What the City of Sugar Land attempted to hide about the Schlumberger tax abatement agreement that was already in the public domain

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What the City of Sugar Land attempted to hide about the Schlumberger tax abatement agreement that was already in the public domain

A new cafeteria and fitness center for company executives, an auditorium, existing utility repairs, new landscaping and no increase in Fort Bend school enrollments are five of the over thirty trade secrets of Schlumberger’s tax abatement application the City of Sugar Land fought needlessly to hide from public view through the open records request process –needless because a un-redacted copy of that very same tax abatement application was already publicly available on a Fort Bend County website and reported in part by the Houston Business Journal.

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A comparison of the un-redacted and redacted copies of the tax abatement application obtained through open records requests and a web search provides a window into what Schlumberger and the City of Sugar Land wanted the Texas Attorney General’s open records division to hide from public view under a business privilege exception and keep secret.

In exchange for the ten-year, tax-free abatement on the value of the improvements as a part of their business consolidation strategy (not a business expansion strategy) to relocate 517 Houston-based employees to their existing campus in Sugar Land, Sugar Land didn’t want taxpayers to know:

“As part of its resource management and consolidation strategy, Schlumberger is relocating part of its Houston-based resources, consisting of approximately 517 employees, to Schlumberger Technology Corporations’ (STC) existing 200 acre Sugar Land campus in Fort Bend County.”

“The project includes greenfield construction of new accommodations for management offices, North America operations, general amenities including cafeteria and fitness center, and a large auditorium for company-specific events. The project also encompasses the demolition of obsolete buildings, repair of site utilities and reconstruction of landscape features…”

How are reports by the Houston Business Journal in October 2015 and in July 2016 containing information from the economic development director for the City of Sugar Land considered a trade secret in the eyes of Sugar Land and the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council?

Moreover, the 2016 Texas Public Information Handbook lists six factors used in determining whether information constitutes a trade secret and one of them is “the extent to which the information is known outside of the company’s business”.

The second of the six factors used to determine whether information is considered a trade secret under the Texas Public Information Act is “the extent to which it is known by employees and others involved in the company business.”

When the Houston Business Journal published its two articles, the information became publicly known to any of Schlumberger’s employees who read the HBJ.

How could Sugar Land claim (and the Texas AG’s office agree?) they and Schlumberger took measures to guard the secrecy of the 517 jobs transferring to Sugar Land from other parts of the region when that information was reported by the Houston Business Journal in July 2016 and made public by Fort Bend County and now known to Schlumberger’s competitors?

It’s also quite a stretch for Sugar Land to assert the fifth and sixth factors in determining if information meets the definition of a trade secret —“the amount of effort or money expended by the company in developing the information” and the “ease of difficulty of duplicating the information” considering the HBJ wrote:

“the city (Sugar Land) and Fort Bend County officials worked quickly to make the deal happen.”

Contrasting the un-redacted and redacted copies of the tax abatement application reveals the City of Sugar Land also hid the phone and fax numbers of Michael Lateur of Duff & Phelps and redacted information about the size of the families and the number of children expected to move into Sugar Land —ZERO.

That same word—ZERO—is the amount of energy Sugar Land should have expended in time and money in fighting the original open records request considering the information was already out in the public domain.

Read the redacted and un-redacted documents here.

 

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