This past Thursday (December 16, 2021), acting United States attorney Jennifer B. Lowery announced that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department had indicted one Brian Busby, age 43, who happened to be the former chief operating officer of the Houston Independent School District, as well as HISD contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, age 60, and had taken both men into custody. The reasons for their indictments and being taken into custody stemmed from an investigation of an alleged HISD bribery and kickback scheme, which resulted in a total of 26 counts being filed against both men.
The Justice Department public statement on the case can be read here. The Justice Department statement on the case notes that the indictments of Busby and Hutchinson followed plea bargaining agreements that were made with previous HISD officials, including former HISD Board of Education president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Derrick Sanders (50, Missouri City, officer of construction services); Alfred Hoskins (58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations); Gerron Hall (47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance-south); and Luis Tovar (39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance-north).
I first saw notices on the indictments from our friends at Urban Reform, who posted about them on Facebook. Subsequently, the Justice Department posts were widely shared on Facebook, and we also picked up the case here at blogHOUSTON. The Texan posted about the issue, and the Houston Chronicle also published an article on the case, which can be read here.
My first thought after hearing about the case was to wonder about Rhonda Skillern-Jones. A bell went off in my head, because I remembered that after her tenure at HISD, Ms. Skillern-Jones went on to become an employee in Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis’s office. I also then remembered something that many commenters seem to have overlooked – namely that Ms. Skillern-Jones was also a board member of the Houston Community College. The thought occurred to me that if Ms. Skillern-Jones had been busy indulging in corruption while at HISD, was she doing the same thing at HCC? Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Feds to continue with an investigation of what’s going on at HCC.
The news came on December 17th that Skillern-Jones resigned her board seat at HCC effective immediately after the Feds revealed her plea bargain agreement over the bribery and kickback scandal.
On Justice Department investigations and double dipping on the public dime
There are two issues that the HISD bribery affair and Ms. Skillern-Jones’s career bring up. The first has to do with federal investigation of local politics. The Feds have a long history of poking around in Houston politics, and for good reason. All one has to do is remember the federal corruption charges (and conviction) brought against former Houston city councilman Ben Reyes to see how far back this stuff goes. I’ve experienced on-again, off-again annoyance with the Feds investigating Houston politics. On one hand, it aggravates me that the Feds keep intervening like this. My thought here is that this is a job for either the Harris County District Attorney’s office or perhaps the Texas Attorney General’s office. However, the fact that neither the DA’s office nor the Texas AG’s office has ever really done much to pursue corruption-related cases here in town leaves me thinking that it isn’t really a bad thing for the Feds to continue oversight of this stuff.
The other thing about Ms. Skillern-Jones and her – ahem – employment that bothers me is that by working in Commissioner Ellis’s office while at the same time being a board member of the Houston Community College, Ms. Skillern Jones was effectively double dipping at the public pig trough. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at a certain local university, one of my professors also happened to be a board member of a local area water district. He made a statement to us in class one day that he had to make a decision over being compensated for one of his jobs because the state of Texas didn’t allow double dipping at the taxpayer trough. It was that memory that brought this up in my mind.
The Texas Municipal League has a handy online guide about holding dual offices in Texas. Namely, article 16, section 40 of the Texas Constitution contains the prohibition on holding more than one office (with some exceptions). The issue has come up before in local politics. Longtime state representative Jim Murphy came under fire a number of times in his career for being both a state representative while at the same time being quite handsomely compensated as an employee of a local management district. After reviewing some of the current literature surrounding double dipping in Texas, I found that government officials apparently can in fact serve in a public office while being a government employee on a payroll. They just can’t hold two public offices at one time.
This form of double dipping at the taxpayer pig trough may be legal, but ethically it still stinks. One can’t help but think that sooner or later, there are going to be conflicts between what an office holder may have to consider, versus what would be good for them in their paid employment as a government employee. Still, the cynic in me thinks that it may be a little much to ask the sorts of people in politics who double dip in the public coffers to find some other type of paid employment or another career with which to support themselves. However, in the case of Ms. Skillern-Jones, it’s looking as though she’s going to be forced to do that anyway.