That stale stench coming from Fresh Arts and its president

First, the links, since they are a bit difficult to put inline:

Those who follow the Houston arts scene are probably aware of the abrupt departure of Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, its long-time executive director (dating back to 2010 January as executive director of Spacetaker, the organization Fresh Arts merged with, and apparently the nominal survivor of the merger even though the Fresh Arts brand is the one everyone sees). The timing was a bit suspicious as Jenni had appeared on a radio program to KUHF-FM where she openly discussed the inequity in how public funding for the arts is distributed. Namely, that three large organizations, the Miller Theatre Advisory Board, the Museum District Association, and the Theatre District Association receive a set percentage of funds from the hotel occupancy tax each year, without having to be reviewed, and that smaller organizations (like Fresh Arts, and we would assume per-merger Spacetaker as well) have to go through a grant process and fight for their money every year.

Jenni spoke out against an injustice. Given her position, it could even be argued she would not be doing her job if she remained silent. If it seems weird that the episode of the show Jenni was on aired on 2015 October 20, and within hours of the program airing she was no longer employed by Fresh Arts, that may be because it is. To take us even further into the Twilight Zone (quoting the second article above):

“If [Stephenson] just left on her own, it doesn’t make sense that they can’t talk about it,” says the artist advisory board member

(period missing in original)

The real fish stinking up the room is that according to Fresh Arts, Jenni resigned, which based on what little I know about Jenni didn’t make any sense at all, until just now (the night of Wednesday, 2016 February 17, stretching into the following morning).

Tonight I learned of Jenni’s lawsuit against Brian McMahan, president of Fresh Arts and vice president of Frost Bank, Spacetaker (d.b.a. Fresh Arts), and Frost Bank. I have read the complaint as filed with the court, and if true, what Mr. McMahan has done to Jenni is the most disgraceful thing I have seen in the Houston arts community in the time I have been following it. In summary, Jenni claims not only was she fired based on a bogus “audit” conducted by someone at Frost Bank, but that Mr. McMahan moved the Fresh Arts bank accounts to Frost Bank from Amegy Bank in a rather flagrant conflict of interest, and that she was also openly and falsely accused of stealing money from Fresh Arts. Not surprisingly, this has completely ruined Jenni’s reputation, and according to the court documents:

[The Defendants’] conduct was so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious, and uttlerly intolerable in a civilized community.

I applaud Jenni’s decision to speak out about what she did, when she did. I don’t know Jenni that well, but the impression she has made on me is that of an honest, upstanding person. I am happy she has chosen to stand up for her rights, and take legal action against those that have wronged her. I am sad that one of the defendants happens to be Fresh Arts.

(Sidenote: Under most circumstances, I consider it to be in at least moderately bad taste, and often in at least extremely bad taste, to sue a non-profit. However, this is an exception, as it is an employment-related dispute, which just happens to involve a non-profit.)

And in turn, I’m also a bit sad about the entire situation. Great people like David Brown (founded Spacetaker), Mandy Graessle, Ian Garrett (former executive directors for Fresh Arts pre-merger), and many others too numerous to try to name helped build what is today Fresh Arts, and I am sad for them as well because a lot of the goodwill they have helped build over the years has been ruined by the actions of Mr. McMahan and people like him.

I’m a little sad as well for the employees of Frost Bank, who as one of the results of this dispute, either way, will probably be a bit less proud of their jobs. Now, I have never banked with Frost Bank (their target market seems to be people with much higher income levels than mine), and up until now I’ve never had reason to doubt them as an arts sponsor.

Finally, I am sad for the Houston arts community as a whole, including the artists who depend on the services of Fresh Arts and the art fans in Houston. Regardless of the resolution of this lawsuit, they are probably going to lose something as a result of it at some point.

(It’s noteworthy that I am not the least bit sad for Mr. McMahan and, barring evidence that I should be, probably won’t be for the foreseeable future if ever.)

Finally, based on what I read in the complaint, it would not surprise me in the least to see Fresh Arts and Frost Bank in turn personally suing Mr. McMahan and those acting in concert with him. This happens often in civil suits where one or more defendants have a counterclaim against other defendants or even a third party not named in the original suit.

A shocking “Discover”y, and related lessons

First, one apology (of two) to my readers. I have been aware of this for about a year. I originally sat on this for a while because the relevant lawsuit was pending. I continued to sit on it because I felt an appeal and/or a new trial was pending, which would have been another three months or so. I have little excuse for sitting on it after 2015 October 1. (This should have been posted no later than the end of 2015 September.) On one hand I don’t like posting stale news; on the other, the only thing worse than posting this late is not posting it at all.

(The second apology will be made in context.)

Rewind to the summer of 2012. Specifically, 2012 August 15. A good month and a half had transpired since my reply to whoever was behind “” with nothing but radio silence. I had received a reply to the third message I sent regarding the financial statement from WordCamp Houston 2010 and who received the scholarship (well, and also what became of the video that was shot of the breakout sessions, but that’s not what this is about). The reply I got merely stated “Thanks for your inquiry, please look for information to be announced regarding the scholarship later this year.” (Again, along with a reply about the status of the video, but I have covered that already.)

Fast forward to early 2015 (I unfortunately don’t have an exact date, but it was well before July). I’m punching some names of people into public records websites as part of an unrelated project, and seeing if I find anything I don’t yet know but should. I finish with the names I had originally planned to look up and move on to some other names. One of those names happens to be Monica Danna (now Danna-Garcia), former WordCamp Houston organizer. What comes up is shocking, in at least two ways, which I’ll get to shortly.

What I found was that Ms. Danna had been sued by Discover Bank for an unpaid credit card debt, in the amount of $12,758.21. The first shock is the amount of the lawsuit, and at first I figured this credit card debt had been run up over a period of about five years or so. When I attended the trial setting on 2015 July 7, I found out the card had only been issued sometime in 2010 (I didn’t take notes, but pretty sure it was in the first half of the year, before the WordCamp Houston 2010 event date), which was perhaps the bigger shock of the two.

One of my original reasons for attending the trial date was largely curiosity on seeing how well the defense presented by Ms. Danna’s attorney, Robert Hinsley, would hold up. Also, I have not really observed that many court trials in real life (really, none of substance from start to finish save the one time I was actually picked for a jury).

As originally stated, I had originally intended to post immediately after the trial date, though that changed once the “trial” had taken place. Counselor Hinsley didn’t make it to the trial due to a medical emergency. (Whether that would have changed the outcome is a matter of debate.) Given that Discover had flown in a witness from Delaware the judge went ahead and allowed the witness’s testimony to be entered on the record so a default judgment could be issued. (Civil cases are decided by a preponderance of the evidence, and a preponderance means there has to be something there for the plaintiff to win.) That was on 2015 July 7. No developments occurred as of the last time I checked; the motions (to set aside the verdict and for a new trial) appear to have been denied and I can’t find any appeals, so it would appear to yours truly, technically a layperson but with a bit higher than average knowledge of law, that this case is a done deal.

With that said, let’s rewind a bit. Before I get into this, I have absolutely nothing to show that there was a plot to steal the WordCamp Houston 2010 proceeds in full, by any of the organizers. I wish I had the proverbial “smoking gun” (smoking credit card?) to show that was the case. But I don’t.

The proceeds from WordCamp Houston 2010 totaled $2,790.30. Take the balance at the time of the lawsuit, $12,758.21. Doing a web search for ‘Discover card minimum payment’ finds a typical minimum payment is the greater of $40 or 2% of the balance.

The responsible thing to do, when trusted by the community to handle money properly in such a situation, is full disclosure and full transparency from start to finish. To this day I have no clue whether or not the money was commingled with personal funds of one or more of the organizers (which it most certainly should not have been), or separated into another account as it should have been. A simple “hey, we still need to find a recipient for the scholarship,we didn’t get any nominees in August” would have helped. Even if a year of searching had been fruitless, how about “hey, the money is still safe and in a separate account, here is the (partially redacted) bank statement” or something like that?

And here’s where some of the lessons to be learned come in. First, my failure. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: stupid me, I trusted Ms. Danna, Mr. Valdez, Ms. Laird, and Mr. Everson to do the right thing, and keep the word given by Ms. Danna on the video-recorded introduction to the keynote speech in 2010. So much so, that my first message merely asked for the financial statement and what happened to the video. I decided to think like the rest of the community, and trust that the right thing had already been done. The moral of the story, again, is be careful who you trust and never assume someone will do the right thing, even if their history is impeccable. I still regret not jumping on this sooner. I hold myself to high standards, and my lack of pursuit of transparency of the financial end of WordCamp Houston 2010 until quite some time had passed is, to say the least, a departure from those standards. I am grateful the money did eventually find its way to a deserving college student. That doesn’t change the fact I still feel it’s completely unacceptable for it to have taken over two years.

Second, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: if you default on a credit card owing enough money, you will get sued! At the very least, even if you are not sued, your credit report and credit score will take a hit, and you may find your borrowing ability suffering for years. So, with that in mind, don’t borrow money you cannot afford to pay back. Realistically wouldn’t expect to get sued for a credit card debt under about $1,000, but as the amount goes up, the odds go up considerably; for a default on $10,000 or higher, I’d call a lawsuit a certainty.

Now, I will admit I haven’t been perfect here; without giving away too many details, what’s on my credit report currently is close to average, but as recently as 5 to 6 years ago, it was an entirely different story. I’ve never been in a position where I was likely to get sued, though, nor have I had to file bankruptcy. Neither are a good time from what I have heard and observed.

To those of you getting your first credit cards, here is my advice (based on both my mistakes and those of others): Use as little credit as you possibly can. Ideally, pay your cards in full every month and carry a balance only if you have absolutely no other choice. Pay on time, every time, with good funds. Late payment and returned payment fees are expensive, especially on top of a 20%+ APR. Annual fees can also get expensive; shop around every few months, and replace cards charging outrageous annual fees with ones that don’t. I’ll break this down into further detail in a post later in February, but these are the most important points for now.

This may seem like a very tardy post, and some may consider it to be beating the proverbial greasy spot where the dead horse used to be. I disagree. Learning of the lawsuit, and reading (and later re-reading) all the documents in the case file, gave me a newfound appreciation for just how lucky we were and are as a community. I am certain now that had I not spoken up when I did, my failure to do so would have haunted me for years.

Yes, this still angers me even though the actual scholarship award was three years ago. You can use whatever comparison you want, say it may as well be 10, 20, 30 years ago, a century ago, in some year BCE, the jurassic era… whatever. It really doesn’t matter to me, this may as well have been last week or even yesterday. I believe strongly in the saying of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (More often said as “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and similar forms, but the sentiment is the same.)

Taking down the weasels: Google sues the scam artists

Better late than never. Credit goes to ReadWriteWeb for being the first place where I read about this recent development.

It’s rare I find something a large corporation does that is worthy of praise, but this is one such situation. The official Google blog reveals that, finally, the corporate behemoth has decided it’s time to drag the weasels into court. Yes, weasels. Anyone remember those posts? (It’s a three-part series, in case you weren’t around in April when I first posted them.)

I lament that it took Google at least eight months to catch on to what was obviously dubious appropriation of their trademark. In fact, with the inclusion of “Google” in the dictionary, the company has already come dangerously close to losing its trademark.

At least, we hope, a few scam artists will be bankrupt shortly, and the sunlight from Google’s official blog will probably scare the rest of them into hiding for a while.

Cheerleading coach extorts Facebook credentials, spreads private info

Ars Technica reports on a case very similar to the recent flap over the city of Bozeman, Montana, requiring social network login information to apply for employment (a policy since rescinded). This case involves a high school cheerleader in Mississippi which was pressured into giving her Facebook login credentials to her cheerleading coach. The teacher found a heated discussion of some of the cheerleading squad’s internal politics not intended for the coach’s–or school administrators’–prying eyes, and resulted in the student being sanctioned.

From the article:

The Student Press Law Center has more detailed account (via TechDirt) of the events, in which it reports that several other students asked for their logins simply deleted their accounts using their cell phones, preventing this sort of intrusion; the schools apparently have a filter that blocks access to its Web interface from school computers. It also suggests that the initial search of the Facebook accounts was done with the intent of finding pictures of the students smoking or drinking.

Of course, the best move for the students would have been to simply state that Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities prohibits the sharing of one’s password or other authentication info:

\6. You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.

Please, remember this, and pass it along to friends or family members, especially younger ones who are still in high school or middle school and thus most vulnerable to having their credentials extorted.

Even if the search was simply for pictures of students being naughty, the coach or administrators could have done this using their own personal account and limited sanctions to those pictures accessible to the public. As it stands, the school administration has a nasty lawsuit on its hands, and an ex-cheerleader hopefully has a huge and well-deserved payday in exchange for unjust humiliation and disciplinary action.

“Sue first, ask questions later”

Mashable reports on what at first glance appears to be a run-of-the-mill libel lawsuit. Horizon Realty is suing a former tenant, Amanda Bonnen, for US$50,000 over the one line:

Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.

The alarming thing is that, according to the story, Amanda had maybe 20 followers at the time of the account’s deletion. The most alarming part of this story, however, is this statement from a Horizon employee named Jeffrey Michael:

Bonnen wasn’t contacted before the suit was filed or asked to remove the Tweet, [Michael] said: “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization”.

If Horizon does have a reputation to protect, aggressively filing lawsuits of dubious merit and making statements to that effect are not the way to uphold it. Actions speak far louder than words; I think Horizon’s reaction to the whole incident will do a lot more to scare tenants away than anything Amanda might have said or done in response to the incident.

To Amanda, if you’re out there reading this: You’ve got the right to trial by jury. Use it.

To Horizon: You need to hire a PR firm that knows what they are doing, and not try to do it yourself.