in Houston, Texas
HISD trustees accept $3,000 in campaign donations from vendor CEP during debate on CEP’s contract renewal
Tuesday, Aug 10, 2010, 04:04PM CST
By Lynn Walsh

More than $3,000 in campaign contributions were made to Houston Independent School District trustees from individuals with connections to a district provider of alternative schooling during the months trustees were debating the renewal of the provider’s contract, campaign finance records show.

Houston ISD trustees Mike Lunceford and Larry Marshall each received individual donations from Randle Richardson, the founder and current owner of Community Educational Partners, and Phil Baggett, a chief executive at CEP.

CEP is a company based in Nashville, Tenn., that develops alternative school options for school districts across the country. In June HISD trustees renewed a contract with CEP of around $13.7 million for the 2010-11 school year. The renewal came after debates in the community, between trustees and a performance evaluation that was paid for by CEP.

Richardson donated $500 to Lunceford on Jan. 11, according to the campaign finance records. That same day, Baggett also donated $500. These were the only contributions Lunceford received during the January-to-June reporting period.

“I met with Richardson sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, and that is when he gave me the checks,” Lunceford said. “They are both involved with CEP, he (Richardson) told me about CEP, I did not know what it was, so I went out and looked at it.”

Lunceford said he was approached about the meeting with Richardson by Vidal Martinez, an attorney who represents CEP, sometime around October.

When asked by Texas Watchdog if he thought the contributions were meant to influence his vote, Lunceford said, “I don’t know what his intentions were, I am sure they were, but it did not sway my vote. I only vote for the kids.”

“I got contributions from lots of people who do business with HISD,” Lunceford said. Lunceford, whose district includes Bellaire High School, was elected to the school board in November.

CEP did not return a call for comment.

Richardson donated $750 to Marshall on Jan. 30, according to his campaign finance report. Five months later, on June 24,  Richardson made another contribution to Marshall’s campaign, this time for $1,000. Baggett donated $750 to Marshall’s campaign on Jan. 30.

“History is there that shows they have contributed previously,” Marshall said. “I think it could be perceived a conflict if it were the first time they had donated.”

Marshall recently defended a consulting gig with CEP during an HISD board meeting, saying he had been a “consultant in Atlanta assisting them business development.” Marshall told Texas Watchdog that he made sure his consulting contract with CEP only included areas outside of Texas.

According to Marshall, he is no longer working for CEP and quit his position as a consultant the day a board conflict of interest policy was approved in 2004. The policy said the district could not “contract with a business entity in which a trustee or anyone related to the trustee...has any pecuniary interest” --- in other words, a monetary or financial interest.

HISD law firms’ donations

Trustees reported other donations from companies doing business with HISD. Paula Harris’ campaign finance report lists a $500 contribution from the Bracewell and Giuliani PAC Committee in February and another $500 donation from Thompson and Horton LLP. Both law firms can represent HISD based on a list of law firms approved by the district.

Calls to Thompson and Horton and to Bracewell and Giuliani were not returned.

Accepting these campaign donations does not break any federal, state or local laws.

But if the companies had been vendors in a federal technology program, accepting some of those donations would have violated board policy. Under the new ethics rules for the E-rate program, the cap on campaign donations is $500 a year.

E-rate is a federal technology program that awards money to schools and libraries across the country. HISD had to pay $850,000 to settle a lawsuit with the federal government stemming from allegations of employees accepting gifts, meals and personal checks.

It was because of a federal investigation that HISD had to adhere to stricter campaign finance rules. But should a federal investigation be the only reason HISD trustees agree to campaign limits from vendors or contractors?

We want to know what you think. Contact Lynn Walsh at lynn@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. On Twitter: @lwalsh. Be sure to follow #HISD on Twitter for the most recent HISD updates from Texas Watchdog.
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