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6 Investigates: Donation to local nonprofit founded by top county official

Nueces County Records Warehouse
Posted at 4:55 PM, Apr 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-26 17:55:54-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — For years, Nueces County District Clerk Anne Lorentzen said she tried to get the county to hire a company to digitize its old court paper archives, but it wasn't until 2019 that the ball started moving.

That summer, the county started talking to Kofile Technologies Group, Inc., a company that specializes in digitizing archives on a large scale.

6 Investigates uncovered a donation to a nonprofit founded by Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales.

That donation came from the Marilyn and Sonny Oates Foundation, whose president and treasurer, William "Sonny" Oates, also was Kofile's chairman of the board in the summer and fall of 2019.

On October 25, 2019, Canales toured Kofile's headquarters in Dallas.

That same day, the CPA for the Marilyn and Sonny Oates Foundation says the foundation donated $50,000 to the Ready or Not Foundation.

The Ready or Not Foundation does business under the Jackie Black Brain Cancer Foundation, of which Canales is the executive director.

The CPA for the Oates Foundation told 6 Investigates it was the foundation's first, and to this day, only donation, to any foundation in South Texas.

In an email to KRIS 6 News Canales says the full amount of that donation was promptly sent to the Texas Children's Cancer Center, in support of the Glioma Research Project.

We checked with Texas Children's and they told us it was against policy to reveal the names of donors.

Twelve days after that donation from the Oates Foundation, Canales presided over a public hearing at the Nueces County Commissioner's Court to create a $10 fee to pay for digitizing the archives.

The court voted to implement the fee.

It was the beginning of a process that sought no bids for the work and ended with the county awarding Kofile a $2 million contract in April of 2020.

The county has a policy in place aimed at preventing conflicts of interest with its purchasing policy. This donation may raise questions about whether county policy was followed.

Corpus Christi Taxpayers Association President Jerry Sansing says the policy is clear.

"You know, it's very easy to be upfront with these things," he said. "And that's what voters and taxpayers expect out of their elected officials."

That policy states:

"Employees shall not solicit or accept money, loans, gifts, favors, or anything of value, from present or potential contractors that might influence or appear to influence a purchasing decision."

It also requires any conflicts of interest to be disclosed to the county's purchasing agent, and if there is doubt about a conflict, the purchasing agent should be consulted.

KRIS 6 News checked, via a Texas Public Information Request, to see if the county had any record of such a disclosure.

It doesn't.

6 Investigates first reached out to Canales in January to ask about the donation. She emailed that the foundation wouldn't comment on donors or their contributions.

We then asked county purchasing agent Michael Robinson to tell us if a violation of the county ethics policy had occurred. He refused to answer emails. When approached in person, however, he referred us to the county attorney.

Nueces County Attorney Jenny Dorsey told us that her office does not have a public information officer, and it would not be within her authority to comment on this matter.

We also asked Canales. In an email to KRIS 6 News, Canales' attorney Ruben Lerma Jr. says in April 2020, when the contract was awarded, neither the Marilyn and Sonny Oates Foundation, nor Sonny Oates had an interest in Kofile.

But, according to documents obtained from the county, Kofile has been doing business with the county since 2017, and at the time of the donation, was actively pursuing a new contract. William "Sonny" Oates also was its chairman of the board at that time.

Jay Hulings is a partner at Davis and Santos in San Antonio. Before entering private practice, he was a federal prosecutor focused on national security, public corruption, fraud and organized crime.

He says there is nothing wrong with public officials having foundations or receiving donations.

"If those acts are linked, though, to a public act like awarding a contract, then that could run afoul of the law," Hulings said.

He says that ethics policies commonly have loopholes.

"One of the issues to keep in mind when you look at these disclosure requirements is whether or not they're broad enough, whether or not they capture all potential benefits that can be given to a public official," he said. "There's a whole bunch of issues that whoever is writing these might want to examine, to determine whether or not they're really serving their goals, or whether or not they're written too narrowly and are too easily circumvented."

Hulings said when loopholes are found, an update to the policy is due.

"Counties, cities are constantly revising their ethics guidelines when they discover loopholes," he said. "And it often happens because the public demands greater accountability. They want to know what their public officials are up to."

The county has chosen to have its purchasing agent be overseen by a purchasing board.

On that board sits three district court judges and two members of the commissioner's court. County Judge Canales is one of the five members on that board.

But that purchasing board isn't in charge of setting policy.

KRIS 6 News has learned the commissioners court would be responsible for updating the policy.

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