigation of the constables.

But this one should be a lot easier. Ryan parks his car in the administration building parking lot, just yards away from where El Franco Lee parks his car.

We asked to talk to the county attorney about that sweet car deal again Friday. The watchdog's office didn't respond.

By the way, we did ask Commissioner Lee if he plans to refund money to taxpayers and if so, how much. He told us he has referred those questions to, you guessed it, County Attorney Vince Ryan.

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