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BY MIKE CRONIN AND JENNIFER PEEBLES
A casual reader of Houston news might think it’s a coincidence that there’s so much controversy in four of Houston’s largest government agencies.
But the ongoing ethics concerns at those four agencies include overlapping casts of characters. And officials’ relationships with contractors and vendors are a common theme in all four – in some cases, they’re the same contractors.
- Some of the officials involved in the scandals brewing in Harris County and at the Port of Houston Authority are friends and campaign supporters of Houston Independent School District trustees President Paula Harris.
- One of the central figures named in an internal investigation into questionable contracting at Houston Community College, former college trustee Abel Dávila, has close ties to HISD.
- And a major contractor for both HISD and HCC has been accused in court records of giving kickbacks to an HISD trustee, while another major contractor for both entities hired three firms with ties to HCC trustees as subcontractors.
In other words, it’s all one big ball of string, with loose ends going in four directions.
HCC and HISD
Similarities abound between Houston ISD and Houston Community College.
They’re both public entities that levy property taxes. They’re both huge operations – HISD with an annual budget of $1.6 billion, and HCC with annual operating expenses of more than $300 million. And, obviously, they’re both in the education business.
But there’s also a lot of cross-pollination between the two entities: The same people with connections in high places, the same contractors getting work – and the same controversies lately over jobs going to connected contractors.
Within the past couple of years, HISD and HCC have had two sets of married trustees: HISD’s Greg Meyers was married to HCC trustee Sandie Mullins, and then-HISD trustee Diana Dávila was (and still is) married to former HCC trustee Abel Dávila.
While Meyers has been the subject of some controversy – his marriage to Mullins ended in divorce amid allegations by her that he was “spending time,” as the Houston Press put it, with an HISD employee – HCC’s Abel Dávila has been one of the key figures in an outright scandal at the college, records show.
An investigation done for the college by an outside law firm questioned, among other things, a $1.5 million painting contract given to a firm headed by a pharmacy tech in her early 20s who is a family friend and former student of Abel Dávila’s.
Diana Dávila resigned from the HISD school board last year soon after the Houston Chronicle revealed that she had tried to get her husband appointed to the school system’s bond oversight committee, which oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction.
Before she left the school board, HISD’s then-head of procurement e-mailed to Diana Dávila each week the district’s list of newly issued “requests for proposals,” records made public by the district show. The records show the weekly lists of new RFPs — for everything from safety shoes to remodelling of an entire middle school — went only to Diana Dávila, and not to the other school board members.
Since her resignation from the HISD school board, Diana Dávila and two current HISD trustees, Larry Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez, have been accused in civil court filings of having “significant funds” spent to entertain them by tech vendors seeking business with the school system under the federal E-Rate computers-in-schools program.
Neither Abel nor Diana Dávila could be reached for comment for this story. A message left at a local eatery owned by Abel Dávila yesterday afternoon was not returned by press time, and multiple other Houston phone listings for that name did not yield a return call.
A person by that name gave $500 to HISD’s Marshall as a campaign contribution in June 2009, campaign financial disclosures show, but it was unclear from records available online this week whether Marshall’s donor was the same person as the pharmacy tech.
Also at issue in the HCC investigation was Abel Dávila’s involvement in HCC’s 2009 decision to hire Chevron to help the college save on energy costs. The investigative report accused him of trying to use his influence as a trustee to get Chevron to hire Ramirez’s company as a subcontractor, including that Dávila “pushed to get (Ramirez’s company) paid $500,000 … for being ‘mentored’ by Chevron on how to perform ‘program management’ services,” and later wanted the firm to be hired by Chevron as a subcontractor for electrical and general construction work “in the range of $1.25-$1.5 million.”
HISD is also working with Chevron and another firm, Schneider Electric, on an energy-savings arrangement. The school board voted in June to have the firms perform initial energy audits.
Meanwhile, the internal investigation at HCC also found that a major contractor for the college, Fort Bend Mechanical, had hired as subcontractors three firms tied to three college trustees: the pharmacy tech’s firm tied to Abel Dávila, the son of Trustee Yolanda Navarro Flores, and a property management company run by Trustee Chris Oliver.
Fort Bend owner Pete Medford told the Houston Chronicle last year that Abel Dávila had introduced him to the pharmacy tech. Medford did not return a call for comment for this story.
Fort Bend Mechanical is also a major construction and maintenance contractor for HISD. The school system has paid the Stafford-based firm more than $9 million in the past two years, according to the district’s check register.
School district records show Westco Ventures, a firm owned and run by one of Harris’ closest friends, Nicole West, has subcontracted for Fort Bend Mechanical on HISD work. It was not clear at press time what job or jobs for which Westco “subbed” for Fort Bend, or how much Westco was paid.
“We don’t really know whether a lot of these stories are true,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told the Houston Chronicle’s Ericka Mellon last year, “but we’ve had people complain that subcontractors have come to vendors and said, ‘If you don’t name me as a sub, you’re going to be in trouble because of my association with this person or that person.’ We don’t know if that’s true or not.” Grier declined to be more specific or name names.
"I have seen a procurement department made up of independent folks rate bids from a variety of different companies across the district to do a lot of different work," Grier said last week. "And then I've seen staff — just for whatever reason — pull names off of a list and put other names back on a list, (with) no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from."
Though he didn’t name any names then, either, Grier’s comments came after the school board voted to begin negotiations with Fort Bend Mechanical, RHJ and two other firms, KBR and Jamail & Smith — for repairs and small construction jobs at various Houston ISD facilities.
The Medford family are also among Marshall’s major campaign donors. Five Medfords have given Marshall a total of $18,000 in campaign cash in the past three years, records show. (The Medfords have given to other HISD trustees as well, but to a lesser extent. Records show donations of $5,000 to Greg Meyers, $2,500 each to Harris and Harvin Moore, and $1,500 to Juliet Stipeche.)
Marshall also disclosed on his January 2009 HISD ethics disclosure form that Fort Bend Mechanical officials gave him tickets to football games between the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans and against the Chicago Bears.
COMMON CONNECTION IN RHJ
Another major contractor for both Houston Community College and HISD is RHJ-JOC – the firm that has been accused in court documents of giving kickbacks to HISD trustee Larry Marshall.
The company, led by Houston businesswoman Eva Jackson and her husband, Richard, touts its relationship with HCC on its website:
RHJ-JOC has completed a number of projects for the Houston Community College (HCC) throughout the system since 2003. This includes projects at the Administration Building, The Fine Arts Building, Heinen Theater and the JB Whitely Building at the Central Campus. As part of their dedication to the community and commitment to mentor minority and small business enterprises, RHJ-JOC contracts with several subcontractors for their work at the HCC.
Meanwhile, HISD has paid RHJ more than $3.2 million over the past two years, according to the district’s online check register.
In a civil lawsuit, Houston businessman Gil Ramirez Jr., head of RHJ rival Ramirez Group, alleges that RHJ paid kickbacks to Marshall in return for RHJ winning a big school district contract over the Ramirez Group. The suit claims the kickback payments were routed through Marshall’s campaign treasurer, who was paid $185,000 by RHJ as a consultant.
Marshall has denied any wrongdoing. Neither Ramirez nor his attorney returned calls for comment in recent days.
Marshall is a board member of a Houston-based nonprofit that Eva Jackson heads, theInternational Faithbased Foundation Inc., which seeks to endow “global humanitarian development and disaster relief projects,” according to its website. Also on the foundation board is HCC trustee Bruce Austin, records show.
In the past three years, RHJ and the Jacksons have made campaign donations to HISD trustees, including $5,300 to Harris, $3,500 to Marshall and $250 to Moore, disclosure forms say.
Meanwhile, a Gil Ramirez Sr. gave $1,000 to Rodriguez in 2009, and a Gil Ramirez, with no suffix listed, gave Marshall $1,000 the previous year. A “Gill Ramirez Sr.” was also listed among the campaign supporters for HISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez on an invitation to a July fundraiser.
LINKS TO HARRIS COUNTY, PORT AUTHORITY
There are also links between some of the folks involved in recent controversies in HISD, Harris County and the Port of Houston Authority.
Revelations of wining and dining at taxpayers’ expense preceded Edwin Harrison’s retirement this summer as Harris County’s longtime financial services director.
But Harrison wasn’t the only one jetting off to New York – and sometimes even to Costa Rica — to live large, including taking in an NFL game in New York City in a luxury suite paid for by Goldman Sachs. With him on some of those trips were lawyers on Harris County bond deals, and one of those lawyers was Frank Jones.
Jones is also campaign treasurer for Harris, who is up for re-election this year in HISD’s District IV. His law firm, Greenberg Traurig, is one of a handful of law firms that have paid back Harris County a total of $300,000 for travel and entertainment expenses.
Meanwhile, records show that firms run by Frank Jones’ wife, Demetra C. Jones, have done more than $75,000 in no-bid consulting work for HISD, putting on after-school and continuing education classes.
Demetra Jones used to work Harris County Precinct One Commissioner El Franco Lee, serving as Lee’s head of human resources and risk management for nearly 20 years. She did not return a call for comment for this story.
Lee also had testy exchanges with Harrison and Frank Jones’ most vocal critic, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, when the subject of Harrison’s trips came up at recent county Commissioners Court meetings. Neither Lee nor Harrison returned calls for comment for this story.
Harris’ campaign also paid one of Demetra Jones’ firms, TLConsulting, for fundraising work in the most recent fundraising period, according to campaign financial disclosure forms and Harris’ own HISD ethics form, submitted in July.
Records also show that Westco Ventures, another firm connected to a Harris friend, has done more than $300,000 in work for Harris County in the past three years, including $182,000 in post-Hurricane Ike cleanup work at the flooded-out Evelyn Meador library branch in Seabrook and $59,000 to overhaul the county-owned cafeterias at the County Administration Building, Criminal Justice Center and civil courthouse after the existing contractor walked off the job in 2009.
Harris is the godmother to the children of Westco owner Nicole West.
Another of Harris’ campaign supporters is the former Port of Houston Authority communications chief who left with a $380,000 settlement package last year, Argentina James.
That golden parachute was one of the installments in the recent investigation of the port authority by KTRK-TV’s Wayne Dolcefino. Titled “Port of Plenty,” the series outlined questionable spending by port officials, including a port-funded trip on the port authority’s tour boat, the M/V Sam Houston, for James’ children’s basketball team. The trip included a $1,280 catering bill.
James has given Harris’ campaign $500 in the past two years, financial disclosures show. Harrison, the former county official, also gave $200.
James, who has launched her own public relations firm, HillDay, since leaving the port authority last year, told Texas Watchdog she knew both Harris and Demetra Jones but only in a professional capacity.
The port authority is a public entity, with board members appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court, the Houston City Council, and other local governments. Part of its revenues come from property taxes. Some of Dolcefino’s findings are being probed by the Harris County attorney.
Contact Mike Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-417-8849. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin. Contact Jennifer Peebles at email@example.com or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.