Houston Community College can do better with its procurement process by reducing chances for trustees to exert improper influence, says a report ordered last year by college administrators.
The report, released just before the Independence Day holiday, lists various examples of questionable conduct that its authors found: An unnamed Houston Community College trustee violated the college’s rules on directly contacting employees. An HCC administrator expressed frustration that a vendor may have influenced the criteria of a procurement in order to limit competition. And a trustee recommended a new, specific vendor be considered in future procurements, which is not allowed.
“HCC can improve the procurement process with increased planning, improved transparency and reporting, administrative oversight, and board approval of vendor contracts…,” according to the review of the college’s procurement process. “Opportunities for conflicts of interest and improper influence involving trustees should be reduced.”
The report, crafted by Thompson & Horton’s Arturo Michel and two other attorneys he brought on, comes in the wake of last year’s guilty plea for bribery by Chris Oliver, then an HCC trustee. Oliver admitted to accepting a quarter of a million dollars in bribes and promising to steer contracts to select HCC vendors.
Michel noted the specific findings he uncovered concerning trustees were not significant, or at least that little came from the incidents.
For example, with the trustee who contacted the college employee, “The employee alerted a supervisor, and the supervisor directed the employee not to meet with Trustee and that communications should go through the chain of command,” the report reads.
And with case of the trustee recommending a new vendor, “The Trustee made no recommendation that the staff choose this vendor over others in future procurements and used proper channels to express this interest.”
Michel’s firm was limited in what it investigated.
“It is not within the scope of this examination to recommend involvement in the criminal justice process,” the report says. “Thompson & Horton was not hired to identify each possible incident of corruption related to former Trustee Oliver’s actions.”
The firm, in a PowerPoint preview of this report shown to trustees last month, released a series of recommendations designed to make college officials and employees less susceptible to potential conflicts of interest.
Michel did not return a call seeking comment.
HCC Trustee Chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz was generally pleased with the report, she said.
“I think they did a pretty thorough investigation,” she said. “They came up with some recommendations that we certainly should consider. Some, not all. I’m glad that it’s come to an end, regarding this investigation.”
Evans-Shabazz said there is only so much a report can do, even if many of the recommendations are approved.
“I’m going to say what I’ve always said, which is that that the unfortunate thing is that you can’t legislate integrity,” she said. “If you do not want to do the right thing, you can always figure out a way to get around [the rules] to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
John Hansen, who chairs the HCC audit committee, had no kind words for the report.
“I found it seriously disappointing,” he said, adding that, given the methodology, it wasn’t likely that Michel would uncover much corruption.
Michel examined emails and phone lists at the college to see if any violations took place. Hansen said it would be “rank stupidity” for a college official to use an HCC email address or cell phone to conduct their corruption.
More than 4 million documents were available to the firm for examination. Ultimately, the investigators, using names and dates, narrowed that group to 72,487 documents, according to the report.
Then: “Thompson & Horton identified 731 documents for further review that showed communications potentially reflecting irregular or improper communications,” the report read.
Because attorneys carried out the investigation, it’s unlikely any specific details will be made public because of attorney-client privilege.
Some trustees have suggested that the board itself hire investigators, rather than relying on attorneys who report to Chancellor Cesar Maldonado.
Hansen said, if there is another investigation, he has “zero interest in hiring some $500-an-hour attorney” to conduct it and that any new investigation should be done by someone reporting directly to the trustees.
Trustees have sometimes questioned the costs around this investigation. In all, the Oliver procurement report and other Oliver-related inquiries have cost taxpayers $383,600.
Hansen noted a culture that was prevalent on the board — one in which trustees might use their titles to pad their pockets — is likely no longer there.
“When did it stop?” he said he asked himself.
“I don’t know whether the documents we would need [to prove corruption] still exist or whether they’ve been washed,” he said. “I suspect that to persuade the board that it’s worth spending any more money on this, we’d have to have something tangible that would signal to us that there are problems worth finding.”
HCC’s next board of trustees meeting is scheduled for Aug. 1.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected]monitor.org or at 832-258-6119.