in Houston, Texas
Ethics bill would require disclosure of lawmakers’ contracts with state of Texas
Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013, 12:53PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
see-through raincoat

Look out, Linda Harper-Brown. If lawmakers aren’t careful people are going to start calling this the See-Through Legislature.

Blissfully aware of the animus they are supposed to have for one another’s politics, hardline conservative Rep. Giovanni Capriglione and hardline liberal Rep. Mary González are staging a veritable lovefest with a bill that would require all legislators to disclose if they or their family members do business with state or local government.

House Bill 524 would require lawmakers, many of whom are also lawyers, to waive any attorney-client privilege should they choose to represent a company doing business with a state agency, a public university or a water district, the Texas Tribune reports.

The bill comes less than a year after the Ethics Commission fined Harper-Brown, R-Irving, $2,000 for failing to reveal that a brand new Mercedes Benz she had been driving was a barter payment to her husband for accounting work he did for a company with state transportation contracts.

Giovanni CapriglioneGiovanni Capriglione

Harper-Brown sat on the House Transportation Committee at the time a complaint was filed against her with the Ethics Commission.

Capriglione, in his second week on the job, is daring his colleagues to ignore their bill.  “I want to see who doesn’t vote for this,” he tells the Tribune. “It gets to the crux of the distrust between the public and elected officials: Where there’s a lack of transparency, they assume the worst.”

The Southlake Republican has a little familiarity with the topic, having beaten former Rep. Vicki Truitt, another disclosure-challenged representative of the people, in the Republican primary in District 98 this past May.

Giving Capriglione a big rhetorical bearhug, the Democrat from Clint replied, “Transparency and ethics are bipartisan issues.”

Taking this sentiment to heart, state Sen. Wendy Davis on Tuesday filed Senate Bill 178, a companion bill with much the same disclosure language as HB 524.

Davis, D-Fort Worth, was able to research her bill firsthand as a partner of Brian Newby, former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry. Newby Davis promotes on its website expertise representing every manner of government entity including the state’s public schools and a facility for assisting on bond financing.

Accused by her Republican opponent for state Senate, Mark Shelton, of criminal conflicts of interest, Davis this past fall insisted her practice did not interfere with her role as a representative. She declined, however, to identify her clients, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to do so would violate attorney-client privilege.

At the time she was denying any conflict of interest, Davis decided to remain mum on Shelton’s contention that Newby Davis was being paid handsomely to represent the North Texas Tollway Authority at the same time Davis was voting to support SB469 assisting the authority in collecting unpaid tolls.

Davis told Texas Tribune yesterday afternoon she would be amending SB 178 just in case it wasn’t clear enough to everyone the disclosure requirement would include her.

Capitol visitors this session, don’t worry. Should the emperors speaking on the floor of the House or Senate be wearing no clothes, assume they have filed another transparency bill.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of clear raincoat via Allyn.com, the site documenting the work of artist Mark Allyn. Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user Frank Swift, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston teachers’ union president Gayle Fallon fined $5,000 by Texas Ethics Commission; Fallon: Cheaper to pay fine than lawyer
Tuesday, Oct 02, 2012, 03:29PM CST
By Curt Olson
Gayle Fallon

The Texas Ethics Commission has fined Houston teachers’ union leader Gayle Fallon $5,000 for campaign finance reporting violations, including almost $40,000 in credit card expenses that were not properly detailed.

The 10-page ruling focused on allegations regarding campaign finance reports submitted from 2009 to 2011 by the Houston Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education (COPE). Fallon is president of the union and serves as committee treasurer.

The most significant allegations, that Fallon failed to pinpoint tens of thousands of dollars in expenses paid by credit card, were found by the commission to be true. State law requires reporting of the actual vendor being paid, rather than just the credit card company.

“Regarding the four political expenditures to American Express totaling approximately $38,590, the respondent did not disclose the ultimate vendors who received the payments,” the ruling states.

Fallon failed to properly document two political expenses totaling $840 in 2010, listing a last name and initials rather than a full name as required by law, and submitted three reports late. The commission dismissed the other allegations or found them to be more minor, technical errors.

Fallon said the complaint that prompted the ruling was politically motivated and emphasized that the commission rejected most of the allegations.

“It was cheaper to pay the fine than to pay the lawyer to fight the fine,” Fallon said.

Fallon also received ethics attention in 2011 when Texas Watchdog reported on $477,687 in payments from the union to her son, lawyer James Fallon III, for “legal counsel to members.”

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of Gayle Fallon from Gov. Rick Perry's website.

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San Antonio ponders bolstering disclosure requirements, city official recommended contractor with ties to new employer
Monday, Oct 01, 2012, 03:11PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
riverwalk

Let’s see if we have this right.

The deputy city manager of San Antonio admits to doing something wrong that isn’t something wrong because it isn’t in the ethics code the mayor of San Antonio would like to change to make it wrong.

So as to make it right.

As is the case with much political logic, an explanation is necessary. Mayor Julián Castro is asking City Manager Sheryl Sculley and the City Council to support changes he would like to make in the city’s ethics code, the San Antonio Express-News reports.

Castro told the newspaper the changes are needed to “enhance trust and confidence” in city government. And by that he means acknowledging in a generalized but codified way what most San Antonians concluded from the start:

Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni made a big boo boo.

DiGiovanni was a member of a city selection committee that recommended a $300 million downtown convention center contract  - the largest in San Antonio history - be given to Zachry Corp. of San Antonio and Hunt Construction Group of Phoenix, Ariz.

The City Council unanimously approved the recommendation.

At the same time he was mulling the attributes of Zachry Corp., DiGiovanni was in talks to become the chief executive officer for the non-profit Centro Partnership devoted, not quite so coincidentally, to the development of downtown San Antonio.

Among the people taking part in those talks and who, eventually, signed off on hiring DiGiovanni was David Zachry, a member of Centro’s executive committee and, not quite so coincidentally, the chief executive officer of Zachry Corp.

In a letter obtained by the Express News, DiGiovanni said he believed he violated nothing in the city’s ethics code. Zachry and Centro, he contended, are separate entities. Still, he said, “I made a mistake here, and I deeply regret that mistake. And I'll have to live with it for the rest of my career.”

The city’s Ethics Review Board has yet to rule on whether or not DiGiovanni’s negotiations posed a conflict of interest.

Castro isn’t waiting for a decision. He wants the public to know who sits on city committees and wants committee members to disclose their affiliations. Companies that want to do business with the city would have to disclose the names of partners, board directors and officers.
Castro also wants a city official designated to research conflicts of interest.

The most experienced city official will not be available to take the position, as he is leaving to join Centro Partnership.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of San Antonio's Riverwalk by flickr user Princess Stand in the Rain, used via a Creative Commons license.

Little distinction between criminal acts and lesser violations in League City’s ethics law, review finds
Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012, 10:39AM CST
By Steve Miller
ethics

The ethics ordinance in League City is flawed, according to a review by a national ethics researcher, who found that the law confused ethics violations with criminal acts.

The “means that enforcement is in the hands not of the ethics program, but of a criminal enforcement agency, which may very well be led by colleagues or allies of city officials,” writes Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics, a group that assesses and assists local government ethics programs. “In addition, this means that there is little distinction between a crime such as bribery and an ethics violation such as accepting a gift from someone doing business with the city.”

 

Wechsler also faulted the process for appointing people to the ethics review board (ERB), where appointees are selected by city council members.

 

“If the ERB dismisses a matter against a council member, it will appear that its members were voting in the interests of their appointing authorities rather than in the public interest,” Wechsler wrote.

 

Both the ethics compliance officer and the city attorney are allowed to provide ethics advice, Wechsler found, “allowing forum shopping among officials who feel the city attorney might let them do something the (compliance officer) would not.”

 

On a more positive note, Wechsler pointed out that the council’s recent ban on electronic communication between council members during public meetings was a step in the right direction and that anything other than such a prohibition goes against the state’s open meetings act.

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Ethics sign via Texas A&M University.

Shortage of consulting groups with government ethics expertise?
Wednesday, Sep 05, 2012, 04:21PM CST
By Steve Miller
dallas city seal

The Dallas City Council last month awarded a contract for ethics training to Navigant Consulting, a publicly-traded firm that “on its website, does not state any expertise in government ethics or training,” according to a post by the folks at City Ethics. Navigant “does, however, have an expertise in consulting to governments on a variety of issues.”

City Ethics acknowledges that it was a partner with the Josephson Institute of Ethics, one of the losing bidders. That’s not the point of the story, though. Instead, it concerns the dearth of qualified bodies with government ethics training.

“The report on the bidding on this project shows how empty the field of government ethics is of experienced consultants,” writes Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics. “As far as I can tell, only two of the bidders had any expertise in government ethics training:  the Josephson Institute (with a character-oriented approach) and the ICMA (with an administrative ethics focus). The other bidders are either management consultants, corporate ethics and compliance trainers, or corporate trainers without an ethics or compliance specialty.”

It’s not sour grapes, or it doesn’t appear to be. It’s just a commentary on the state of ethics training at the municipal level. City Ethics earlier this year released a comprehensive book on ethics in various cities and how policies vary.

As we are talking about Dallas and its ethics contract recipient: Chicago-based Navigant is a mega-corporation with offices in Dallas, Houston and Austin and also touts that it runs some private investigator work. Actually, Navigant runs a large private investigator business, with its state license registered to the Houston office. The site lists a Scott Van Meter as manager of its Texas PI operation; he goes by Kenneth Van Meter on the state’s PI licensing database. He’s also an attorney and represented a couple of plaintiff municipal utility districts in debt and tax cases in Harris County in the ‘90s.

Among those listed on Navigant’s corporate PI license are Monica Weed, who is general counsel and vice president of Navigant, according to Reuters’ business publishing arm. Her most recent compensation package is listed at $730,762, according to Reuters, which describes Navigant as “an independent specialty consulting firm. Professional services include dispute, investigative, economic, operational, risk management technology, financial and regulatory advisory solutions.”

Its board of directors alumni includes Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who stepped down in 2009. Navigant is also the recipient of over $32 million in stimulus funds, according to Recovery.gov.

The $434,000 training program is a curious one, though. It excludes the one group that controls the money in the city: The City Council.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of city of Dallas seal by flickr user nffcnnr, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston ISD board president says he will ask for approval to hire ethics consultant next week
Thursday, May 03, 2012, 05:05PM CST
By Mike Cronin
Mike LuncefordMike Lunceford

Houston school board President Mike Lunceford told Texas Watchdog Wednesday night in an e-mail that he plans to ask his fellow trustees to vote next week on the hiring of a consultant to help rewrite new district ethics policies.

Lunceford initially hoped to present that plan to the Houston Independent School District board at a meeting Thursday morning. But Lunceford is out of the country until Monday night.

MGT of America, a firm headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., would earn between $25,000 to $35,000 to do that work. MGT also assisted on the recently completed $87,500 audit of HISD’s procurement procedures.

Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm, conducted the audit during a four-month period.

Auditors concluded that HISD should adopt a series of reforms. Those include disclosure when trustees receive gifts of travel or have financial ties to vendors and a more transparent process of how district officials choose the companies they recommend to the board for contracts.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Could Houston ISD trustees' ethics rules go from maligned to model?
Wednesday, May 02, 2012, 02:45PM CST
By Mike Cronin
checkbook

Superintendent Terry Grier and board President Mike Lunceford are in favor of helping the Houston schools create what would be some of the strongest rules nationwide governing the relationships between trustees and campaign donors doing business with the district.

Both men said in March that Houston Independent School District officials would adopt the recommendations made by auditors who completed a four-month examination of the way the district buys goods and services.

Null-Lairson, the Houston accounting firm that conducted that audit, counseled HISD officials to develop policies that specified when and how potential vendors contribute to board-member campaigns, and when and how trustees vote on potential contracts with those vendors.

As it weighs that guidance, Houston’s school board has an opportunity to become a national model for trustee-vendor behavior. Trustees could plot a course away from the ethics controversies that have beset the district for more than a year: accusations of bribery, contract steering and conflicts of interest.

By approving the Null-Lairson proposals, HISD would exceed the standards set by Texas state law – and join the Los Angeles Unified School District as among the country’s few large school districts that identify:

  • Caps on vendors' campaign donations.
  • Timeframes for those donations.
  • When trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have contributed to their campaigns.
  • Penalties for trustees and vendors who violate regulations.

The full board would have to approve any new policies, however. And several trustees said they wanted to explore potential paths before taking action.

Mike LuncefordMike Lunceford

“I have no problem with Null-Lairson’s recommendations. I support them,” Lunceford said. He said he would ask his fellow trustees on Thursday to approve hiring MGT of America, headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., to write the new policies, at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000. MGT assisted with the audit.

“I want to see how other public entities deal with these issues, and MGT is supposed to be ‘expert’ in this area,” he said.

But Lunceford emphasized that he is “not determined that we have to have a specific policy.”

Trustee Greg Meyers joined Lunceford in that sentiment but said he’d be willing to discuss caps on campaign contributions with his colleagues.

“I’d like to find out what best practices are,” Meyers said. “I want to ensure we have policies that are transparent and reasonable.”

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she respected Los Angeles schools’ ethics policies and added that she and her fellow HISD trustees “need to reform the current campaign contribution system.”

Those reforms should include “blackout periods after elections so that board members no longer receive contributions in perpetuity and limits on individual contributions,” Stipeche said.

Grier has said his staff would implement the auditors’ recommendations. Whatever the board’s ultimate stance, Grier said he is not concerned.

“I do not worry or speculate about whether our board will pass a particular policy,” Grier told Texas Watchdog in an e-mail last week. “Policy adoption is a board decision. If the board passes a policy, our administration makes sure it is followed.”

Trustees are already barred from voting on contracts for certain campaign donors doing business with the district through E-Rate, a federal program that offers U.S. schools and libraries telecommunications and Internet access at a discount.

“Board members shall not knowingly accept campaign contributions from E-Rate vendors/service providers, including related officers and/or key employees,” HISD’s E-Rate policy states. Trustees cannot vote on contracts for three years with any E-Rate vendor who has, in a year’s time, given more than $500 to the trustee’s campaign fund or done more than $2,000 in business with the trustee.

HISD officials adopted that policy in 2010 after the Federal Communications Commission accused district employees in 2006 of accepting gifts from E-Rate vendors.

Choosing a less stringent path than Los Angeles would put HISD in the same company as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Clark County (Las Vegas) School District and Dallas Independent School District, America’s fourth-, fifth- and 14th-largest school districts, respectively.

That also would align HISD with school districts throughout Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas. Public-schools officials in Mesa, Ariz.; Miami; Las Vegas; and Dallas told Texas Watchdog that they do not have district-level guidelines that outline when board trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have donated to their campaigns.

HISD trustees bolstered their financial ethics policies in January. They prohibited campaign donations from any vendor bidding on a contract from 30 days prior to the solicitation for services through the contract’s execution.

The same policy also bans communication between vendors and trustees during that time period.

Trustees must also disclose relationships with potential vendors, and abstain from voting on contracts involving them, when they or immediate family members have a financial interest at stake, a policy that follows state law.

But the overseers of America’s seventh-largest school district – with an annual $1.6 billion budget and 203,000 students – have sometimes been reluctant to impose tougher guidelines on themselves. They chose in December to postpone indefinitely a vote on a more rigid ethics policy, which was aimed at curbing improper trustee influence on contracts but did not directly address the question of trustees voting on contracts with their contributors.

Board members in Los Angeles may not receive or solicit campaign contributions of more than $250 from vendors involved in a potential contract with the district from the start of a competitive-bidding process to three months after its conclusion.

The country’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles currently enrolls about 664,000 students and has a roughly $6.5 billion annual budget.

Los Angeles district trustees must recuse themselves from the process and abstain from the vote if they have received donations totaling more than $250 from an interested vendor during the year prior.

Judy NadlerJudy Nadler

Those are the kinds of ethical guidelines that please Judy Nadler, senior fellow for government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.

“It is generally problematic for school-board members to be in any kind of relationship with vendors,” said Nadler, who also is a former Santa Clara mayor. “There are inherent conflicts.”

Even dollar and time thresholds, such as those set by the Los Angeles school district, don’t matter “because the public perception is that the trustee voted on a contract because he or she knew someone who contributed to his or her campaign or had some other type of relationship (with the vendor).”

Like Dallas public schools, HISD adheres to Texas law, which does not place caps on donations and is silent on trustees voting on contracts for vendors who contribute to campaigns.

That troubles but doesn’t surprise Nadler.

“My experience, over and over, is that school districts, in particular, are not as well scrutinized as city council members,” she said. “So it’s dangerous territory when trustees engage in these kinds of (vendor) relationships.”

Some trustees may not support any new policies regarding HISD contracts, vendors and trustee behavior. Vendors funded nearly half of incumbent trustees’ campaigns over a three-year period, Texas Watchdog found last fall.

Larry Marshall, who is the longest-serving board member with 14 years, has stated many times during public meetings since the fall that existing policies governing relationships among board members and vendors are strong enough.

He successfully led the charge to put an ethics proposal for trustees on hold in December, with the support of five other board members. The proposal had already been watered down at the urging of Marshall and Trustee Paula Harris.

Marshall did not return two calls requesting comment for this story.

Marshall also has pointed out repeatedly during public meetings that HISD trustees shouldn’t have to terminate their friendships with vendors and that ethical problems do not exist for the HISD board – at least during his tenure as a trustee.

This despite Marshall being a defendant in an ongoing civil lawsuit filed in December 2010 that accuses him of taking bribes to award a contract to one company rather than another. Marshall has said the suit is baseless.

Last year Marshall set the stage for a local doctor, Kenneth Wells, to land a no-bid consulting deal with HISD for $640,000. Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put contract negotiations on hold.

The Null-Lairson audit itself came about due, in part, to heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

Often school-board members don’t see their relationships with vendors as wrong, “which is worse,” Nadler said.

“If you don’t see losing your independence and perspective as bad, then what do you see as bad?”

***
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 checkbook by flickr user RikkisRefugeOther, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Houston ISD seeks outside help in rewriting ethics policies
Thursday, Apr 19, 2012, 05:30PM CST
By Mike Cronin
HISD

Houston schools officials are working with an accounting firm to rewrite district ethics policies, Robert Moore, the Houston Independent School District inspector general, told a board committee today.

HISD board President Mike Lunceford said policy changes will occur “anywhere ethics is concerned” due to findings by the firm in a recently completed audit of the way the district buys goods and services.

That leaves open the possibility of reforming the ethics policies that apply to trustees, though the board has not shown the political will to do so. Trustee Larry Marshall -- whose own ethics are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit -- successfully persuaded his colleagues to indefinitely table a stronger board ethics policy in December.

Auditors from Null-Lairson, the Houston accounting firm that conducted the $87,500 review, concluded last month that HISD procurement processes lack transparency.

Null-Lairson’s recommendations included:

  • Simplifying HISD trustees’ conflict-of-interest policies.
  • Routinely disclosing trustees’ involvement as board members of other organizations.
  • Seeking an independent opinion whether a purchase is in the district’s best interest for contracts where a possible trustee conflict of interest exists.

The auditors’ work on HISD ethics policies will cost an additional $25,000 to $35,000, which the school board must approve, Lunceford said.

Moore also told Trustee Juliet Stipeche that the investigation she requested into documents that went missing during the audit would be completed soon.

“We expect to make a final determination within a week,” Moore said.

HISD administrators proposed a draft budget during a board meeting earlier this morning to address a projected $43.6 million deficit in the next school year.

That budget proposal would not raise property taxes, according to an HISD press release.

It also includes raises for all district teachers for the first time since the 2009-10 academic year, Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, said.

The proposed raises are scheduled to be presented to the board in detail in May.

Trustee Harvin Moore told Texas Watchdog that the deficit rose to $43.6 million from last month’s $34.7 million figure primarily due to the proposed teacher salary increase.

“We talked about that last time, but we didn’t have a number there yet,” Moore said.

HISD officials also withdrew a proposal to change school start times that would have saved about $1.2 million after receiving opposition from elementary school administrators and parents, according to the press release.

School board members are scheduled to adopt a final budget at their regular monthly meeting in June.

***
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 the Houston school district's Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center by Davidramirez, used via a Creative Commons license.

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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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Leander mayor scrutinized over zoning vote, use of city property
Friday, Apr 06, 2012, 05:03PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas Rangers

The city of Leander is running out of enforcement agencies to investigate its mayor, John Cowman.

Add the city’s Ethics Commission, after the City Council voted 5-2 to take to the commission allegations that Cowman directed City Manager Kent Cagle to tell two council members how to vote on a zoning issue and that he misused city property, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting.

You may not be surprised to learn that one of the two votes against this latest investigation was cast by Cowman.

The Texas Rangers have since last summer been investigating allegations that Cowman misused government funds and property, according to the Statesman.

A week ago Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said he had been provided with enough evidence to launch a criminal investigation of Cowman. He has since asked the Texas Attorney General’s office to take up the investigation to eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest.

Because no one is talking specifics, it is difficult to tell if all of these various investigations are intertwined.

It is clear, however, the city is asking the city Ethics Commission to determine whether Cowman violated the city charter by sending a memo to Cagle that went so far as to choose the council members he wanted to make and second the motion to approve the zoning measure.

At least one of those council members, Andrea Navarette, expressed her displeasure at the thought of being told what to do by the mayor.

Cowman has a peculiar way of burnishing his political reputation. In 2010 he walked away from a spot on the board of Capital Metro after it became public the transit authority serving Austin and nine other municipalities including Leander was reimbursing him for mileage to meetings rolled up in city vehicles.

Is it any wonder that council member Chris Fielder, who announced his intention to run for mayor against Cowman, would grab Cowman’s throat (Fielder insists it was Cowman’s collar) during a city retreat?

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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