BLANCO, Texas (KXAN) – If you’re itching to meet a Blanco police officer, park your car on either side of the ninety-degree bend where Lindeman Lane becomes Lindeman Circle and wait.
You’ll usually see a personal vehicle with “Police” written on a magnet down its side when you get there, but if you don’t, it won’t be long before you’ll see a cruiser dispatched from the city to find out what you’re doing. Blanco police respond to the Kinder Morgan pipe storage yard even though it is outside the city limits.
Blanco’s Police Department is one of many Hill Country law enforcement agencies working for The Athos Group, a private security firm based in Irving and Miami, Florida, according to the company’s Chief Operations Officer Jeff Sweetin. The firm has hired dozens of Texas peace officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Kimble County, Llano County, Gillespie County and the City of Blanco.
Those jurisdictions are only the ones KXAN has been able to confirm by meeting them along the Permian Highway Pipeline route between Junction and Blanco.
The security firm specializes in securing pipelines for large energy companies, according to its website. The Permian Highway Pipeline is a $2 billion, 428-mile transmission line that will connect the Permian Basin in West Texas to the Gulf Coast near Houston.
The private security work has raised concerns among locals about conflicts of interest, and KXAN’s investigation discovered several law enforcement agencies involved in the private work keep no public records showing who their officers work for, when they work or how they are contracted and paid.
Just as we were finishing an interview outside the Blanco stockyard in March with members of a pipeline protest group called “Blanco Stop the Pipeline,” a large Ford pickup truck arrived at the yard’s locked entrance gate just yards away. Out stepped a man wearing a gun and a badge. He walked up to the locked gate and spun the lock’s combination.
The women we’d just interviewed identified the officer right away as Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey.
“Are you working on the pipeline, chief?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Ritchey, as he unlocked the gate.
“I am. Why do you ask?” Ritchey said.
“I see you unlocking their gate. I didn’t know if you were working for them,” Barr said.
“Sure am,” Ritchey responded, as he took out his cell phone.
“You must be doing security,” Barr said.
“Yes, sir,” Ritchey responded, snapping a picture of Barr with his cell phone.
Ritchey would not provide information to KXAN explaining who contracted him to perform the security work. He said he didn’t know who negotiated his own contract to perform security and guard the Kinder Morgan pipe yard.
The chief also wouldn’t disclose who paid him for his off-duty security work, but he did tell KXAN that neither the city nor the pipeline company was paying him. The chief also denied The Athos Group was paying him to guard the pipe yard while wearing his gun, badge and Blanco Police Department uniform.
The chief eventually made his way to the three cars — including a KXAN vehicle — parked on the side of Lindeman Lane and photographed the front and back of each vehicle with his phone.
“They can use our resources to get our information,” said Katherine McClure, a member of the anti-pipeline group, as the chief snapped pictures.
Deda Divine, also a member of the protest group, said peace officers across the region working security for the pipeline and stockyards seem to have a “conflict of interest.”
“If we have a problem, who do we call?” Divine said.
No records, no logs, no accounting
After the encounter with Ritchey, KXAN filed multiple Texas Public Information Act requests with the City of Blanco and the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office to discover who contracted with the peace officers and whether the departments’ policies allowed such work.
Neither Blanco police nor the county sheriff could produce records showing which officers were working security details or how they were being paid.
Though the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office said it kept no records of off-duty deputy work, sheriff’s office Lt. Robert Woodring provided information about pipeline security and contracting with Athos. He said deputies began working with Athos and providing pipeline security in January.
“The sheriff’s office doesn’t pay or assign deputies to off-duty security details,” Woodring said. Deputies are scheduled by Athos through an app where they can select security work in their off hours, he added.
In March, KXAN filed a record request with the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center to find out whether off-duty Blanco police had ever called anything related to their pipeline security details in to dispatch.
“There are no other documents responsive to your current request,” Assistant Blanco County Attorney Kimberly Ashby said in a written response.
KXAN also filed records requests with the City of Blanco seeking Ritchey’s employment agreement, time clock records for police work, policies for off-duty work, whether the city maintains records of the use of public property for private security work and for text messages and call logs in an effort to figure out what the chief did with the photographs he took.
In an email from Blanco City Attorney Brad Bullock, the city said it did not have an employment agreement with Ritchey. None of the records obtained by KXAN show any off-duty approvals or requests for off-duty employment.
The city initially never responded to our March 6 records request for the chief’s cell phone records. The request also sought copies of any video and pictures the chief took at the Blanco pipe yard on March 5. The Texas Public Information Act requires governments to respond to a request within 10 business days, which the city did not do.
Bullock called the delay in the city answering the request within 10 days “an unintentional oversight.” He also said the city’s efforts to address the pandemic response contributed to the delay.
On April 28, the city’s attorney told KXAN the city staff never informed him of the March 6 request, but that the city “…has no public records responsive to your request,” Bullock wrote in an email to KXAN.
We’ve asked Bullock to provide documentation to show whether the city performed a search of the chief’s cell phone for the records—and when. Bullock said the chief had seven pictures on his phone from the March 5 encounter, but the city couldn’t access the pictures and denied our request on that point.
I am further advised that in this private capacity, he took seven (7) photographs of individuals with his personal phone, which is not City-issued property (Chief Ritchey also informs me that there are no texts or other documents or files contemplated by your request). I am also advised by Chief Ritchey that he has not forwarded those photographs to a City-owned phone, email, or other electronic storage device owned, operated, or controlled by the City; therefore, the City does not have access to the photographs in question and cannot produce them.
And because they were taken by Chief Ritchey in his personal capacity while he was off-duty and not acting on behalf of the City of Blanco in his official capacity, they do not meet the definition of public information because they do not relate to the official business of the governmental body.”
Bradley Bullock, Blanco City Attorney
‘We’re not intel gathering’
As KXAN watched workers load pipe segments onto two trucks in the Blanco pipe yard on April 14, two different Blanco police officers showed up. The first stopped in front of our camera.
“I want to make sure you’re not blocking the driveway,” the unidentified officer said, as he stopped his black Chevrolet Tahoe between our camera and the Kinder Morgan pipe yard.
A second Blanco officer showed up minutes later. “You don’t have to film me, I’m just saying ‘hi,’” the officer said as he pulled up. The second officer claimed he didn’t know another officer from his department responded to the scene just minutes before.
When the two trucks loaded with pipes left the stock yard, KXAN followed them to determine the pipes’ final destination and whether Kinder Morgan was using the pipes we’d photographed in Blanco stockyard.
As we followed the trucks onto Highway 290 headed into Fredericksburg, a Gillespie County constable began pursuing our KXAN news vehicle. Shortly after the constable began following, a Gillespie County Sheriff’s Deputy joined in and pulled our news vehicle over.
“The reason I’m stopping you is the workers have complained that you’ve been following them since Blanco, so they asked that we check it out,” said Gillespie County Deputy H. McIntosh during the traffic stop.
The deputy already knew we had been in Blanco about an hour earlier.
“Can I ask you a quick question, was there also an incident that took place in Blanco this morning,” McIntosh asked. “Something about—I’m not saying it was you—I’m going off some information that was given to me, but did you go by the Blanco yard?”
McIntosh said it was his understanding that KXAN had been following the trucks since the town of Stonewall, but he would not disclose where he got that information.
KXAN lost sight of the pipe-loaded trucks because of the traffic stop.
Sweetin, told KXAN that his company is providing security for Kinder Morgan for the construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline.
We witnessed multiple instances of peace officers performing that security work and photographing our crews and news vehicles while on public property near Kinder Morgan’s sites. When questioned about whether the photographs and license plate numbers were being sent to his security firm, Sweetin denied that.
“I don’t get photos sent to me,” Sweetin said. “I have no use for it.”
Sweetin would not say if his company was collecting that information, even though it was not coming to him directly. “It can look sinister, I get it…but we’re not intel gathering,” Sweetin said by phone.
Sweetin, a former head of security for another energy company that does business in Texas, said pipeline operators hire licensed peace officers because they want “well trained people with authority who know the law.”
Texas law also makes it easier to hire licensed law enforcers and for those officers to perform security work outside their jurisdictions, according to Sweetin.
“There is very little resistance for an El Paso officer to work in Dallas,” he said, providing an example of the flexibility in Texas law.
During our surveillance of Kinder Morgan work sites along the pipeline route, we saw state and municipal officers performing security work. One officer, wearing a T-shirt marked “SHERIFF” would not identify the law enforcement agency he worked for.
Along Jenschke Lane near Fredericksburg, Kinder Morgan is building a compressor station for the pipeline. When we visited the construction site on April 14, a Fredericksburg Police Department unit was parked along the road, and the officer inside was performing private security work for the pipeline company.
“Making contact with you I was told that it looked like you were over here filming, or whatnot, from the roadway. Wanted to make contact with you to see what you were doing today, who were you with and whatnot,” Sergeant Derek Seelig told KXAN’s Barr.
“Would you mind if I got your driver’s license just to identify you,” Seelig asked Barr.
“What would the purpose be?” Barr replied. Seelig said he’d use the information to fill out what he called a call log to document the “contact.”
Seelig got back into his patrol SUV and drove along the roadside while we shot video of the work along Jenschke Lane.
“Tensions are high over pipeline,” Sweetin told KXAN. “Immediately after approval, you automatically have a security problem. At the point of even surveying, you have a full-scale security issue.”
The security threat often comes from protestors, Sweetin said. “Once demonstrators start to get empowered, they want YouTube virality and want to bring people in all over the country,” he said.
“We’ve been asked to secure that pipeline, and we’re going to secure it,” Sweetin said.
Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Senior Investigative Producer and Digital Reporter David Barer and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.