in Houston, Texas
Audits on federal tech funds raise questions from Houston ISD trustees
Friday, Feb 24, 2012, 03:22PM CST
By Mike Cronin
Tech

It took a while.

In fact, Houston schools Inspector General Robert Moore, for many minutes at Thursday's school board meeting, would not provide a direct answer to the same question posed to him by Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, board President Mike Lunceford and Superintendent Terry Grier:

Have Houston Independent School District staff members completed the E-Rate audits that the New York-based firm Deloitte recommended they conduct two years in a row, in 2010 and 2011?

Moore repeated over and over that many “formal reports” and “many audits” have been completed. But he didn't answer the straightforward question:

Have HISD officials complied with the Deloitte directive?

Even the district’s E-Rate compliance officer, Richard Patton, said during the exchange, “Disclosure (of those reports) has been weak.”

Moore explained that if his office staff members found problems in the system, they would “issue a report right away. If there is not a problem, we don’t issue a report right away.”

Only after Grier pointedly told Moore that Deloitte had recommended the audit report be done “two different times,” that he heard “board members and Richard (Patton) say to do that report that Deloitte asked for” and concluded his questioning of the inspector general by asking, “When will you have that report done?” did Moore, at last, say everything would be finished by the end of June.

In an interview after the meeting, Lunceford emphasized that Moore was not purposefully avoiding the question.

“That’s just the way he talks,” Lunceford said.

At one point in the conversation, Moore tried to explain to all concerned that what they were asking for was actually “several reports,” not just one.

Yet he still seemed unable to state definitively until put under pressure by Grier whether HISD officials were complying with what Deloitte suggested.

“We just got our (E-Rate) funding back,” Skillern-Jones said in an interview after the meeting about the exchange with Moore. “I don’t want to get it taken away again. I want to make sure all compliance measures are met. It’s better to do too much than too little.”

District employees were accused of accepting gifts including lunches, dinners, parties and tickets to sporting events from vendors in the federal program that funds computers in schools.


Between at least 2005 and 2008, HISD employees accepted gifts from E-Rate vendors doing $75 million in business with the district that included lunches, happy-hour parties and sporting events.

In response, the federal government froze HISD’s E-Rate funding for four years, the district had to pay an $850,000 settlement to the feds, and district officials hired Patton to serve as their internal watchdog on E-Rate issues.

Skillern-Jones asked Patton and Moore to “define what you think (Deloitte) is looking for and do that which reflects that, and give it back to (the board).”

Immediately after Skillern-Jones completed her request, Lunceford asked that Patton and Moore “keep the audit committee” -- which Lunceford chairs -- “in the loop.”

Patton said that the board and district officials “need closure in the form of a formal audit report, so if we are asked by a regulator, we can give it to them. Mr. Moore has done the monitoring, but he needs to do an audit.”

Patton also reiterated the penalties those who violated the E-Rate contract-award silent period would face.

If a vendor did so, that vendor would have the respective contract voided and be barred from doing business with the district for 24 months.

If a district employee violated the policy, he or she would face unspecified “disciplinary action.”

And, if a trustee did not comply with the rules, that board member would be forced to abstain from voting on any E-Rate matter for 24 months, Patton said.

***

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

Photo by flickr user phil_g, used under a Creative Commons license.

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