in Houston, Texas

HISD procurement chief discussed trustees president Paula Harris' pal's firm in business: E-mail

Thursday, Aug 04, 2011, 09:55AM CST
By Mike Cronin and Jennifer Peebles
Paula Harris

The president of the Houston school district trustees e-mailed with the district's procurement director about a business run by one of her best friends, records show -- five months before the school board voted to approve $8 million in contracts including the friend's company.

The revelation is the second time in three days that news accounts have said a Houston Independent School District trustee communicated with HISD administrators about the district doing business with a friend or acquaintance.

HISD trustees president Paula Harris had previously told Texas Watchdog that she had never discussed with HISD officials her friend Nicole West doing business with the district, and had said she knew only two people involved in the district’s procurement work -- and then-procurement chief Stephen Pottinger wasn't one of the people she named.

But e-mails released by the school district show Pottinger had e-mailed Harris about Westco, a firm owned and run by Harris' close friend Nicole West, in mid-November.

"As we discussed, we have scheduled meetings with the following Suppliers," Pottinger wrote to Harris on Nov. 15, following that phrase with "Wednesday, November 17, 2010: 9 AM – 10 AM WESTCO," and a note about a subsequent meeting with another firm, The Woodlands-based Sparks Construction Services.

"Please feel free to join us if your schedule will permit," Pottinger invited Harris. "If not, I will be happy to recap both meetings for you in an email."

Excerpts of Paula Harris' June
phone interview with Texas Watchdog

Harris later wrote back to thank Pottinger but said she would not be available for the meeting, though records released by the school district do not include any summary by Pottinger of what was discussed with Westco at the Nov. 17 meeting.

Harris this morning told Texas Watchdog she had never spoken to or e-mailed with Pottinger. She said she had only spoken to HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett about speaking with the companies.

See the story about Harris' comments by clicking here.

“I talked to Melinda Garrett about the contract. That contract (Westco) and other contracts were on the original agenda, but there was a line crossed through them.

“Companies were calling me, asking me, 'What does that mean?' I called Melinda to find out."

Harris said that she only asked Garrett to meet with those companies who had their names crossed out on the agenda.

“I've never met Mr. Pottinger,” Harris said. “I wouldn't know him if he walked in front of me.”

Harris said that she never spoke with or e-mailed Pottinger. “He e-mailed me,” Harris said. She spoke only to Garrett about meeting with the companies.

Two months after that meeting, the school board voted to add both Westco and Sparks Construction to the list of minor suppliers -- those providing services worth less than $25,000 a pop --  for a construction project. Their addition came recommended by HISD staff, a school board meeting agenda shows.

Pottinger, who was fired by the school district last month, did not return two phone messages left at his home Wednesday.

In April, Harris and HISD trustees 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.

Westco already had a business relationship with the school system at the time of the November meeting. 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.

Harris was also among the trustees who voted last August to renew that $10 million contract with Westco and seven other firms, minutes show.

The total value of the four contracts was $28 million, but each contract was split between multiple firms, and West’s firm would likely share in only a fraction of that amount.

All four of the contracts were competitively bid, and the school board members merely voted up or down to accept the recommendations that were passed on by HISD’s administrative staff, who were tasked with vetting the companies.

Harris' votes on the contract were entirely legal under state and local law and violated no local school district policies.

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.

Harris, in her first term on the school board, is among the four HISD trustees up for re-election later this year -- along with Manuel Rodriguez, former Houston City Councilwoman Carol Mims Galloway and Juliet Stipeche. Qualifying for those races is set to begin later this month, though no strong candidates have emerged to challenge Harris, who became school board president in January.  

Questions regarding school board members’ influence in the district’s business affairs were raised earlier this week when Texas Watchdog and the Houston Chronicle reported that Harris’ fellow trustee Larry Marshall had set the stage for the district to begin negotiating a no-bid consulting contract worth up to $640,000 with a doctor with whom Marshall had gone on an all-expenses-paid trip to Costa Rica.

Texas Watchdog asked Harris in a phone interview in June whether she used her "influence in (her) position as a trustee to help Nicole West or any of her companies get business with the district." Harris said she did not.

"No, not only not Nicole West but not any of the companies or employees” connected to HISD, she said.

Harris said she had "some good friends working for the district" as employees, and that while she had sometimes voted for raises for some of them, she did not wield influence in who the district hired and fired, saying that was left to human resources protocols. "The same with (corporations), companies with the bidding practices, they have to do" requests for proposals, "they have to go through (scoring) matrixes, they have to go through a lot of hoops … but our trustees don’t hire or pick contractors or vote on ... or rate them. Those are all recommendations that come from the administration."

Later in the same interview, Harris said she only knew two people in involved in procurement in the district: "Besides Leo (Bobadilla) and Issa (Dadoush), I don’t know the people in Procurement," she said. Bobadilla is HISD’s chief operating officer; Dadoush is head of construction and facility services. She also said, “I can say that I don’t get involved or go over to (HISD’s) Procurement (department) or over to the business side."

Westco Ventures LLC is owned and run by West, a Pearland businesswoman, and her husband, Anthony West. Harris has said she is a good, longtime friend of Nicole West and has said she is a godparent of the Wests’ children.

Another firm in the Houston area goes by the name of Westco, an unrelated firm called Westco Grounds Maintainence, which has previously worked for other Houston-area local governments including Harris County and Houston’s local transit agency, Metro. However, HISD has its own grounds maintenance employees -- they are part of the office Dadoush oversees -- and information about HISD on the state comptroller’s website says HISD does its own grounds maintenance. But Westco Grounds Maintenance does not appear in a list of HISD vendors from June 2009 to the present that the district released to Texas Watchdog last week, and neither firm appears in a list of HISD contractors from the same period. HISD’s online check register also had no listings today for any other firm named Westco other than Westco Ventures.

A Westco Grounds Maintenance official named Becky confirmed by phone this morning that her company has not done and does not do business with HISD. She also confirmed that no one at her company met with HISD officials in November, or ever.

Wilson Sparks, an official with the other firm mentioned in Pottinger's e-mail to Harris, Sparks Construction, declined this morning to discuss the issue.

"I don't know Ms. Harris," he said by phone. "My meeting with HISD is confidential. They're a customer of mine. I don't comment on such things. That's between me and HISD."

City of Houston records show Westco listed Harris and an HISD maintenance supervisor as references when it applied to gain certified status as a minority- and woman-owned business in 2008. Scribbled in the margins of one of the reference pages was the name and phone number of Willie Burroughs, who is currently HISD’s senior manager of support services.

Harris’ employer, the giant oilfield services firm Schlumberger, paid Westco Ventures nearly $20,000 to put on a summer camp for kids in 2006. Records submitted by Westco to the city of Houston show the invoice for the payment of $19,635 was faxed to “Schlumberger (Attn: Paula Harris).”

A petroleum engineer by training, Harris is Schlumberger’s community affairs director.

Pottinger was fired by HISD last month after it was alleged that he allowed expensive supplies to pile up in the district’s warehouse, and that he played inappropriate practical jokes on a subordinate, including signing up the employee on Russian online dating sites without the employee’s knowledge.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated at 1:50 p.m. Thursday to include Paula Harris' comments.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 281-417-8849. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin. Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo by Lynn Walsh/Texas Watchdog.

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