Legal bills mount for taxpayers in contractor's suit against Houston ISD Trustee Larry Marshall

Tuesday, May 08, 2012, 10:00AM CST
By Mike Cronin
bills

A civil lawsuit accusing Trustee Larry Marshall of bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering filed a year-and-a-half ago has cost taxpayers of the Houston Independent School District at least $242,000 in legal fees.

HISD officials provided that dollar amount to Texas Watchdog late Friday afternoon.

Texas Watchdog had been asking since August for the public records that show how much taxpayer money the district has paid lawyers for Marshall and HISD to fight the allegations.

The Gil Ramirez Group LLC, a contractor for Houston’s public schools, sued Marshall and HISD in December 2010 for improper actions they say Marshall took during his 2009 term as school board president. Marshall has repeatedly called the suit baseless.

At nearly a quarter-million dollars, the legal bills so far could pay the salaries of five teachers, then some, at the starting rung of HISD’s pay scale, or about $45,000.

HISD is the nation’s seventh-largest school district, with about a $1.6 billion annual budget and roughly 203,000 students.

HISD officials could not provide the law firms’ bills for months because, they said, no records existed that matched the way Texas Watchdog requested the information. Texas Watchdog asked for those bills five different ways from August through March.

District officials confirmed in March that Texas Watchdog’s wording in the public records request matched existing documents. They could not explain why HISD did not release the documents to Texas Watchdog until Friday -- nine days after Texas Watchdog filed a complaint with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott arguing that HISD was in violation of the Texas Public Information Act. Texas Watchdog withdrew the complaint after receiving the information.

A government agency must “make a good faith effort to relate a request to information that it holds,” the attorney general’s office advises in a handbook on the public records law.

Pamela Kaiser, HISD’s public information officer, declined to comment for this story.

In court papers filed during the past 17 months, Gil Ramirez Jr. and his Houston-based lawyer, Chad Dunn, have accused Marshall of accepting money under the table from major HISD vendors.

Some of that money was funneled from the consulting firm of Marshall’s campaign treasurer to Marshall's own consulting firm, Ramirez and Dunn claim.

Ramirez and Dunn said in court documents filed in October that a $25,000 check Marshall received from David “Pete” Medford, who runs Fort Bend Mechanical, in 2009 was a bribe.

Marshall did not report the donation as a contribution in his campaign finance forms, which is illegal. At least $45,500 in checks from Medford to Marshall exist, according to court documents.

Michael McGann, a Houston lawyer who is representing Fort Bend Mechanical, has said any assertion that Medford bribed Marshall is “absolutely not true.”

Fort Bend Mechanical Ltd., an HVAC service and installation company that competes with The Gil Ramirez Group for HISD work, has done millions of dollars of business with the school district.

Larry MarshallLarry Marshall

Marshall's current term on the school board runs through the end of next year. He has not said whether he plans to run for re-election. Marshall is HISD’s longest-serving trustee. He has sat on the board since 1997 and would be 80 on Election Day, 2013. A trial for this suit – which HISD lawyers have requested – could begin by February, Dunn has said.

Until November, Thompson & Horton LLC, the firm that has served as the HISD board's legal counsel for two decades, had represented Marshall and HISD.

But Marshall then chose to be represented by Jarvis Hollingsworth, a lawyer with the Houston office of the firm Bracewell & Giuliani. Marshall said he made the decision to switch because the two have known each other for decades.



Bracewell & Giuliani have billed HISD at least $139,542.62, according to public records provided by HISD to Texas Watchdog under the Texas Public Information Act. The tab includes a charge of $80.09 for meals on Feb. 22 at the Post Oak Grill, where patrons can enjoy a center cut beef medallion with cognac truffle sauce or seared red spice Asian tuna.

District officials supplied the bills from the months of December 2011 through March 2012, inclusive.

Five Bracewell & Giuliani lawyers HISD paid to defend Marshall in the case charged the district a rate of $350 per hour. One lawyer charged $235 an hour. And one paralegal’s time is billed at $260 an hour.

Former Houston city attorney Arturo Michel, now of Thompson & Horton, is leading HISD’s defense in the case.

Thompson & Horton has billed HISD at least $102,791.45, according to public records. District officials supplied the bills from the months of February 2011 through April 2012, inclusive.

Michel charges HISD $175 an hour for his services, according to those bills. Another Thompson & Horton lawyer who has worked on the case, John Hopkins, has charged as high as $225 per hour.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt is scheduled to rule no later than today whether Marshall will have to appear for a deposition on May 29.

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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 bills by flickr user pinprick, used via a Creative Commons license.

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