in Houston, Texas

Larry Marshall - accused of bribery - seen as ‘living legend’ by HISD, effective advocate by constituents

Thursday, Mar 08, 2012, 09:51AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Larry MarshallLarry Marshall

The Houston school board doesn’t need a new ethics policy. It’s fine exactly the way it is. Just ask Larry Marshall.

No Houston school trustee has been more vocal than Marshall in opposition to the tighter ethics rules proposed in recent months.

That's the same Larry Marshall who has been accused of some of the most serious ethical missteps of any of the Houston school trustees.

“This board has been ethical, and I am troubled why this stuff keeps coming up,” Marshall said in December, when he successfully delayed passage of tougher ethical standards proposed by his fellow trustees.

With the retirement of his longtime colleague, Carol Mims Galloway, at the end of last year, Marshall is now Houston's most senior, and longest-serving, school board member.

He's also the only current board member who spent his entire career as a public school educator, and nearly all of his career was spent working for the Houston Independent School District as a teacher, principal or administrator. Marshall was one of three people honored by HISD in February as a "living legend" in recognition of Black History Month.

Even after reports hit the press last year that Marshall had been accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from HISD contractors and taking free trips to Costa Rica arranged by another vendor, his fans remain steadfast in their support of him.

“I would not believe Larry would be doing anything like that,” said Rita Woodward, who has known Marshall for more than 30 years. “That’s not the Larry I know.”

Beatrice Foots, 69, who lives in Marshall’s HISD district and has known him since he was first elected to the board in 1997, stated flat-out that the accusation that Marshall accepted bribes was “a lie.”

Doing so would jeopardize Marshall’s ability to do the job he loves so much: Help the schools that he represents, Foots said.

“I feel it’s almost safe to say, as God is my witness, that he would anything like that. He doesn’t have to.”

His constituents and those who have worked with him on various projects defend Marshall. They say he has always been there for them when they had a problem. They praise Marshall for arranging for them to meet with multiple superintendents through the years to voice their concerns.

“I couldn’t ask for a better representative for the schools on the board,” said Woodward, 84, who now volunteers for an organization that seeks to improve The Westbury High School, which is in Marshall's district.

In part, "because of him, we’ve met with five different superintendents over the years,” Woodward said. “I think the world of Larry.”

When he began teaching in HISD in 1955, the Houston schools were still segregated.

A 1951 graduate of HISD schools, Marshall wasn't long out of Houston’s Texas Southern University when he went back to a Houston school classroom as an educator.

That same year, an HISD school district committee said it supported integration "if possible." A handful of black students would enter HISD as first-graders five years later, but the district would drag its feet on integration for years to come.

Marshall was principal for much of the 1960s at Douglass Elementary, now closed, in the Third Ward, and then became an HISD administrator.

In the late 1970s, he co-created the idea of the High School for Engineering Professions at Booker T. Washington High School, earning him mention in Ebony magazine, which noted the program as "the nation's only predominantly black public school designed to prepare students for college-level engineering studies."

By the time Marshall retired in 1991, he was a deputy superintendent of HISD and had been head of all of the district’s instructional programs. He'd also done a stint as interim superintendent of the Kendleton school district, a tiny school system in Fort Bend County that the state closed down in 2010.

He first ran for the HISD school board successfully in 1997. Since then, Marshall has served two terms as president of the school board. His daughter is an HISD educator, and a niece is an HISD elementary school principal.

Marshall agreed to an in-person interview with Texas Watchdog when first contacted by phone last month. The following day Marshall cancelled through an HISD official who wrote in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog that “we will get back to you at a later date about the possibility of rescheduling.” Marshall never followed up.

Public records put Marshall's age at 79. The next-oldest board member is Manuel Rodriguez, 60, who was elected to the school board in 2003.

But Marshall’s senior status may have brought less attention in recent months than the negative headlines about him.

Costa Rica group shotLarry Marshall, second from left, during 2010 trip to Costa Rica

Marshall and HISD are defendants in a civil suit brought by a Houston contractor who accuses Marshall of bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering in 2009, when he was board president.

In the lawsuit, the contractor, Gil Ramirez Group, claims Marshall was paid under the table by major HISD vendors, with some of the money being funneled through his campaign treasurer's consulting firm to Marshall's own consulting firm. Among the revelations from the suit so far is a $25,000 unreported campaign check to Marshall from one of the vendors.

Marshall has told Texas Watchdog, and stated repeatedly in public, that the suit is baseless.

And Marshall admitted last year that he set up a meeting between himself, Superintendent Terry Grier, district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett and Dr. Kenneth Wells, a local doctor with whom Marshall had traveled to Costa Rica on one of two all-expenses-paid trips arranged by state House member Borris Miles, an HISD vendor.

Miles did not return three calls from Texas Watchdog requesting comment.

District officials then almost gave Wells a $640,000 no-bid consulting contract with a vague description of the services he would render, despite repeated requests from HISD administrators that someone provide one. Due in part to questions raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put the negotiations with Wells on hold.

In another civil suit, attorneys representing whistleblowers and the federal government last year alleged that HISD tech vendors spent "significant funds" to entertain Marshall, Rodriguez and former HISD trustee Diana Davila in their quest to get business with the district.

Despite their loyalties to Marshall and their conviction that he would never take bribes or kickbacks, some HISD district residents who know Marshall personally were more ambivalent about the proposed Wells contract and Marshall's acceptance of the free trips.

“That would offend me if my son or daughter did that,” Foots said. “He needs to call a meeting and explain how it all went about. He needs to come forward and clear his name.”

Kathleen Ownby said she is glad district officials handled the Wells incident the way they did.

“They all need to provide checks and balances,” said the executive director of Houston’s SPARK school-park program, which helps public schools develop their playgrounds into community parks, according to its website.

“If (Marshall) brought a contract that was not ethical or meaningful for the district, then they shouldn’t have gone for it,” said Ownby, who has known Marshall for about 25 years due to her volunteer work with Westbury High. “I just think that public officials have to be very careful.”

Ownby emphasized that she believed Marshall would not have done anything willingly that he thought was unethical.

Galloway, who has known Marshall for about 40 years, said she did not have an opinion on the civil lawsuit accusing Marshall of accepting bribes.

“It’s hard for me to say either way,” said Galloway, who says she is “70-plus” years old, and retired from the school board after finishing her third term in December. “I don’t know what to place as hearsay. I’m going to wait for the outcome.”

Of Marshall’s two visits to Costa Rica, Galloway said, “I don't know what happened on the trip(s). Maybe he assumed (they) would be beneficial for the district, in saving taxpayers’ dollars.”

Marshall's current term on the school board runs through the end of next year.

Whether he intends to run for re-election next year -- when he will be 80 -- is not clear.

But before the elections of November 2013 arrive, Marshall may have to weather a trial in the Ramirez Group lawsuit.

A trial in the case could occur in February 2013, according to the plantiff's law firm.

HISD officials announced just before Thanksgiving that Marshall and HISD no longer would be represented by the same lawyer in the suit.

But the district continues to pay for Marshall’s legal fees, said Jason Spencer, an HISD spokesman, in an e-mail to Texas Watchdog on Tuesday.

“HISD’s standard practice is to provide legal counsel for Board of Education members to defend themselves from litigation that arises from the performance of their official duties,” Spencer said. “The primary allegations made in the Gil Ramirez Group lawsuit against Trustee Marshall meet that standard.”

When Texas Watchdog asked how much the district is spending on Marshall's legal defense, Spencer said the news site would have to would have to submit a public records request for that information. That request is pending.

The point man in HISD's legal representation in the case is former Houston city attorney Arturo Michel, who now works for Thompson and Horton, the firm that has served as the HISD board's legal counsel for two decades. Marshall said in November that he chose to be represented by Jarvis Hollingsworth, a lawyer with the Houston office of the firm Bracewell & Giuliani, because the two have known each other for decades.

Joel Androphy, a Houston lawyer and legal analyst for Houston TV news channel ABC 13, said the situation HISD officials find themselves in is a complicated one.

On one hand, the district should not be representing Marshall if he has been accused of doing something inappropriate that was not approved by the school board.

On the other, “there’s a presumption of innocence,” Androphy said. “If you want someone to serve (on the school board), then you have to offer certain protections,” such as paying for Marshall’s legal representation in a civil lawsuit tied to his service on the school board.

But if Marshall took actions that went beyond the scope of his authority as a school board member, “the board’s lawyers should not be representing him. Otherwise, there are going to be a lot of irate people on the school board, and others in the district, who are paying his legal
fees.”

Bottom line, Androphy said, is Marshall “needs his own personal, civil lawyer with criminal experience. He simply doesn’t have the normal attorney-client (confidential) privilege that generally would exist. The board lawyers, in representing both the school and the board
member would have an obligation to report Marshall's communications.”

***
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 Larry Marshall at an HISD meeting by Texas Watchdog. Group photo from 2010 Costa Rican trip from Borris Miles' Facebook page.

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Comments
gone and forgotten
Thursday, 03/08/2012 - 04:06PM

it is and insult to refer to larry marshall as a living legend. just follow the money. marshall will end up at the same cell with r. allen standford.

ivy
Tuesday, 03/27/2012 - 01:29PM

Mr. Marshall may have made a mistake and now he may have to pay for it. Some years ago I voted for him and believed he would always have the students of HISD and Madison High School (students) as a priorty. But I now believe otherwise. When a pricipal curses and disrespects the staff , talks to parents as though they were small kids and possibly allow Taks cheating, I am disappointed in him. I wish no ill will on him and he does not need to seek reelection .

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