Some procurement docs still missing, no ‘malicious intent,’ Houston schools IG finds

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Better late than never.

The inspector general of Houston’s public schools finally completed a long-awaited investigation on procurement documents that went missing during a winter audit.

Three months after Robert Moore said it would be done, the report found that Houston Independent School District officials could improve their methods of tracking, filing, archiving and accessing public records.

“This is just sloppy record-keeping in HISD,” said Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who called for the investigation in March. Stipeche, a Houston lawyer, chairs the school board’s audit committee.

“We need tremendous improvement in appropriately tracking and establishing the chain of custody for our documents,” Stipeche said. “There’s no system in place that shows when documents are checked out.”

Auditors from Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm that became Whitley Penn in May, told HISD board members about the missing documents during a March presentation.

Null-Lairson; MGT of America, a consulting firm based in Tallahassee, Fla.; and Mariga CPA in Houston conducted an $87,500, four-month audit of the way HISD purchases goods and services and awards contracts.

Moore’s report also found that confidentiality agreements auditors said were missing remain missing.

And, “our examination disclosed no evidence of malicious intent with respect to the matters review,” Moore’s report reads.

Stipeche said she didn’t suspect any.

“What the report yielded is a lot of negligence,” she said. “We board members are responsible for billions of dollars spent on contracts that ultimately should benefit Houston’s school children. We can’t do that with documents walking away.”

Part of the furor over the documents was due to the file from which they went missing: a contract with Westco Ventures LLC, a company owned by a close friend of last year’s board President Paula Harris.

HISD officials chose to rebid the Westco contract and another with Southwest Wholesale Nursery in April after Texas Watchdog and the Null-Lairson audit raised questions about them. Both companies are scheduled to receive new contracts for the same work, according to tonight’s board meeting agenda.

“The project file did not indicate how pricing for the handwritten compilation was scored by the evaluation committee members,” Moore’s report reads. “There were mathematical errors on five of the individual scoring sheets. Please refer to the notes on Exhibit A for an explanation of these errors.”

Upon reviewing Exhibit A, a handwritten grid of companies and scores, Stipeche said, “It is preposterous that HISD staff would consider this an adequate way to award a contract. This is unprofessional beyond measure.”

Moore and his staff told Trustee Manuel Rodriguez that they discovered “it was hit or miss” whether an individual signed for a public document,” Rodriguez said.

“Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t,” said Rodriguez, who sits on the HISD board audit committee. “Sometimes they took the whole file (of documents), sometimes only part.”

Consistency will be among the remedies for the problem, Rodriguez said.

“From now on, people are going to have to sign for the whole file, bring it back and sign out,” he said.

HISD administrators told audit committee members that they will schedule an August workshop for trustees, Rodriguez said. That workshop will address procedures and regulations regarding document custody.

Procurement department officials plan to “create and implement a checklist” for completed project files, wrote Christopher Gross, the district’s procurement chief, in his separate report on the matter.

Board President Mike Lunceford said he had not yet seen the reports and expects to receive them during tonight’s board meeting.

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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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