A representative of Houston’s largest teachers’ union went on one of the all-expense-paid trips to Costa Rica offered by Houston school system vendor state Rep. Borris Miles last year -- after a union leader says the group “didn’t want to get cut short” by the Houston school system.
“I went because they were potentially looking at a plan where they would ship our employees overseas to have medical stuff done,” Capo told Texas Watchdog. “So, went down there to look and see what that stuff was.”
Capo said he believes he went in April of last year and that no other Houston Independent School District trustees except for Larry Marshall were on the trip with him.
“I knew the Costa Rican government was hustling the district about this,” federation president Gayle Fallon said in an interview with Texas Watchdog. “It was like, ‘OK, I’m not takin’ the trip.’ I didn’t feel right about it. I don’t think it’s good for the president of the local (union) to ever take trips for potential vendors.” Instead, she said, she sent Capo.
An e-mail obtained by Texas Watchdog shows that Miles, a Houston Democrat, offered to take most of the HISD trustees to Costa Rica. Miles also services HISD with flood insurance and is a close friend of two HISD trustees.
In an interview with Texas Watchdog, Miles said he has offered the trip to “school boards across the state” including Dallas ISD. Miles said he “offered it to many of the representatives here in the House. I’ve offered it to union groups. To any people of influence,” and he said that by offering the trip he “didn’t do anything wrong.” (He also offered the trip to a Texas Watchdog reporter who talked with him.)
Fallon says it was Miles who approached her about the trip. “My first thing was, ‘No we don’t do that,’” she said. She said she was unsure about the offer at first, but then Miles “said, ‘Look, it’s the government of Costa Rica,’” she said. “(Miles) said, ‘They really have something that could help your teachers,’ and I said, ‘I’m not gonna do it but I’ll send one of my staffers.’”
“I don’t take trips from vendors,” Fallon said. “In fact, we have probably a stronger conflict-of-interest policy than the (Houston school) district does.” She said the union policy puts a “$50 limit” on gifts.
HISD's ethics policy allows trustees to accept "a gift or other benefit conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient," and says that officials can accept "food, lodging, transportation, or entertainment accepted as a guest."
Marshall, a long-time HISD board member, told the Houston Chronicle last week that he didn’t see the need to disclose the two trips because the vendor, Miles, was present on the trip. District records show an approved board agenda item from February 2011 where “Miles Insurance Agency,” the same firm owned by Miles, was awarded the district’s flood insurance contract through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Miles is also close friend of both HISD trustees president Paula Harris and trustee Carol Mims Galloway. In remarks at a school board meeting earlier this year, Harris said Miles was like a brother to her, and Miles said Galloway was like a "mother" him and had almost become his mother-in-law.
The revelation of Marshall going on the Costa Rica trip is one of many recent media stories about HISD trustees and their close relationships with district vendors. A Texas Watchdog investigation found that board president Paula Harris voted to approve $28 million in district contracts with a business owned by a close friend. Harris also told the Houston Chronicle she had taken trips with the same friend, Nicole West, including a trip to Italy this year, but paid her own way. Marshall has called the recent media coverage “blatant racism.”
“It’s too easy to get in trouble with a vendor,” Fallon said. “Even if something isn’t wrong, it sometimes looks wrong.”
Fallon defended the two trips to Costa Rica Marshall accepted from Miles, and a trip HISD Trustee Harvin Moore took to China organized by the College Board, a national education nonprofit, though she said she would have sent one of her lieutenants.
“What Larry and Harvin did...isn’t illegal, depending on their actions when they get back,” Fallon said. “And you know, that’s only if there’s no kickbacks and things like that … I, personally, if I had been offered that as a board member, I would have done the same thing that I did in my (union) office -- I’d (have) a sent a staff person...You never get in trouble sending a staff person to look at it in person. That is defensible, because then people believe you were looking it instead of ‘Oh, paid vacation time.’”
The e-mail from Miles offered each trustee the chance to bring along a guest, and wrote that the Costa Rican government would waive deductibles on "medical tourism" procedures, effectively offering the trustees and their guests deep discounts on the services. Capo said he did not bring a guest and says, “I didn’t leave the hotel other than for the hospital visits or for dinner.”
Capo said there was an “exhibit hall” set-up for him and other guests to visit but the “other big part of it was the visits” to doctor’s offices and hospitals. “You had the option of going to several different hospitals or maybe to some of the hospitals and the dental clinics and that sort of thing.”
When he got there, Capo said he realized “it was certainly a lot more than HISD there … There were people from a whole lot of organizations, coming from Houston and all over the country.”
Miles also told Texas Watchdog there were more than HISD and Houston people at the conferences. “More than 200 benefits professionals, business owners and public officials from across the U.S. have attended this conference,” Miles said in a written statement. (Read the full statement here.) “As best we can tell, the public officials number ... less than 2 percent. Which is really bad, because innovations tend to come to the public sector last.”