in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD approves tougher school board ethics policy on first reading
Friday, Oct 14, 2011, 09:50AM CST
By Mike Cronin

The Houston school trustees took the first formal step in approving a new business-ethics policy Thursday night.

By a unanimous vote, 9-0, board members supported prohibiting themselves from “direct communications, including attendance at meetings, between district administration and current or potential vendors.”

Trustee Anna Eastman, who represents the Houston Independent School District’s District I, applauded the policy before votes were cast.

“We must hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards,” Eastman said. "We must hold ourselves accountable and ensure contract processes are immune from outside influences."

Board President Paula Harris, who during recent months has suffered accusations that she has violated what would be the new policy, said she concurred with Eastman.

The incumbent board president represents HISD District IV and faces challenger Davetta Daniels on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Harris said she wanted to assure parents, nonprofit organizations, vendors and other stakeholders that “we’ll continue to work with you and make sure everyone has access ... and not go back to the old days, when only some folks did.”

Texas Watchdog has reported that Harris talked to the former district’s former procurement chief about contracts and may have met with potential vendors to pave the way for HISD contracts. Texas Watchdog  also has reported that Harris has voted on multiple contracts involving Westco Ventures, a company run by her close friend, Nicole West.

The two traveled to Italy together in April during the weeks leading up to an HISD board vote on a contract with Westco, which Harris voted to approve.

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.

Due to questions from Texas Watchdog and the Houston Chronicle, Harris announced in August that she would abstain from voting on future contracts involving companies run by West.

Harris abstained from a vote during last night’s meeting that renewed a contract to Westco and five other companies for up to $10 million with the district. The contract consists of work related to intrusion-detection systems, security-camera systems, fire-detection and alarm systems and intercom systems.

The board must approve the new ethics code on second reading before it becomes formally adopted.

“We just want to have some system, like the city (of Houston) does, where we’ll have no appearance of impropriety,” said Trustee Mike Lunceford, who represents HISD District V, after the meeting. “We want a system where you don’t make it easy for someone to abuse the rules.”

Two exceptions written into the new ethics policy consist of situations in which the board is selecting its legal counsel or HISD external auditors.

Board members chose a firm last night to conduct an audit of HISD’s contract-recommendation and awards process.

Null-Lairson, a Houston-based accounting firm, will lead the audit.

“They’re supposedly one of the largest auditors that looks at board policies,” said Lunceford, who chairs the board’s audit committee. “We wanted to choose a firm that isn’t beholden to HISD, but is qualified to do the work.”

MGT of America, a company with offices in Austin and Washington, D.C., and that offers “public sector management research and advice,” according to its website, will assist Null-Lairson, said an HISD news release. Susanne Mariga, a certified public accountant based in Houston, also will assist Null-Lairson, the news release said.

The school system has approved spending up to $87,500 on the audit.

“Given the scrutiny that HISD has been under, we were very concerned that we get someone independent,” said Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who represents District VIII. She faces challenger Dorothy Olmos in her campaign to keep her seat.

Trustee Harvin Moore praised the audit committee for its work on the hiring.

“They take it seriously, so I believe in the process they used,” Moore said.

Contact Mike Cronin at or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
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Saturday, 10/15/2011 - 10:46AM

Laughable- a bunch of crooks passing a new ethics policy. Can't help but remind me of the Seinfeld episode where George asks his boss,' Was it wrong of me to have 'intimate relations' with the maid on my desk?'

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