Houston’s Inspector General will soon be investigating an ethics complaint against Houston Controller Chris Brown. The complaint, filed by a former intern in the controller’s office, alleges Brown fired him after he attempted to facilitate a public finance training seminar for council members. He alleges senior staff inside the controller’s office feared it would further expose the city’s dire fiscal situation to the council.
Atlas Kerr, a senior at the University of Houston, interned in the controller’s office from January 2016 until the end of March. A Houston native, Kerr said he was ambitious to get a firsthand view of public finance because he cares about the future of the city.
While interning, Kerr discovered that Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of Moody’s Corp. (which just downgraded Houston’s debt rating), hosts public finance trainings at their headquarters in New York City. The training program covers the operations of the municipal bond market, how to determine the financial strength of a city, and how to analyze financial statements of municipal governments.
While the training normally costs $4,000 per attendee, Kerr was able to coordinate with Moody’s to host a session in Houston and found a way to subsidize the program so it would be at no cost to the council or taxpayers.
Six Council Members, including Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Jack Christie (AL-5), expressed interest in either attending the training seminar themselves or having a staff member attend. The only council member to reject the offer outright was Amanda Edwards (AL-4).
With six members on board, Kerr was told to create a formal presentation for City Controller Chris Brown and other senior staff. Kerr delivered the presentation to Deputy Director Shannan Nobles, Communications Director Roger Widmeyer, and Keir Murray. Oddly, Keir Murray is not a City of Houston employee, but is the principal of KLM Public Affairs, the political consultant who ran Brown’s campaign.
Kerr says that the three senior advisors abruptly ended his presentation saying the financial information didn’t need to be shared with council. Kerr alleges that Nobles went as far as to say, “It isn’t Council’s job to learn public finance.”
Kerr was dismayed that senior staff at the Controller’s office seemed intent on hiding the city’s financial information from council members.
Following the incident, Kerr went to speak with an advisor at the University of Houston’s CHIP program about his placement in the controller’s office. CHIP is the Civic Houston Internship Program, which partners U of H students with internships in Houston’s government.
After speaking with the CHIP advisor, Kerr received an email from his supervisor asking him to come to his office immediately the next day. At that meeting Kerr was fired, allegedly because “it was inappropriate that [Kerr] spoke to another program about [himself].”
Kerr has now filed a complaint with the city’s inspector general regarding his dismissal and the decisions of senior staff in the controller’s office to hide financial information from the council.
This incident exemplifies the mismanagement in many of Houston’s government offices. The inspector general needs to determine whether Chris Brown knew of the decision to halt the financial training and, if not, determine who is actually in control of decision-making in the controller’s office.
Much of the dishonesty of Houston’s government was blamed on former Mayor Annise Parker and Controller Ron Green. But this glaring example shows that dishonesty and corruption are ingrained in the culture of Houston’s city government. Combating it will require persistent vigilance. After all, an advocate like Atlas Kerr should be celebrated, not fired.
It’s time for council members to demand answers from the controller’s office as to why the subsidized seminar was killed, whether Kerr’s dismissal was a retaliatory act, and what other financial information is being deliberately hidden from council.