HCC hires attorneys to probe vendor hires, finances after bribery scandal

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HCC System Chancellor Cesar Maldonado
HCC System Chancellor Cesar Maldonado

Houston Community College Chancellor Cesar Maldonado has moved on the hiring of special counsel to probe the way the college system hires vendors and employees, as well as college financial issues, according to an email sent to HCC trustees late Wednesday.

The special counsel appointed are former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke and Vidal Martinez, who is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

These appointments come in the wake of a bribery scandal that shook HCC and grabbed the attention of Houston’s political community.

Chris Oliver
Chris Oliver

Oliver was arrested in March and pleaded guilty to bribery in May. The case was unsealed just a little less than two weeks ago. Oliver admitted in court records that he accepted bribes in exchange for helping a company secure contracts with the HCC, the fifth-largest community college system in the country.

Oliver, the longest-serving HCC trustee, is accused of taking nearly $90,000 in bribes, some of which came in the form of Visa gift cards, court records show. Oliver pleaded guilty to only one of two counts on which he was indicted. In the other count, federal prosecutors allege he accepted $12,000 in bribes.

“I’m in favor of us investigating our processes,” HCC Trustee Robert Glaser told The Texas Monitor. Glaser was recently appointed chairman of the board’s audit committee — a role held by Oliver before his arrest and guilty plea became public.

See the email sent to HCC trustees here.

Both attorneys have close ties to the college system and to HCC trustees — and are both known as politically connected insiders.

Martinez represented both former Chancellor Mary Spangler and former Deputy Chancellor Art Tyler when HCC trustees forced out the duo in 2013. The total settlement to the pair cost taxpayers $1.2 million.

Around the same time, trustees tapped longtime HCC general counsel Renee Byas to serve as acting chancellor, but her tenure as chancellor lasted less than a year — the board hired Maldonado in April 2014. Martinez had been hired by the trustees to work on the new Maldonado’s contract.

Byas returned to her job as general counsel, but within months Maldonado placed her on leave. Martinez was hired again by HCC to gather information about Byas that ultimately led to Maldonado firing her in August 2014 citing insubordination.

At the time of her termination, Byas was critical of board decisions and was talking to the FBI about what she considered corruption in HCC’s contracting. Byas ultimately won an $850,000 settlement from HCC.

Since then, Martinez has held a high-end fundraiser for at least one prominent trustee and has taken the board — along with their spouse — out for a lavish multi-course dinner.

Martinez can follow a money trail, as well. His a nationally recognized expert in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and has been at the negotiation table with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission

Locke, himself, has served as a trustee, holding a seat from 1989 to 1995, and later served as the board’s special counsel on elections.

There may are few attorneys more plugged in to Harris County than Locke.

He has served as the city attorney for the City of Houston, as well as general counsel to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and special counsel to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, widely known locally as Metro.

Locke ran for mayor of Houston in 2009, losing to Annise Parker.

Locke was appointed Harris County commissioner in early 2016 after the death of longtime Commissioner El Franco Lee. Locke lost a bid to keep that seat to former state Senator Rodney Ellis.

Locke practices in the public-law area for the firm of Andrews & Kurth — a firm that has done work for HCC.

HCC this year bestowed Locke with a 2017 lifetime achievement award.

Trustee Dave Wilson has long called for better oversight into how college system vendors are hired and fired.

“Regretfully, it takes a bribery charge to get the administration to move on this,” Wilson said. “I asked for this three years ago. I welcome someone looking into this, but I wish it would have happened then.”

His concern, though, is that Locke and Martinez are too close to the board, the HCC administration, and the political establishment to provide an unbiased examination.

“This is a classic case of the fox watching the henhouse,” Wilson said.

Maldonado’s action comes in the wake of the HCC board’s eight other members voting unanimously last Thursday to censure Oliver, which means he was ripped from his position as vice-chair of the board.

All trustees expressed their disappointment and anger at Oliver’s actions.

As of today, Oliver remains an HCC trustee. Trustees cannot remove one of their own. Only a state district judge has the power to pry any trustee from the board, at least until Oliver is sentenced on Aug. 28. A convicted felon, once sentenced, cannot hold the post.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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