At a Monday night hearing, a seemingly disengaged Ethics Review Board found that District 3 Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos violated the city’s ethics code by sending off emails to her employer from city computers, but the city board dismissed the most egregious allegations brought forward in a complaint earlier this year.
The lengthy complaint filed in late January by Tina Cortez, sister of one of Ramos’ opponents in next month’s election, drew on a litany of emails between the councilwoman and her then employer, the WellMed Charitable Foundation. In the complaint, Cortez charged that the exchanges proved Ramos worked to further WellMed interests as a councilwoman.
Ramos resigned from the organization in February, insisting that she had done nothing wrong but wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety. WellMed had hired Ramos as a grant writer in the summer of 2008, about nine months before the organization won a sweeping five-year contract to provide medical services at senior centers across the city.
A City Attorney’s opinion, issued soon after WellMed won the contract, directed Ramos to recuse herself from any city votes pertaining to WellMed, an order she followed.
While WellMed pays $100,000 per year to the city to operate out of its centers, the organization can then refer seniors to its for-profit clinics for additional services. WellMed won another city contract last fall to operate out of a city senior center set to open in District 6.
Cortez said she first began filing open records requests for emails between Ramos and WellMed officials in October 2010, about the same time her sister, Elizabeth “Liz” Campos, decided to challenge Ramos in the May election. Asked if her sister’s candidacy influenced the timing of her complaint, Cortez remarked, “My sister’s running, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that wrong is wrong.”
All nine board members at Monday night’s hearing agreed that Ramos’ only violation was a minor offense and agreed to issue a letter of admonition for her use of city computers to conduct personal business. But the board dismissed the most serious allegations, saying the emails weren’t proof that Ramos advanced WellMed’s interests before the city.
Cortez fired away at Ramos in sworn testimony before the board, listing the numerous email exchanges between Ramos and her then-boss Carol Zernial, WellMed Charitable Foundation’s executive director, claiming they show Ramos easing WellMed’s interests while at City Hall.
Ramos struck back in her testimony Monday night, calling Cortez’s complaint a strategically timed attack meant to damage the councilwoman’s reelection campaign — an attack in which Ramos said the ethics board and local media had become “unwitting accomplices.”
Fighting tears, Ramos told the board, “I would like to let you know how blatantly unfair this process is. … When a person can abuse the ethics complaint process to turn a campaign for office into a circus based on nothing more than innuendos and accusations, the complaint process is flawed.”
Cortez went through a string of emails stretching over two years, many to the councilwoman’s city address, in which Ramos appears to arrange city meetings and set agenda items on behalf of WellMed. Many of the back-and-forth messages between Ramos and her boss paint the councilwoman as the go-to for WellMed matters involving local government.
One complaint that troubled some board members was a February 2010 letter, penned by Ramos’ boss, urging the chairman of the San Antonio Housing Authority to contract with WellMed for a program to transport seniors to WellMed clinics in the city. Though written by WellMed, Ramos signed the letter and then sought out signatures from four other council members before sending it to SAHA, which gave WellMed, the sole bidder, the contract.
“I think that, to me, it’s different from just citizen Ramos writing a letter. This is Councilwoman Ramos, as an elected official of the city, and that carries weight with SAHA,” said board member Thomas Larralde.
At the hearing, Ramos insisted the letter to SAHA did not give WellMed any unfair advantage, given no other company even bid on the contract. “In hindsight, I should have not sent the letter, and I admitted to this mistake a year ago.”
“My mistake was not, however, violating the ethics code … but that it looked bad and I should have known better at that time,” she said.
Still, many on the board stayed relatively mum throughout the hearing, save for a few who piped up to remark that allegations against Ramos constitute a “gray area.” Seeking questions, comments, or even any type of deliberation from the board, chair Arthur Downey at one point remarked, “Am I going to have to call on you one on one?”
Downey said that the emails between Ramos and her WellMed boss gave the “appearance of impropriety,” but didn’t necessarily prove any wrongdoing. “This is something someone shouldn’t do, particularly a city official, but it is not in and of itself a violation,” he said. “There is certainly, as has been pointed out very effectively, an appearance of impropriety, but having an appearance of impropriety in and of itself does not violate the code.”
After the hearing, Ramos admitted she should have been more careful, saying, “Hindsight is 20-20.”
According to city emails, for example, Ramos sent her boss Zernial tips on how to apply for money from a city fund for human development services in May 2010. That same month, the councilwoman emailed Zernial and stated that she had moved her up on the agenda to present at a meeting with the city’s Quality of Life committee that Ramos chaired. Zernial replied: “Thanks so much for your assistance in moving us up on the agenda to May. This is very important.” The WellMed exec followed up with the councilwoman later that month, saying, “We are hoping to get on the June 17th agenda before the July break. Would this be possible? Thanks.”
Later that summer, one of Ramos’ aides emailed a staffer in the Mayor’s office relating Ramos’ desire to recommend a constituent to the mayor’s fitness council. That constituent, according to the emails, was Zernial.
And then in September 2010, after receiving an email from the Alamo Area Council of Governments about a meeting to discuss a transportation co-op, the councilwoman tried, unsuccessfully, to get WellMed a place at the table.
Ramos also secured a copy of Bexar County’s proposed budget that month, which she then forwarded to Zernial so she could see the amount set aside for WellMed’s transportation program.
One board member remarked that much of the dialogue shown in the emails wouldn’t appear odd or even questionable had it not taken place between Ramos and her employer.
Vincent R. Johnson, a St. Mary’s University law professor who led a mayor’s taskforce that revamped the city’s ethics code in the late ’90s, insisted San Antonio’s ethics code is one of the most clear and comprehensive in the country. One of the code’s most basic tenets, he wrote in an email, is a rule against any official using their position to unfairly advance or impede private interests, including any form of special consideration or treatment by a public official.
Johnson declined to comment specifically on the Ramos case, but wrote about the core ethical principal guiding the city’s code. “The rule against unfair advancement of private interests means that everyone should have the right to compete for benefits on the same terms.”
Toward the end of the hearing, Downey and other board members addressed another underlying concern, that perhaps the nature of the city’s essentially unpaid council sets the stage for conflicts with employers. Council members earn $20 per meeting or about $1,000 per year.
“We put council-people in a position where they aren’t paid enough so they have to have outside employment,” Downey said. “And if they have outside employment, and it’s in the city of San Antonio, the odds are it’s going to affect something that’s taking place in the City of San Antonio. … Can we expect them to be very judicious in that regard?”
Though the Ethics Review Board also voted Monday to draft a letter to the Mayor and City Council, asking that they clarify the portion of the ethics code relating to the use of public resources for private purposes, the members fostered no discussion or debate over how to draft a policy that would prevent the ethical “gray area” from being breached again. Ramos is being challenged for her District 3 seat by Liz Campos and Ernest Zamora Jr.
Lopez: soliciting work
In September 2009, District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez met with WellMed execs over dinner to discuss a senior center that’s now set to open in his district. While WellMed sought a contract with the city in order provide medical services at the center, city emails show Lopez also sought to benefit his private business, REV Enterprises, Inc.
Lopez and District 3 Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos met with Bill Connolly, WellMed’s senior vice president of shared services and other WellMed staff to talk about the future senior center. About a week later, Lopez fired off an email to Connolly that, in part, reads like a sales pitch.
“On a side note, we briefly discussed the possibility of an opportunity dealing with WellMed IT,” Lopez wrote. “My consulting group deals with virtually every facet of IT support … I would like to meet with you some time next week to talk about areas that may exist where I may be if `sic` value to you and the WellMed IT operations team.”
Lopez has since said he eventually retracted his offer, never taking money or business from WellMed. The city’s ethics code prohibits city officials from soliciting outside employment that could reasonably be expected to impair independent judgment, and at the time Lopez appeared wary of broadcasting his talks with WellMed staff, according to the emails released to the Current under an open records request.
In a March 2010 email, before the city even issued an RFP for the contract that WellMed would eventually win, Lopez’s secretary informed him that WellMed staff wanted to meet with the councilman to go over “potential senior sites.” Lopez then directed his secretary to cautiously ask whether city staff would be attending, saying, “I do not want to get WellMed in trouble, so be very careful how you ask.”
However, an official ethics complaint was never filed against Lopez.
Lopez is currently seeking reelection to his seat, facing off with little-known rivals Pete Galaviz, a local engineer, and Steve Shamblen, an advocate of marijuana legalization who promises to tap the local research community to study the medicinal qualities of cannabis.
Chan: keeping it quiet
Concerned with hush-hush plans moving forward to fund repairs to a drainage canal in her gated community, Mae Ashton, treasurer of a Northside homeowners association board, drove to a local spy shop and purchased a $235 audio-recording pen before attending her board’s January 26 meeting with District 9 Councilwoman Elisa Chan.
Over the nearly hour-long recording, Chan is heard telling the board she’s managed to scrape together as much as $300,000 to repair a drainage culvert inside the subdivision, something she repeatedly calls a “private project.”
Days later, Ashton took the recording to the Express-News and the project imploded. Chan nixed the deal soon after the recording became public. The paper also reported City Attorney Michael Bernard felt queasy about approving the money in the first place, given the overhanging question of whether the canal was city or HOA property. (Calls to Chan and Bernard for were not returned.)
The HOA, Ashton said, has tried for over a decade to fix the culvert, and while the city has performed some light repairs over the years, it has recently started arguing the homeowners may be legally responsible to fix the ditch, saying it falls in a private unit development (PUD) and out of the city’s care.
On the recording, Chan calls the project a “gray area,” but says she could drum up at least a quarter-million dollars of public money to fund the bulk of the repairs. The city attorney’s office would approve it, she says, but would also want a signed agreement in return saying the HOA takes responsibility for any future upkeep.
“I don’t want you guys to advertise, either, that I’m using a quarter-million dollars or $300,000 for one neighborhood because each neighborhood has their issues and their problems,” Chan says. “The first hurdle we sort of solved because (City Attorney) Michael Bernard is going to kind of just close an eye and let us use some funding to do this,” she says.
Chan says the city estimated the repairs would cost roughly $340,000, but Ashton claims an engineering company hired by the HOA a decade ago priced the repairs at over $1 million.
Ashton worried the board would sign the deal without informing the rest of the HOA, about 200 property owners, about future liability issues.
On the recording, Ashton asks Chan what the board should tell the rest of the HOA members at their upcoming annual meeting. “How did you handle the past 10 years? … Whatever you said on your annual HOA meeting before, that’s what you say right now,” Chan replies. “I will not be able to tell other HOAs that I’m spending $300,000, a quarter-million dollars, for one neighborhood,” she says. “My reelection is coming and I don’t have time to do this, to be quite honest.”
Chan is currently seeking reelection, up against little-known challenger Jose Valdez Jr., a 27-year-old general contractor.