Hurricane Harvey killed more than 80 people and triggered historic flooding in Houston and across large swaths of Texas. But it also sparked oil spills and gasoline shortages. Those presented major tests for one of the most scrutinized corners of Texas government: the state’s Railroad Commission, which, despite its peculiar name, actually regulates the energy industry – with historically lax enforcement.
So when the commission’s executive director, Kim Corley, abruptly resigned, the timing and circumstances made Austin newsman Paul Weber curious. He began making calls and soon secured a tip: Corley had been on vacation and unreachable at the height of the Category 4 hurricane that walloped the industry she was paid $180,000 annually to safeguard.
Weber immediately filed an open records request for Corley’s work calendar. What he received not only confirmed she was vacationing but that her absence was even longer than what the initial tip suggested. In the two-week span before and after Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, in fact, Corley had been on vacation for 11 days.
Weber then tracked down Corley’s cell phone number and spent more than a day calling. Finally, she picked up and, in her first interview since resigning, confirmed she’d been on a camping trip hundreds of miles from the state capital on the Texas-Mexico border. Corley also defended not changing her plans and blamed her ouster on politics.
The exclusive ran as an APNewsBreak that major competitors, including The Dallas Morning News and Austin-American Statesman, used rather than trying to match. The story made front pages throughout Texas, and Weber was invited on an Austin television station’s weekly “Reporters Roundtable” to discuss his scoop.
For his exclusive on a hyper-competitive story, Weber wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.