in Houston, Texas
In wake of cronyism and contract steering scandals, HISD looks to pass new ethics policy -- but it's toothless
Friday, Dec 02, 2011, 06:07PM CST
By Mike Cronin
Question marks

Houston school board members have drafted a new ethics policy, but the current proposal contains no penalties for trustees who violate its standards.

That outrages parents such as Travis McGee, who said too much taxpayer money is at stake to simply continue giving unethical board members “a slap on the hand.”

“The corruption has to stop,” said McGee, a father of four students who attend Houston Independent School District schools.

McGee lives in HISD District IV, which is represented by board President Paula Harris, and is the president of the Sunnyside Gardens and Bayou Estates Civic Club.

“If they break the rules, criminal charges should be filed against them on behalf of the district taxpayers and the state of Texas,” McGee said.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche, HISD District VIII, told her board colleagues during a Thursday meeting that she would like a section added to the draft that outlines punishment for board members or potential vendors who break any part of the new ethical protocol.

“If there are violations, this draft does not have penalties or sanctions,” Stipeche said.

Stipeche said that Philip Fraissinet, a partner with the Houston law firm Thompson & Horton, told her that other district policies exist for censuring behavior. This ethics policy represents goals or standards.

Thompson & Horton lawyers serve as the HISD board’s legal counsel.

“But I think we need to look at all our policies to ensure everything’s aligned,” Stipeche said.

Fraissinet did not return a call or e-mail requesting comment.

A vote is scheduled during Thursday’s monthly board meeting, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said.

But several trustees said they are likely to make more changes to the draft policy during Monday’s agenda review meeting.

Yet, even after the new ethics policy is approved, it will remain a working document, Trustee Greg Meyers, HISD District VI, emphasized.

“This district and board (are) always thinking ahead,” Meyers said. “We’re trying to have a broad-based approach to capture as much as possible. Will it be continue to be looked at? Absolutely, and I hope my colleagues feel the same way.”

Board members are revising their ethics policy in part due to questions raised by the reporting of Texas Watchdog and other news organizations.

For example, Harris voted multiple times on district contracts with businesses run by a close friend.

She also asked the district’s former procurement director to arrange a meeting with two vendors, records show.  

In another instance, Trustee Larry Marshall, HISD District IX, introduced Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett to Dr. Kenneth Wells to explore hiring Wells as an independent contractor.

HISD officials were about to award a $640,000 no-bid contract to Wells, despite not knowing precisely what Wells was going to do for the district.

Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put the negotiations on hold.

The draft ethics policy contains language to avoid board members or potential vendors from influencing the contract-award process.

That section, in part, states:

“Refrain from direct communications, including attendance at meetings, between district administration and current or potential vendors except for those situations when the Board of Education is selecting the district’s external auditors or the Board’s Legal Counsel and any other specific circumstances approved by the Board of Education.”

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, HISD District III, said Harris brought up good points on “why we might want to remove some additional language because it’s vague on what it means.”

Rodriguez also said that Marshall told his board colleagues that “HISD has one of the strongest conflict-of-interest policies, probably in the nation, and, I know, in the state of Texas.”

Harris did not return a phone call or an e-mail requesting comment.

“I will reserve my comments until the district advisory committee has had a chance to review our proposed policy,” Marshall said. “It seems basically to improve transparency and to make sure that we are honorable as elected public officials.”

Rodriguez was among several board members who wondered how the proposed changes on communication between trustees and potential vendors could be enforced – and what scenarios would constitute an ethical breach.

“Where do you draw the line on board members and vendors and meetings?” Rodriguez asked.

“If there’s a golf tournament and 80 percent of the participants are vendors, what do you do?” Rodriguez asked. “If you’re at a Christmas party and two vendors are there who want to say hello, what do you do? What is the perceived line of violation?”

The draft also contains new language that protects “the educational welfare of all children in the District, regardless of … sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression.”

Those protections come after a furor over a campaign brochure that Rodriguez distributed days before Election Day earlier this month that many called anti-gay and homophobic. Rodriguez apologized for the brochure the day after the election.

Trustee Anna Eastman, HISD District I, did not return a call or an e-mail requesting comment.

Trustees Carol Mims Galloway, HISD District II; Mike Lunceford, HISD District V; and Harvin Moore, HISD District VII, were not present for the ethics discussion.

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

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