in Houston, Texas
Employees involved in HISD E-Rate scandal that cost district $105 million plus will remain secret
Wednesday, Jun 02, 2010, 04:42PM CST
By Lynn Walsh
keepout

CORRECTION: This June 2 item is incorrect, but remains published and online so that readers may compare it to a corrected June 23 item. Texas Watchdog regrets the error. View the June 23 item here.

Three Houston Independent School District employees cost the district millions of dollars after violating the ethics rules governing a federal technology program in 2006.

Who are they? Houston Independent School District says that information is confidential, and the Texas Attorney General has agreed with them.

A public records request asking for the names of the three HISD employees accused by the Federal Communications Commission of accepting meals and other gifts from E-Rate vendors was submitted to HISD by Texas Watchdog on March 29. 

HISD responded and
asked the Texas Attorney General to allow the district to withhold the names of employees because the information is "confidential under the privacy protections" of certain Freedom of Information Act exemptions. The district says the FCC has requested the names be kept secret, saying naming them would invade the fired employees' personal privacy. 

In a letter the AG's office agreed with HISD and said:

"The fact that HISD is in possession of information that is confidential under (federal law) does not in and of itself protect the information from disclosure under (state law), as those federal statutes pertain to disclosure of information held by a federal agency. However, if an agency of the federal government shares its information with a Texas governmental entity, the Texas entity must withhold the information that the federal agency determines to be confidential under federal law. ...

"In addition, HISD has demonstrated a compelling reason to withhold the Requested Information by showing the same is made confidential by another source of law, thereby permitting HISD to withhold the Requested Information."

At Texas Watchdog, we believe the names of the three HISD employees involved should be released.   

The actions of these three HISD employees have resulted in unnecessary cost for the Houston Independent School District, so much so that the district
fired them. Funding under the E-Rate technology program was frozen, causing the district to lose $105 million in federal funding.

E-Rate is a federally funded program that brings cut-rate telecommunications services to public schools, nonprofit private schools and libraries.

The Federal Communications Commission filed a lawsuit against the district in 2006. More than three years later,
the district paid $850,000 to settle the suit with the FCC.

A subsequent compliance agreement required HISD to hire an E-Rate compliance office
r, who makes $150,000. HISD hired Richard Patton in February using  a headhunting firm that reportedly charged $67,200.

Patton has spent hours training employees and board members on stricter ethics rules to avoid a repeat of the earlier problems. He recommends HISD spend an additional $10,000 a year on monitoring software.

The fallout has been somewhat dizzying. But after the almost million-dollar settlement, costly staff additions and the need to purchase additional resources, the law is apparently not on the side of knowing whose actions may have triggered all this.

Contact Lynn Walsh at lynn@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850.
 
Photo of Keep Out by flickr user Leo Reynolds, used via a Creative Commons license.
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