A long-awaited list of recommendations designed to tighten the procurement rules of Houston Community College was presented to trustees last week. The proposals range from requiring board members to disclose contributions from a vendor when that vendor is bidding on a job, to implementing ethics training for vendors.
A final, written report is scheduled to be released Thursday at HCC’s monthly meeting.
The recommendations, crafted by Arturo Michel and two other attorneys he brought on, come in the wake of last year’s guilty plea for bribery by Chris Oliver, who was an HCC trustee at the time. Oliver admitted to accepting a quarter of a million dollars in bribes with promises to steer contracts to select HCC vendors.
Other recommendations include:
- That vendors disclose any contributions to trustees and detail relationships between family members, consultants, and subcontractors to trustees.
- The blackout period — the time when a bid is first advertised through 30 days after a contract is signed by the Chancellor — would be extended to college employees.
- Forbidding vendors and subcontractors from employing relatives of trustees and employees.
The list of recommendations is long, and although some trustees said there were good suggestions on the list, several trustees questioned some of the proposals made by the attorneys.
Chancellor Cesar Maldonado did not respond to a request for comment.
“The report and proposal will be presented on Thursday that will be reviewed and discussed by the trustees and administration,” an HCC spokeswoman told The Texas Monitor.
Opinions on probe range from ‘no fireworks’ to ‘waste of money’
Trustee John Hansen, who chairs the board’s audit committee, described the proposals as “modest.”
“There are some changes they’re arguing for in procurement, but mostly those changes are intended to keep the trustees further away from the procurement process,” Hansen said.
He said the attorneys’ investigation missed the mark in this regard: there was no probe into how vendors with the lowest bid are seldom presented by the administration to the board for approval.
“I’d be hard pressed to remember a time when we picked the low bidder as vendor,” Hansen said. “We are almost always choosing somebody who is quite a bit above the low bidder and claiming somehow this is best value.”
He recalled a recent proposal that was presented to the board that dealt with cleaning HCC parking lots.
“The one that they were recommending was about 25 percent higher priced than the low bidder,” Hansen said. “I asked the question, ‘How can you screw up cleaning a parking lot?’ That ended up getting rejected and I think rightfully so. It was such an obvious case.”
He added: “What the hell can these people do for a 25 percent premium that makes them a better value?”
Hansen said the explanation given by the administration is that the higher priced bids are a better value.
“Well how do we know that?,” Hansen asked.
He also questioned other proposals, such as vendors taking an ethics class. Does he think that an ethics class will actually make a vendor intent on bribing a trustee or HCC employee less likely to do so?
“I don’t,” Hansen said. “Apparently these lawyers do. Just like an ethics oath makes all lawyers be honest, right?”
Trustee Robert Glaser, who chaired the audit committee last year said he was “underwhelmed,” by the report’s recommendations.
“There were no fireworks in the report,” Glaser said, but he did note there were some proposals that were constructive.
He also said he believes that, in order to investigate what went wrong during the Oliver/bribe-taking era, the board must hire their own attorney for an exhaustive probe — an attorney who does not report to the Chancellor.
“I’m not surprised as to where it went,” Glaser said of the attorneys’ report. “The administration was free to hire whoever they wanted to, and they could do any investigation they wanted. With regard to a board member going to jail and copping a plea on a federal charge, that’s not anything anyone who was hired by and answers to the administration can cover. The administration cannot investigate the board.”
Glaser said he believes that this investigation is incomplete without a trustee-sponsored probe.
“I hope that our board will step up once this report is complete and submitted — that we hire somebody who reports directly to us, who at the very least, reviews what these guys have done, but then comes back and looks at the situation, and advises us as to what they think should be done, what has happened and where we should go,” Glaser said.
Trustee Dave Wilson, a frequent critic of the college’s spending, called the attorneys’ investigation “a waste of money.”
“They’re proposing that we add more rules, but see, we’ve got all the rules,” Wilson said.
He noted that trustees already must disclose conflicts of interest publicly if they have a connection to a particular vendor. He also pointed to a blackout period already in place.
Indeed, while one of the attorneys’ proposals extends the blackout period to all employees, it appears that rule may already be on the books.
“They’re talking about all kinds of things that we already have rules on,” Wilson said. “ The real issue is that they don’t enforce the rules they’ve got. And if they do enforce them, it’s selective in order to punish trustees who don’t vote the way they think we should.”
Closing off trustee/HCC employee conversations
All three trustees interviewed by The Texas Monitor pointed to one proposal that they considered a non-starter: that any communications between board members and HCC employees must go through the HCC administration. It would also require employees to report any contact with a trustee.
Hansen called the proposal “awful.”
“I think it’s nonsense and I hope my fellow trustees won’t adopt it,” he said.
Some trustees said that they often talk to HCC employees to get their take on any number of issues. Also, this proposal would limit the information that the trustees get about the college, they said. The only information about HCC would come to the trustees only though Chancellor Maldonado.
“If I was a lawyer and I was hired to give advice and to minimize risk, from a lawyer perspective, I could see that being on the table,” Glaser said. “From a managerial standpoint, I think it’s a total failure.”
Glaser said he believes that if this proposal is needed, then the college’s culture is indeed crippled.
“We need to have a culture that works,” Glaser said. “If we have to have board members restricted from talking to anybody that works at the school, we have a broken system.”
Wilson was more direct.
“It is total bullshit,” he said. “What it basically is, is the Chancellor trying to stifle anybody being able to talk and stifle people’s freedom of speech.”
Wilson said he often talks to HCC employees to get their perspectives — and to hear about problems at the college that the employees are afraid to sound the alarm about.
“They’re in fear of losing their jobs,” he said. “It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.”
HCC Trustee Chair Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said Monday morning she is deciding if she will comment. If she does, we will update this report.
A report a year in the making
If some of the proposals are controversial, so was the journey to getting the report finalized.
Oliver’s guilty plea to bribery became public on July 7, 2017.
The college’s investigation into the HCC procurement process began July 18, 2017, when Maldonado hired former Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke, with Andrews & Kurth, and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Vidal Martinez, with Martinez Partners, as special counsel to probe the college’s procurement process and other internal affairs.
They didn’t last long.
Less than three months after HCC brought them on, they were off the job. Locke claimed a conflict of interest when contacted at the time by The Texas Monitor. Martinez did not return a call seeking comment when he was called at the time. He was let go by the trustees, some citing the costs associated with Martinez.
Their unfinished investigation cost taxpayers more than $207,000, invoices show.
On Oct. 31, 2017, Maldonado turned to Michel, with Thompson & Horton, to complete the probe. In addition, Lawrence Finder, of Baker McKenzie, was brought on to work an Oliver- related case in connection with an HCC employee.
In all, the Oliver investigation and Oliver-related inquiries cost the taxpayer $383,600.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Lawrence Finder helped craft the Oliver/procurement report. The Texas Monitor regrets the error.