HOUSTON – A relationship with a subordinate... In recent years such headlines have resulted in the firings or disciplinary action of high-profile individuals, ranging from business titans to university leaders.
In February, the president of CNN abruptly resigned after he was found to be in a relationship with one of his senior executives.
Then, just last month, the Boston Celtics suspended their coach for an entire year after learning about his improper relationship with a member of the team’s staff.
However, in the city of Houston, such relationships are apparently allowed and on the public’s dime.
In December 2021, KPRC 2 Investigates revealed a case involving Houston Airport System’s Director Mario Diaz and Maricela Kruseman, the director of the airports’ music program, “Harmony in the Air.”
City records showed that after years of a close relationship, Diaz helped Kruseman land her job with the city in 2014 after he signed the promotion describing her as “uniquely qualified” to join the airport. Three months later, records show a different city director placed Kruseman on paid leave after learning she misled the city about having a college degree, a requirement for the position. Kruseman stayed on board, helping Diaz to create “Harmony in the Air.”
City records also showed Diaz, an appointed director, signing off on his subordinate’s, Kruseman, travel and expenses.
“These workplace situations are usually prohibited in order to ensure that the public interest is always being served,” said John Pelissero, an ethics expert at Santa Clara University. Pelissero says city governments with a subordinate are off limits, for that reason.
KPRC 2 Investigates has made multiple requests to interview Diaz via email and in person. Diaz has declined, instead asking for any questions to be emailed to him.
The city of Houston transferred Kruseman from the airport to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs following KPRC’s December 2021 report.
However, her salary still comes from the airport’s system, which is funded by public dollars generated by travelers. Diaz also remained in his position as the airport’s director.
Despite Kruseman’s transfer to the Office of Cultural Affairs, Kruseman was most recently seen posing alongside Diaz and Mayor Sylvester Turner during an event celebrating a new space partnership. Collins Aerospace executives are now partnering with the city of Houston and celebrated the news in August 2022.
On the stage, city and airport leadership, along with executives from Collins Aerospace, like Peggy Guirgis, a former Program Director at NASA.
Yet, Guirgis stood in the back while Kruseman, who is in charge of airport music, posed at the front.
When KPRC 2 Investigates asked Kruseman about what the news conference had to do with music at the airport, Kruseman quickly said, “It has to do a lot.”
However, the Airport’s System has not made any announcements to send the Harmony Program into space.
As for her position on the stage standing with Diaz?
“Yeah, yeah because I am very close with the Houston Airports System,” said Kruseman.
Again, Diaz declined to comment beyond asking KPRC to send questions to him in an email.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s communications director, Mary Benton, questioned if KPRC’s questions served a “public necessity or public good,” or if it was “more salacious reporting.”
“I think the public has an important right to know,” said Pelissero. “There is the perception here that something was not handled fairly, that for some reason, she received special treatment, and the perception among the public and other employees of the city of Houston, this is unfair.”
KPRC did ask Mayor Tuner for his stance on city employees creating jobs for someone they are involved with and having them be a subordinate. The Mayor responded with two short sentences, stating he believes all employees should adhere to city policies and procedures.