in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD Trustee Paula Harris votes to rebid painting contract awarded to friend’s company
Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012, 05:09PM CST
By Mike Cronin
paint

For months, Houston schools Trustee Paula Harris kept her promise.

Last year’s school-board president did not vote on any potential contracts concerning Westco LLC, a company owned by her good friend, Nicole West, since August -- when she said she would abstain from West-owned company votes in a Houston Chronicle interview.

"I'm not voting on any more of her contracts," Harris told the newspaper. "And although it's not against the law for me to do so, it gives y'all so much to write about when I do. So, it's to save some ink."

Her decision came after a fusillade of questions from Texas Watchdog and other news organizations about possible misconduct surrounding her actions with respect to potential contracts between Westco and the Houston Independent School District.

But during Thursday’s regular monthly board meeting, Harris cast her vote with the majority in an 8-1 decision that approved the re-bid of a painting contract worth up to $600,000 with Westco and other companies.

Westco has been paid at least $3.8 million by HISD in the last two years, according to the district’s check register.

Local governance and school district governance experts nationally and in Texas have told Texas Watchdog that they would advise board members against voting on contracts involving companies run by friends. It gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, they said.

Others said board members abstaining from votes on contract awards with vendors who are personal friends also enables the vendors to confirm that they obtained HISD business fair and square -- not simply because a personal relationship exists.

Paula HarrisPaula Harris

Texas law and HISD’s current board ethics policy do not bar votes by board members on contracts involving friends.

Harris did not return a phone call or two e-mails requesting comment. An HISD staff member told Texas Watchdog by phone this morning that Harris wanted to review any questions on the matter before replying. Except for two in-person interviews, Harris has not responded to any Texas Watchdog queries since Aug. 4.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett told trustees during the meeting that she and district Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla decided to recommend the contracts be rebid to achieve more transparency in the contract awarding process.



“That way we could address inconsistencies found in the Null-Lairson audit report,” Garrett said, referring to one of two audits of HISD’s procurement procedures completed during the past six months.

Both audits concluded that transparency problems existed in the district’s contract awarding process. Documents went missing from the Westco painting contract file during the audit.



Texas Watchdog reported that Harris intervened with district staff on behalf of her friend, Nicole West, after Westco did not receive a contract.



Trustee Anna Eastman requested a formal examination audit in August due, in part, to heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

A new recommendation on who to hire to do the $600,000 worth of painting would come before the school board no sooner than July, according to district officials.

***
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 paint cans by flickr user Sunfrog1, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
marc
Thursday, 04/26/2012 - 10:12PM

Paula at her finest moment!?! Ethics....what a joke with this board that is "thick as thieves" when it comes to contracts and votes. So even if she wouldn't have voted "yes" her buddies made sure the motion passed as I am sure she would reutrn the favor when the time comes to vote on contracts for their friends and family. And these are the same people who continually change policies to hold teachers and other staff members accountalbe for their actions! Hypocrits, the whole damn lot of them!

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