When the Houston Independent School District has a problem, it increasingly looks to Nicole West to solve it.
Need schools painted or fences installed? HISD hired Nicole West's firm Westco. Need security cameras and burglar alarms installed at schools? It hired Westco. Need drapes dry cleaned for a school auditorium? It paid Westco to do it.
Need elementary school students tutored in reading? HISD paid Nicole West to tutor them. Need a high school decorated for a rededication ceremony? It paid Nicole West. Need an ambulance on standby for a high school football game? It hired another of West's firms, a small, private ambulance service.
And when the nation’s seventh-largest school district wanted to hire a private investigations firm to track down truant high-schoolers, it didn't pick any of the big PI firms in Houston, some of whom have dozens of investigators and have been in business for decades. It instead hired a small firm, only a few years old, owned and run by Nicole West. With two licensed investigators today, the firm's current legal address with the state is West's residence in Pearland.
Those business contacts would suggest that West is a person of many interests and talents. Perhaps fittingly, a 2008 profile of West in a local magazine said she “ascribes her success to her ability to multi-task (and to) generate multiple streams of income.”
But she's also one of the closest friends of the president of HISD's board of trustees, Paula Harris. Harris is the godmother of West's children.
Harris has voted four times to approve millions of dollars in school district contracts involving Westco, a Texas Watchdog investigation has found.
Aside from those contracts, West, Westco and three other West-owned firms have done thousands of dollars in business with the Houston schools -- business that was not required to be put up for school board approval -- since Harris was elected to the school board in 2007, records show.
In a phone interview with Texas Watchdog, Harris said her votes on contracts involving Westco were ethical and were not conflicts of interest. She said she never used her influence to help West or her firms gain business from HISD, but said a vote would be a conflict of interest only if the person involved were a relative.
“I can say that I don’t get involved or go over to (HISD’s) Procurement (department) or over to the business side,” Harris said. “The public can think what they want. She’s my friend … I’m very, very proud of her. And I think everybody should have smart friends.”
Harris voted last month, in April, last August and in 2009 to approve the Houston Independent School District hiring Westco Ventures to share in contracts to paint, put up fences and install security systems at Houston schools, records show. The total value of the contracts is $28 million, though Westco would be in line to receive only a fraction of that work; the school district’s online check register showed payments of $1.67 million to Westco as of last month.
Harris’ votes on the contracts involving Westco are entirely legal under state and local laws and ordinances and are allowed under HISD policies governing trustees’ ethical conduct.
But the allegations of a potential conflict for Harris, a first-term trustee who is up for re-election this year, come after a series of other ethical problems have rocked HISD and its leadership. School board member Diana Davila resigned last year soon after she had tried to get her husband appointed to an HISD oversight board, and the federal government recently unfroze millions of dollars in HISD technology funding it blocked after it was revealed that HISD tech officers accepted big-ticket personal loans and other gifts and freebies from tech vendors.
As head of the trustees for the nation’s seventh-largest school system, Harris is a prominent young Houston political figure. She has been nominated for induction this year to the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame. A petroleum engineer by training, she is head of community affairs for oldfield services giant Schlumberger.
In an e-mailed statement in response to Texas Watchdog’s questions, the school district stressed it works hard to be ethical, but reiterated that votes such as Harris’ break no laws or ethics rules.
HISD “has one of the strongest ethics and conflict of interest policies of any school district in Texas,” read the statement released by district spokesman Jason Spencer. (Read the complete statement, and Texas Watchdog’s questions posed to the district, here.) “The district’s conflicts of interest policies are significantly tighter than any restrictions in state law. To our knowledge, HISD was the first school district in Texas to adopt a local policy prohibiting businesses in which trustees, or trustees’ relatives, have a financial interest from contracting with the district.”
Aside from the contracts Harris voted to approve, records show that West, Westco and three other West-owned firms have done roughly $125,000 in business with the Houston schools since Harris was elected to the school board in 2007 that did not require the school trustees’ approval, records show, because of the relatively small amount of money involved in the individual projects.
Those payments include $19,200 to West's private investigations firm to track down truants, $2,300 for Westco to restore and clean drapes for an elementary school auditorium, and $5,400 for another West firm to tutor elementary school students in reading.
The total amount paid to Nicole West’s firms by HISD is unclear. The district’s check register noted payments of almost $1.7 million to Westco, but the school district also turned over to Texas Watchdog a number of invoices -- which appear to have been paid -- from West and her companies that do not exactly line up with payments in the check register, for reasons that are not clear. The school district did not answer a recent question from Texas Watchdog addressing the discrepancy.
“Nicole has been sub(contracting) for the city, the county, the district and the state well before I got on the board,” Harris said. “So, if I needed to break off my friends because they’re smart and they have good companies, then I would be in big trouble, because most of my friends are smart and make lots of money, and, so, I can’t say that I would discontinue our friendship.”
WESTCO’S WORK FOR HISD
Harris was among the HISD trustees who voted unanimously in 2009 to approve a $10 million contract with nine firms -- Westco and seven others -- to install indoor and outdoor security cameras, fire alarms and intercoms at school buildings, meeting minutes show. The money was paid from bonds issued with voters’ approval two years earlier, HISD said.
Harris was also among the trustees who voted last August to renew that $10 million contract with Westco and seven other firms, minutes show.
In April, Harris and HISD trustees also unanimously approved Westco as one of four companies to share in a $5 million contract for painting at schools. A month later, in May, Harris and the trustees approved Westco to share with three other firms in a $3 million contract to put up fences at HISD schools.
The school district sought competitive bids on each of the four contracts, and the groups of companies chosen for each contract were voted on by the trustees only after HISD administrators reviewed the bids and made recommendations about which firms could do the best job for the lowest cost. The trustees did not vote up or down on each firm -- they merely voted to approve the en masse recommendations from the HISD central office, the district said.
In the case of the $5 million painting contract, Westco had the lowest cost percentage for the job, records show, and had the lowest pricing in most categories of the services and materials involved. (Specifics regarding the bids on the two security camera contracts had not yet been released by HISD following Texas Watchdog’s public records request for them, filed last September. A follow-up request for those bid specifics, as well as a request for the specs on the fencing contracts approved in May, was sent to HISD earlier this month.)
Registered with the state seven years ago as a limited liability company, Nicole West was listed as Westco's president on the paperwork the company submitted to HISD as a potential vendor. Her husband, Anthony West, was listed as vice president, and another woman with the last name of West was listed as the corporate secretary. Records with the Texas Secretary of State’s office show Anthony West as the firm’s current “registered agent.”
Westco reported to HISD that it has 10 employees and offices on South Wayside Drive, just inside the Interstate 610 loop in the Gulfgate/Pine Valley neighborhood. A list of previous clients supplied by Westco to HISD said the firm had previously worked for the Plano, Richardson and Magnolia school districts as well as Paul Quinn University in Dallas.
Efforts to reach West by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful. Messages left in person last week at the locked doors of the South Wayside offices for Westco and another West-owned firm, First Alert EMS ambulance service, went unreturned.
“Our ethics statement talks about family...I really couldn’t vote on anything if it was people I know,” Harris said. “As long as I am not telling people to give her work, it is ethical,” Harris said.
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has previously spoken critically of HISD's contracting processes, saying without elaboration that there's “no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from.” The school district’s two-paragraph statement, issued Monday in response to written questions from Texas Watchdog, did not include a direct response to questions regarding Grier’s opinion of Harris’ close friendship with an HISD vendor.
“There is no requirement in law for a school district trustee or, to our knowledge, any other elected official in Texas, to abstain from voting on a contract that has been recommended by staff, simply because the trustee or elected official might have a personal friendship with someone who works for or owns a business,” the district’s statement said.
However, there are recent instances in which at least one HISD trustee, Larry Marshall, a retired HISD school principal, abstained from voting on issues because of close personal relationships or legal battles with vendors or individuals.
TIES BETWEEN 2 OLD FRIENDS
Giving remarks in January as she was installed as the new president of HISD's trustees, Harris recognized Nicole and Anthony West and identified herself as a godparent of the Wests' children. She also said she and Nicole West were members of “a group of friends" who annually give toys to needy families, with Nicole West as the organizer of the effort.
Harris added that both she and Nicole West are godmothers to the children of state Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, whom Harris likened to a brother, and that Miles is also godfather to Harris’ children. Aside from his service in the legislature, Miles is also an insurance agent who has provided insurance coverage to HISD. He did not return calls to his insurance office in Houston or his legislative office in Austin for comment for this story.
Three years ago, Harris nominated West for inclusion in a “Moms Who Mean Business” feature for the Houston style publication DBA Magazine. West was featured in a 2008 edition of the magazine, which said:.
Many ask how she does it and without a doubt West is a multi-tasker that gets things done. If you ask West to describe the force behind her drive, she’s quick to provide this reply, “success”. West believes in accomplishing all her set goals to include family, marriage, and business. West ascribes her success to her ability to multi-task, generate multiple streams of income, and the support and leadership of a great husband with parents and in-laws playing an important supportive role.
Harris told Texas Watchdog that she and West have been “friends for close to 20 years,” and if West were a sister or a family member, it would be a conflict of interest. But because West is merely “an acquaintance or a friend or someone who I think does great business,” it is not, Harris said.
With Westco, Harris said she did not consider abstaining from voting and does not think she should have abstained.
Nicole West also donated $1,500 in February 2010 year to Harris' re-election campaign, financial disclosures show. The two women also previously served together on the board of directors of Houston’s Ensemble Theatre group.
No one in HISD has raised an objection to Harris about her relationship with West, the HISD school board president said. “They probably would,” Harris said, “if I went to them and said, you know, ‘This is a company, this is a good company.’ But, since I don’t do that with anyone … They have no reason to raise a concern, because I’m not on the business side of this.” Besides the top administrators who oversee HISD contracts and the procurement department, she said she doesn’t know HISD’s procurement officers, she said.
Harris went on to say that she believes a “disgruntled contractor” who has lost HISD contracts to Westco has been complaining publicly about Harris’ friendship with West.
“He has been going around telling people, including the media, ‘I’m gonna take Paula Harris down because that’s how Westco has the contract,’” Harris said. She would not identify the individual or the company, saying it “is all hearsay, and that’s one thing” she doesn’t “report on.”
Another West firm that has done work for the school district is NCA Investigations, a private investigations firm that HISD hired to search for truant high schoolers, invoices and other documents show.
Because of the small amount of money involved -- slightly more than $19,000 -- HISD was not required to seek competitive bids for the work, and the school district trustees were not required to vote to hire the firm.
Site-specific work done
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NCA was started by Nicole West in 2001, according to state documents, with West as the president and Anthony West as treasurer. The company’s offices are listed on state records as the same Pearland address where Nicole and Anthony West live; Nicole West is licensed by the state as a private investigator, and state records available online this week showed at least one other licensed PI currently working for the firm.
When HISD hired NCA in fall 2008, the firm was to “commit up to 10 private investigators” to locate missing students’ addresses and conduct on-site interviews to determine why the students were not showing up for classes, according to its contract with HISD.
Tracking down high schoolers who have gone AWOL and getting them back to school -- and getting them diploma-worthy -- is a key goal for Houston’s urban school system where, a couple of years ago, the dropout rate was about 16 percent. And attendance figures are a crucial part of state and federal funding formulas that largely determine cash-strapped school districts’ budgets.
But how successful West’s firm was in its search for HISD’s truants is unclear today. Invoices the firm submitted to the school district list only the schools involved and do not describe the results or identify or quantify the students being tracked down. Nor do the invoices offer the kind of point-by-point accounting of investigators’ time that is a standard in many private investigators’ billing practices.
NCA’s contract with HISD said the company would provide a “thorough report” to the school district on its work. But the school system doesn’t have that report, HISD’s public information coordinator told Texas Watchdog last fall.
Despite that, HISD paid NCA a total of $19,200 in late 2008, according to invoices marked as approved by HISD staff and internal HISD payment records.
“To the best of our knowledge, these have been the only two times we have” hired private investigators to find truants, Spencer said in an e-mail response to a question from Texas Watchdog, though he added that it would be difficult for the school district to easily find among its files records for companies hired for that specific type of service.
The company was chosen by staffers at two of HISD’s regional offices at the time, and neither of those regional superintendents still work for the Houston school system, Spencer said -- their jobs were done away with entirely in a recent reorganization. “They would have had to answer this question,” Spencer said in an e-mail in response to a question about how NCA was chosen.
However, the contracts with NCA were approved and signed by two top HISD officials at the central office who are still on the job -- the district’s top lawyer, Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, and the current controller, Kenneth Huewitt.
The “Moms Who Mean Business” profile of West said NCA “has contracts with ATT, HISD, City of Houston, City of San Antonio and several insurance companies.”
HISD did not answer follow-up questions about NCA’s work, including a request to identify the regional superintendents who approved the hiring or whether the school system approached NCA or the other way around.
OTHER WORK FOR HISD
West’s business entities have also performed extensive work for HISD on other matters in which the costs of the individual projects didn’t meet the threshold requiring the district trustees’ approval, records show.
Westco was paid $76,000 for emergency repairs to ceilings and floors of schools damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008, invoices and payment records show.
The firm’s first job for HISD was in December 2007, records show, when the company did $1,185 in cleaning school air ducts. Harris was elected to the HISD school board the previous month.
Westco also did dry cleaning and restoration on auditorium drapes at McDade Elementary School in Kashmere Gardens in late 2008, costing $2,300, district records show.
Another of West’s firms, First Alert EMS, was paid $600 to post an ambulance on standby for four hours at the football game between Milby and Reagan high schools at HISD’s Barnett Stadium on Aug. 29, 2009, records show. Nicole West is president of First Alert, a firm that was set up in 2006, state records show. West’s “Moms Who Mean Business” profile said the firm had a fleet of 18 ambulances; its offices are next door to Westco’s.
And the district paid West herself $5,400 by check in early 2008 for tutoring third, fourth and fifth graders at Hohl Elementary in the Independence Heights neighborhood in reading, HISD invoice and payment records show. The goal of the 24 hours of tutoring to the 40 students was to “increase knowledge to ensure success on state exams.”
Though the check was written personally to West, the district’s contract was with another West firm, Onsite Technology, records show.
The “Moms Who Mean Business” profile identified West as president and CEO of Onsite, which it said “provides support to schools with her team of tutors and professional trainers.” However, a search of business records with the Texas Secretary of State’s office this week turned up no records connecting a firm called Onsite with a Nicole West.
HISD did not respond to any of Texas Watchdog’s questions about how or why West, or Onsite, was hired to tutor students.
Previous to Harris’ 2007 election to the school board, the school system had paid or directly contracted West and her firms just once, records indicate -- she was paid $1,200 for decorating Wheatley High School in the Fifth Ward when it was rededicated in fall 2006, records show.
Thursday, 06/09/2011 - 09:33AM
Excellent reporting on an eye-opening story.
Thursday, 06/09/2011 - 10:15AM
Ms. Walsh, Can you please find out if Paula Harris' current campaign treasurer is the same Frank Jones that was hired by HISD to negotiate Dr. Grier's over the top superintendent contract? Thank you.
Thursday, 06/09/2011 - 10:27AM
Thank you, Lynn, for keeping us informed. HISD trustees have no idea the cost of putting schools on a standardized schedule; Grier's personnel moves may have cost school their TEA rankings
Thursday, 06/09/2011 - 03:11PM
What a story. Good job reporting the information.
Friday, 06/10/2011 - 12:27AM
Excellent investigative journalism. I hope you get responses to the other questions you submitted to HISD, as there appear to be many pieces to this puzzle.
I pulled out the calculator and am still not sure I got this right: Ms. West received $5,400 for 24 hours of tutoring? Was she paid $225 an hour for tutoring in a public school?
Friday, 06/10/2011 - 08:55AM
Thank you Lynn! You're doing the work that no one else is doing!
I think it is beyond frustrating to teachers who have to bring their own paper and supplies for their classes to see this kind of money being thrown around!
Keep on rockin'!
Friday, 06/17/2011 - 10:55PM
If watchdog had not reported this information on Paula Harris, we would still be in the dark as to the going ons of she and her friend. This company has no place in HISD because of the tight relationship with the Board President, Paula Harris. You know and I know the real deal. Be careful Paula, your horns are about to show.
Saturday, 06/18/2011 - 05:02PM
While the HISD trustee is being watched and the sub-contractor is being watched who is really the problem here. People need someone to blame for what the Texas Governor has not done or how the budget is so messed up and we are in debt. Do you really think people can’t make a living creatively. It has come to this, blame or be blamed when you can think of ways to make money. The law is not being broken here and I would be remiss in saying that when you live in a community and work there in the right areas that you are bound to know someone even small business people who here, are being targeted.
There is not one shred of evidence that showed questionable business practices inappropriate relationships or inadequate services. It seems if you know how to market yourself and make money you get criticized. ATT, Microsoft, and a longer list of businesses, monopolize the market all the time. You would shudder if you knew all the smaller businesses these named companies own under different names.
Westco's company is just an umbrella of many talents of services being offered. I don't think it is fair to accuse her family because they are making a living; nor is it fair to say Mrs. Harris's horns are showing (HISD EMPLOYEE). This is what the big businesses do all the time. Why can't the little man living in the community do it to? At least they live and work in the community or surrounding area. They are not sending the money to another country for cheaper labor. We have sold each other out to cheaper and unqualified to make money.
The article is a good one and most informative, BUT I feel it raised the wrong questions. Are we going to now tear down the little man who tries to make a living doing everything they can think of to make more money? It is out there for the making. The teachers can tutor; many people wear different hats all the time and do what it takes. We should be more concerned with not seeing the work completed and outsiders coming in and taking advantage and leaving us high and dry with less quality in services.
The article did not say if the West's were natives of Texas; and it did not say if the work was adequate. I would want to know that. Maybe the contracts would not go to that company if they did not deliver quality service for what they are paid to do.
tired of the poverty pimps
Monday, 06/20/2011 - 09:26AM
Watchful eyes you sure did a lot of contorting of what common folk see as wrong to make it seem innocuous for a party with no vested interest. (eyes rolling) Nicole West was paid as a contractor to find other people to do the actually work. There is no way in an unrigged bidding process she should have been the lowest bid when she’s playing the middleman in these deals and taking a large cut for herself. There are 2.9 million residents in Houston and out of all those people Paula’s buddy garners a myriad of contracts from tutoring to painting. As an earlier response noted West was paid in excess of $225 an hour to provide tutoring at an HISD elementary school. A Texas state certified teacher at River Oaks Elementary with 30 years experience teaching is only paid $20.00 an hour. In the meantime Paula is voting on the termination of district certified teachers because the district doesn’t have the money to pay them. What you also fail to grasp, or choose not to because you have a vested interest. Is to understand we are talking about government who operates on THE PUBLIC DIME. Microsoft is a private corporation. If Bill Gates wants to hand his contracts out to his friends, Microsoft is his company, his money and his business. When Paula does the same that is OUR BUSINESS because it is OUR MONEY. You want to operate like Microsoft get off the public dole and go be all you can be.
Monday, 06/27/2011 - 05:48PM
One of West's first contracts was to provide reading tutoring to students. Her hourly rate, based off of that contract was $225/hr. She doesn't even have a teaching certificate in Texas. That is only the first of many, high priced contracts Nicole West got from HISD. Even the Superintendent has stated he's well aware of board members interceding in procurement processes and that he wants to stop it. You may love Paula Harris and what's she accomplished, but that doesn't mean you have to excuse her possible bad behavior of helping her friends out by greasing the wheels of procurement.