in Houston, Texas

Houston ISD school board president may have met with contractors to discuss HISD business

Tuesday, Sep 13, 2011, 09:41AM CST
By Mike Cronin and Jennifer Peebles
Paula Harris

The president of the Houston school board may have helped set the stage for the school district to hire a company owned by a business partner of her campaign treasurer, records show.

Paula Harris, who has been under fire in recent weeks over school district contracts given to friends, was to be present at a private meeting in 2009 with a top school construction official and a representative of Environmental Consulting and Management Services Inc., records show.

A few months after the meeting, Houston ISD paid the company, also called ECMS, more than $8,000, according to the district's online check register. The school district paid the company an additional $5,000 in 2010.

Records also show Harris also was to meet privately in 2009 with the same district construction official, as well as her close friend, HISD contractor Nicole West, and a salesman for a Houston lighting firm -- a meeting to which Harris invited West. They also show that Harris in 2010 shared with West an internal e-mail from the school district notifying school board members of the reason for a delay in hiring contractors to paint schools.

The documents are the first indication that Harris may have met privately with a contractor and a school district administrator simultaneously to discuss HISD business.

Harris, who has been school board president since January, did not return two phone messages or e-mail seeking comment for this story. She is seeking another four-year term this November.

She has previously said she had many friends who do business with the school district but said that she did not discuss HISD business with friends such as West.

The amount of money paid to ECMS -- more than $13,000 -- is a drop in the financial bucket of HISD, which has a $1.6 billion annual budget. But questions about the school system's business practices, such as the school board's vote this summer to approve a no-bid consulting contract worth up to $640,000 with an acquaintance of trustee Larry Marshall, have raised the ire of critics.

CONNECTIONS TO JONES

Environmental Consulting and Management Services is owned by businessman Tyrone Dorian. Its offices on Lyons Avenue in Houston's historic Fifth Ward are at the same address where Dorian's parents once ran the vaunted C&L Boot and Shoe Repair. According to a Houston Chronicle feature story from nearly 20 years ago, the shoe repair shop doubled as a center of Fifth Ward community life and included Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Count Basie as customers.

State records show Dorian has been a principal in two firms with Harris' campaign treasurer,  Houston lawyer Franklin D. Jones. The two men have been principals in Apposite Building Solutions, and both men and their wives are principals in another firm, Southwind International Group.  A Google search did not turn up a website for either firm yesterday.  

Jones' wife, Demetra C. Jones, former head of human resources for Harris County Precinct One, has done more than $75,000 in no-bid consulting work for HISD. Franklin Jones also has done work for HISD -- he negotiated school Superintendent Terry Grier's contract.

The e-mails show the ECMS representative, Alphonso Drummond, e-mailed Burroughs, saying, “We spoke with Paula Harris who advised us to contact you, to establish if meeting you at the board meeting today would be better than meeting you at another time.” Burroughs wrote back that he could meet with Drummond at the school board meeting that day.
Willie BurroughsBURROUGHS

In another e-mail, Drummond set up a meeting for July 8, 2009, at the firm’s Lyons Avenue offices. He e-mailed Burroughs, carbon-copying Harris at her work e-mail with the oilfield services firm Schlumberger: "I will ask Mrs. Harris to attend and provide us a list of construction projects in her district. We believe that we can provide the district a level of assurance that their projects are being executed according to design and schedule."

At the time of the e-mail, making sure that construction projects in Harris' and other trustees' districts were on time and on schedule was Burroughs' job -- he was head of the school district's $800 million school construction program, funded by bonds approved by voters in 2007 referendum. He was paid $139,000 a year in the position, according to the Texas Tribune's online salary database of Texas government employees.

Burroughs' job title was listed yesterday on HISD's web site as head of special projects in the Construction and Facilities Maintenance department.

E-mails made public by the school system indicate that Harris and Burroughs are close enough that she invited him and his family to a fish fry at her house. In another, she invited him to a charity event at which principals in Harris' district would be allowed to test-drive Cadillacs and to be her guest at a charity wine tasting.

And Burroughs and Harris are both among a wide circle of Harris and West’s friends, including local doctors, lawyers and journalists, copied on an e-mail telling family friends to tune into a television commercial in which West's daughter would appear. Burroughs also e-mailed Harris and West a photograph of Harris being sworn in to the HISD board, and Harris e-mailed Burroughs a picture of himself, smiling, wearing a suit, briefcase in hand.

Burroughs gave $50 to Harris’ campaign in 2010, and the firm Burroughs and his wife run, Pearland-based Burroughs Investment Group, gave an additional $50, this year, HISD records show.

Harris also gave Burroughs a heads-up that he was in trouble with the boss last year.

When Grier e-mailed the school board and a handful of his highest-ranking deputies in July about problems being found during an external audit of Burroughs’ department, Harris forwarded the e-mail to Burroughs within 90 minutes.

“We were all alarmed and concerned with their preliminary findings,” Grier wrote. “Melinda and Chuck are cross-checking their financial 'numbers.' The committee believes we are considerably over budget, lack oversight and management, etc. We will keep you informed as we receive information and verify numbers … Not looking good.”

Dorian, Drummond and Burroughs did not return phone messages seeking comment yesterday.

The e-mails show that Harris herself invited Burroughs and West to a July 2009 meeting to discuss a new type of light fixture that a Houston company was trying to sell to HISD.

Harris arranged the meeting to be held at Schlumberger’s offices, at 5599 San Felipe St., Suite 1700, the e-mails show. Harris is community affairs director for the firm.  

A sales manager for Arcalux, trying to sell the company's new SmartFixture, asked Harris how many people should be invited to the meeting.

Harris wrote back with a list: Willie Burroughs "if available," Paula Harris, Nicole West and the sales rep himself. Harris copied West on the message.

The sales rep, Tim Smith, no longer works for the firm, a woman who answered the phone at Arcalux said yesterday. Smith could not be reached for comment.

The communication shows Smith e-mailed both Harris and West, and Smith thanked a “Mr. King for making it possible for us to meet and discuss the merits of the SmartFixture.” The e-mails don’t identify King by first name.

Smith also arranged to test out the SmartFixture by installing it in a classroom at MacArthur Elementary School. The meeting at Schlumberger would be to discuss the results from the test, Smith wrote.

Harris voted four times to approve contracts that included work for one of West's firms, Westco. She has since said she would abstain from voting on issues related to West. West's firms have also done more than $100,000 in other work with the school district that did not require school board votes.

FORWARDED E-MAIL

Harris also forwarded to West a May 2010 e-mail from a top HISD administrator notifying school board members and the school system's other leadership that a renewal of a painting contract was being yanked off a school board agenda that week.

"I have had discussions with Issa Dadoush, General Manager for Construction and Facility Services and he is reviewing all annual contracts to determine if improvements can be made to this annual process and/or this facility need," HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett had written in the original e-mail on May 12, the day before the contract was to be voted on by the school board. "In order to give him time to do his review, the item was pulled from this month's agenda."

On May 14, the day after the school board meeting, records show Harris forwarded Garrett's e-mail without additional comment to the e-mail address West uses for one of her business, a private investigations firm called NCA Investigations, which has also done work for HISD.

West's firm Westco has done painting work for HISD, and it has also worked as a subcontractor for other firms doing contract work with HISD. It was not clear from public records available yesterday what role, if any Westco would have played in the painting contract that was being delayed or in any of the annual contracts Dadoush was to review.  

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog. Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 281-656-1681. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo: HISD trustees President Paula Harris at a recent school board agenda review meeting. Jennifer Peebles/Texas Watchdog.

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Comments
Not Surprised
Thursday, 09/15/2011 - 06:36PM

Paula, it's time to sweep around your own front door. How can you honestly sit in judgement of anyone?

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