Houston schools officials appear to be conducting an internal probe of the district's contracts with a company owned and run by a close friend of former school board President Paula Harris, records show.
Lawyers for the Houston Independent School District submitted documents in February to the Texas attorney general's office that the attorneys described as being included in "the audit working papers for the audit conducted by the [district inspector general] of the contracts involving Westco."
The school district submitted those documents, and others, to the attorney general while seeking the AG's permission to keep them confidential in response to a public records request by Texas Watchdog.
The Houston school system has done more than $1 million in business with Westco Ventures LLC, a firm headed by Pearland businesswoman Nicole West. Companies West is involved in have also provided a wide array of services to HISD in recent years -- including dry cleaning drapery, sending out private investigators to track down truants and tutoring fifth-graders in reading.
West and Harris' friendship -- Harris is godmother to West’s children -- was the subject of a story by Texas Watchdog in June.
HISD Inspector General Robert E. Moore did not return a phone call or an e-mail from Texas Watchdog seeking comment.
But current school board President Mike Lunceford, who also chairs the board's audit committee, said he is unaware of any investigation of Harris, West or Westco.
“From time to time Bob Moore’s group does do audits of contracts, but I have not seen anything on Westco Ventures,” Lunceford said.
The letter HISD sent to the attorney general's office “confirms the investigation of that board member,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney and former Travis County judge, who reviewed the text of the letter at Texas Watchdog's request.
Harris was school board president last year. Also last year, she was re-elected to a second four-year term.
HISD lawyers appealed to the state attorney general, arguing that the requested documents are protected from public disclosure because those records are working papers for an audit, which are generally exempt from state open government laws before the audit is complete.
Texas Watchdog withdrew its initial records request for the documents and has submitted a reworded request to the school district. That request is pending.
Questions raised by Texas Watchdog and the Houston Chronicle have prompted the school district to launch two internal reviews of its procurement processes.
The Washington-based nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools conducted an audit of HISD’s procurement practices during the fall and published a report in October.
Authors of that report concluded that the ways HISD does business “lead to a perception of manipulation of and distrust in the procurement process;” price often didn’t count enough in district purchasing of materials and services; and that “the majority of the district‘s purchasing... is awarded based on a number of weighted factors that are not always transparent or consistently applied.”
The report’s authors wrote that “the team requested, but did not receive, copies of internal audits of Procurement Services operations from the Office of the Inspector General.”
Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm the school board hired in October for $87,500, has completed an audit of HISD’s procurement procedures.
District officials plan to release that audit report this morning during today’s school-board workshop meeting.
Contact Mike Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
Photo by flickr user mtjmail (tiggy), used under a Creative Commons license.
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