in Houston, Texas
Former Houston ISD procurement chief reveals problems in the agency, talks about his dismissal
Tuesday, Dec 20, 2011, 07:24AM CST
By Mike Cronin
sanitizer

When things got hot for Stephen Pottinger this past summer, Houston Independent School District officials chose to let him go.

Instead of standing by the man who headed HISD’s procurement department for 11 years and won national awards for the district, Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett decided not to renew Pottinger’s contract in July.

“I was shocked,” Pottinger said, describing his reaction when Garrett informed him – particularly when Garrett herself called what was happening to Pottinger “a witch hunt,” Pottinger told Texas Watchdog in a series of interviews during the last four months.

Garrett was referring to allegations that Pottinger harassed one of his subordinates by playing practical jokes on the employee.

“Any reasonable person would’ve defended the head of procurement,” Pottinger said. “They could’ve said, Steve, we’re going to send you home for a week, two weeks, a month. Let’s let this thing roll over and we’re going to bring you back… we’re going to make this work. That would’ve been the responsible thing.”

But Pottinger said Garrett told him the media maelstrom raging at the time was too much.

Garrett referred Texas Watchdog’s questions to HISD spokesman Jason Spencer, who said, “The existing public record on this personnel matter is comprehensive and speaks for itself.”

Pottinger had been defending himself against two Equal Employment Opportunity complaints that began in 2009. And he was fighting accusations that he let inventory stagnate in HISD’s warehouse – about $800,000 worth of hand sanitizer that was near its expiration date, being one example.

The national awards HISD’s procurement department won under Pottinger no longer mattered. The department received an "Outstanding Agency" award from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, now known as The Institute for Public Procurement, based in Herndon, Va.this year and in 2006, he said.

Also this year, the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., awarded the department recognition as "Best Practice" in finance -- the same Council of the Great City Schools that is now doing one of two external audits of the HISD procurement department.

“I personally received a Board of Education commendation for excellence in 2007,” Pottinger said.

Aside from the national awards, Pottinger holds the highest-level certifications in his field, including those from the National Association of Purchasing Management, now known as the Institute for Supply Management, in Tempe, Ariz., and the Virginia-based Institute for Public Procurement.

But the awards and certifications didn’t mean much to HISD in the face of controversy.

One EEO complaint against Pottinger came from a man he supervised and whom Pottinger considered a friend, Earl Finley, HISD’s head of procurement for cafeteria services. Pottinger said he had hired Finley and through the years spent time with him socially, including playing golf.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Finley declined to comment and referred questions to the district’s media relations department.

Outside of work, Finley even asked him for advice on dating women, Pottinger said.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m getting up in age, and I’d like to see some little Earls running around the house, and, you know, if I don’t get going pretty soon, I might miss my chance.’

“And I said, ‘Well, that seems like a noble concept.’”

Pottinger said he recommended that Finley improve his communication skills, and Finley agreed.

“You know, maybe you should think about joining one of these foreign dating services where they don’t speak any English, and that way you’ll get to know them a little bit better before they find out that you know you don’t communicate very well,” Pottinger said he told Finley. “He thought it was funny.”

Soon after that conversation, Pottinger said he received a spam e-mail from a woman claiming to be connected to an online dating service based in Russia.

“I forwarded it to him. I said, ‘Here, what we were just talking about, here’s your chance, follow up.’”

Pottinger said Finley didn’t know what to do, so Pottinger drafted an e-mail for Finley, as though he were Finley, and sent it to the woman from his HISD e-mail address.

“She actually responded, but not to him, but to me,” said Pottinger. “I said, ‘Whoa, I don’t want to be involved in this, Earl. If you want to pursue it, you do it.’ I responded for him from my e-mail address. But I gave his email address.”

Finley later told Pottinger he’d chosen to not pursue it any further.

Pottinger said Finley also sought his feedback outside of work when Finley mistakenly thought he was about to lose his job.

“I told him, ‘Earl, you need to snap out of it. Everything is fine. … Don’t worry about it.’ But he was absolutely convinced he was going to get fired.”

Pottinger said Finley ceased interacting with his colleagues and subordinates, even going so far as to hole himself up in his office, despite Pottinger’s reassurances.

When nothing else worked, Pottinger decided to play a joke on Finley and pretend that, yes, Finley had been fired.

“I was trying to use something to jolt him, to snap him out of it,” Pottinger said, explaining the reason behind the prank.

So, he and a colleague placed a box on top of Finley’s desk to indicate that he had to clear out his stuff because he’d been fired.

“He never said anything when this other manager put the box on his desk that he was even mad at me,” Pottinger said. “Same thing with the mail-order bride deal.”

A short time later, Pottinger gave Finley an annual job-performance review. Pottinger told Finley that he was meeting expectations in all areas. In the section that allows supervisors to provide advice, Pottinger told Finley he wanted Finley to spend more time with his staff, “making sure they’re performing to the best of their abilities as procurement professionals.”

Pottinger said Finley interpreted that feedback as though he was not a good manager or not professional.

“That never crossed my lips,” Pottinger said.

Finley filed an EEO complaint against Pottinger, saying Pottinger harassed him in the mail-order bride incident and the firing prank.

HISD’s EEO department told Pottinger his behavior had been unprofessional, Pottinger said.

The federal government’s equal-opportunity law protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, age, or sexual orientation, status as a parent, marital status and political affiliation.

The second EEO complaint against Pottinger came from Gary Hogg, an HISD buyer whom Pottinger supervised.

“I got wind of it last winter that Hogg and another employee were processing purchase orders that were exceeding $10,000 and had no formal Request for Proposal and board-approved contract,” Pottinger said. “In one case, (Hogg) had processed about half a million dollars to one vendor, and there was no bid or contract in place.”

Pottinger said he spoke to Andre Morrow, an HISD procurement manager and Hogg’s direct boss, right away.

“’You need to get this fixed,’” Pottinger said he told Morrow. “’And you need to get this fixed immediately.’”

Pottinger also directed Morrow to take some disciplinary action against Hogg to send the message that “this is what happens when you don’t follow the law or the policies or procedures that are in place.”

Morrow did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail requesting comment. Reached by phone last week, Hogg declined to comment.

Pottiner says Hogg then filed an EEO complaint against him.

HISD’s former procurement chief later found out that Hogg also reported to the EEO that Pottinger was harassing him in other ways.

The HISD warehouse had some surplus inventory, which Pottinger says Hogg had bought. Pottinger asked Hogg to negotiate with the supplier a return of the inventory, not an uncommon situation, Pottinger said.

But Hogg didn’t do it, Pottinger said.

Pottinger said he followed up with Hogg every 30 days or so to find out the status of the surplus inventory. Each time, Pottinger would learn that Hogg had done nothing. Pottinger said he wrote Hogg up and placed the document in Hogg’s personnel file.

Hogg’s notes from their conversations wound up being used against Pottinger with the EEO, Pottinger said.

“The EEO does not cover a manager trying to make his employee follow policy and procedure,” Pottinger said. He said that Elenita Hutchins-Taylor, HISD’s general counselultimately gave Garrett a hand-written note expressing her legal opinion that the complaint had no merit.

But Hutchins-Taylor said in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog that she had “no recollection of such a note.”

The EEO investigator wrote a report that concluded that Pottinger had, in fact, harassed Hogg.

That complaint remains in Pottinger’s file, Pottinger said.

“I am planning, absolutely to file a defamation of character suit – but I have to find a job first,” Pottinger said. “I wanted to vigorously defend my name and reputation. I’ve been in business for over 40 years, and I had never ever had complaints such as this filed against me. But (the HISD EEO office) never gave me any of that so-called evidence. The statements and everything was, ‘I perceive this,’ or ‘I thought this,’ but there was no proof that I was doing anything wrong.”
 
Pottinger wrote Garrett a letter on July 7 outlining the above defense and asking her to help him. He even quotes her using the term "witch-hunt."

And Pottinger wrote a letter to Josephine Morgan, the HISD EEO office manager, on July 11, asking her to explain the investigation process and how it came to a conclusion that he believes is erroneous.

Regarding the hand-sanitizer controversy, Pottinger told Texas Watchdog that Garrett told him to order the hand sanitizer to prepare for the spread of the H1N1 flu contagion. He also said the supplier told him the sanitizer contained 99 percent alcohol, which doesn’t expire.

“They predicted schools were going to shut down, that industries were going to close, it was going to be worldwide chaos” due to H1N1, Pottinger said.

So, Pottinger stocked the warehouse with hand sanitizer.

“We had bottles, wall-mounted dispensers, towelettes and all these different varieties.”

In HISD, schools have their own individual budgets, largely set by the school principals, and schools buy the materials they need from HISD’s warehouse.

But school principals didn’t want to use their budgets to buy the hand sanitizer -- they wanted to keep that money to spend other ways, so the hand sanitizer sat there, Pottinger said. In fact, school administrators told teachers and students to bring their own hand sanitizer to class, Pottinger said.

Worse, HISD officials could have explored the option of requesting an extension of the hand-sanitizer expiration date, said Robert Emery. He holds a doctorate in public health and is the vice president of safety, health, environment and risk management at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“In certain situations, if a public entity buys large quantities of hand sanitizer that goes unused, they can apply for an extension – it’s possible,” said Emery, who added that it might be the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the product’s manufacturer who would grant the extension.

Adam Arbour, a former HISD employee who reported directly to Pottinger and now works as a software engineer in the private sector, called Pottinger a “mentor.”

“He had the expertise that the public sector doesn’t typically get,” Arbour, who worked under Pottinger for about two years, told Texas Watchdog. “The public sector has a hard time reducing wild spending.”

Arbour worked on an automated-purchasing system developed by Pottinger that allowed district staff members to browse for supplies much like people do on Amazon.com, Arbour said.

“It was a radical, out-of-the-box idea that Pottinger had,” Arbour said.

Pottinger tried to save his job by appealing directly to the HISD trustees.

“I sent a memo to all board members,” he said. “I told them, you’re being asked to not renew my contract. I said, ‘This is what I’ve accomplished at the district.’ I went so far as to say, ‘You don’t know me, but you do know what I’ve done.’”

 ***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of hand sanitizer by flickr user oomni, used via a Creative Commons license.


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Comments
John
Tuesday, 12/20/2011 - 09:14AM

After reading this, I'm convinced firing a dirtbag like Pottinger was the right call. I don't care how many lame-ass certificates you have, you can't treat people the way he does, especially if you're pulling down $150k a year on the taxpayers' dime.

What's especially disturbing about this story is that it appears in a publication that claims to be a "watchdog" for taxpayers. It's the same publication that wrote the original story exposing Pottinger's "pranks," which also included calling a guy into his office and asking him to "bring a box" as if he was going to be fired. Very funny, douchebag.

So which is it, Watchdog? You first reported Pottinger was a turd drawing an excessive public salary. And now we're supposed to feel sorry for him because he can't find a job? Big shock that no one has hired him yet. This story, and Pottinger's comments, show that just having certificates isn't enough. You have to have sound judgement. Whining to the media about getting fired and throwing all of your previous coworkers under the bus in the process isn't going to win you many interviews, Pottinger.

This story proves Watchdog isn't about holding government accountable. Watchdog is about stirring up B.S. in a weak attempt to discredit government at all costs, no matter what the facts say. Pathetic all around.

the real deal
Wednesday, 12/21/2011 - 03:09PM

John: It sounds like you have a personal issue here. “Dirt-bag”, “Douche-bag” – really?! Spoken like someone who has never gone the extra mile to become certified in their chosen field of expertise. Yes, that really is pathetic. Did you even read the story? I’ve known Pottinger for a long time and I had the privilege to work for him and I can tell you first hand, he’s got more character and class in his little finger than most. You seem to know a lot about him so you know, that’s the truth. But, maybe you are one the disgruntled employees he was trying to get to do their job. In my opinion, he did a lot of good for the district and was responsible for spending hundreds of millions of dollars and every one of those dollars were spent with honesty, integrity, legally and ethically and never brought into question. And that’s a bargain for $150 grand compared to most other companies. But you wouldn’t know that. We have all read stories about public servants who have taken kick-backs, had sex with children, and downloaded porn on their official computers. Pottinger is guilty of doing an awesome job, making people do their jobs – AND having a sense of humor. If that’s the definition of a Douche-bag, he deserves an award for tolerating the likes of you! Personally I think the watchdogs did a good job in reporting yet another case of a public entity using a scapegoat instead of fixing their problems.

Hogg wired
Thursday, 12/22/2011 - 08:34AM

Someone needs to investigate Gary Hogg with all those no bid contracts. I have been in meetings with Hogg and heard the racial nonesense that comes out of that man's mouth. He has allowed contractors to rebid after closing date. Sounds fishy.

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