July 29, 2008
A key member of Gov. Rick Perry’s protection detail didn’t do enough to protect the historic Governor’s Mansion from an arsonist, including failing to tell supervisors about broken security cameras and not properly training guards, according to a report released Monday.
The 16-page report by Sgt. Michael Escalante, a Texas Department of Public Safety special crimes investigator in San Marcos who formerly was assigned to mansion security when George W. Bush was governor, cites multiple lapses by Capt. Dale Avant and other agency officials.
The document addresses many of the problems Escalante discussed during a meeting with the four-member Public Safety Commission shortly after the June 8 fire, including not giving troopers assigned to guard the building clear guidelines on how to respond to emergencies.
However, it assigns responsibilities for the breakdowns to specific DPS officials.
The report also provides more details about what happened in the moments before the fire started and the actions of a lone trooper who was on duty. The report showed a seven-minute gap between trooper John Esposito acknowledging the first alarm and notifying a DPS operator, but did not explain why.
A spokeswoman for Perry said the governor “isn’t looking to point the finger at anybody.”
“We want to make sure DPS is fortified and strengthened to continue on the track of being a very prestigious law enforcement agency,” said Krista Piferrer. “We hope that our investigation will lead us to the culprit, but we’re looking to move forward.”
Escalante’s report is contained in a memo to Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS.
Polunsky said he was satisfied with the thoroughness of the report and pleased that it was made public.
“As far as the Public Safety Commission is concerned, the matter is concluded,” Polunsky said.
DPS officials have said they do not expect anyone to be disciplined. The DPS director, Col. Thomas A. Davis Jr., announced this month that he would retire after more than 43 years with the agency.
Investigators with the state fire marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still trying to identify a suspect in the fire, who they said is seen on a security video hurling a Molotov cocktail at the building moments before the blaze.
The 152-year-old building was nearly destroyed. It was undergoing a renovation and was unoccupied at the time.
The report said Avant knew that several security cameras weren’t working on the mansion grounds and “thought he couldn’t” ask for additional guards because “the security personnel allotment had been decided.”
Avant’s supervisors didn’t know the extent of the security equipment problems because Avant “did not communicate” them up his chain of command, the report said.
The report also said that last fall, a trooper who had drafted new guard manuals for mansion security operations e-mailed revisions to Avant, who never approved them. The new manuals were never made available to troopers working at the mansion during the renovation.
Avant declined to comment.
According to the report, troopers rotated through the mansion security assignment, and some learned how to operate security equipment from fellow troopers.
On the day before the fire, a trooper was alerted to a smoke alarm but “did not know how to respond.” He called another trooper and asked him what to do. That trooper referred him to another, who gave him instructions on how to check the mansion.
The report also detailed the sequence of events from the time Esposito heard the fire alarm. It said that he acknowledged the alarm at 1:35 a.m. and called DPS communications officials at 1:42 a.m. from his personal cell phone while he went to investigate.
“As he moved towards the front of the mansion, he saw the glow of fire reflecting off a tree and told DPS communications to call the fire department,” the report said.
Don Dixon, an attorney who represents Esposito and the Texas State Troopers Association, said the report highlights that “lieutenants and captains … weren’t taking care of business.”
“John is an experienced trooper … but he was not permanently assigned” to the mansion, Dixon said. “That was part of the whole problem. You had people who did not do this every day. As a consequence, they had not been properly trained on what to do or when to do it.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, called the report an indictment of every aspect of security, including training, personnel, equipment and procedure.
“This is as bad a report of failure as you could expect to see,” Watson said.
“The public expects a government that works,” Watson said. “This report reveals government that failed at its most basic function.”