See No Evil

Under director Jimmie Schindewolf, the city's public works department has averted its eyes from shoddy work, mismanagement -- and corruption.

On July 7, 1995, Gator Recycles International deposited $824 in the Rockets season-ticket account of Paul Gilmore, a senior inspector with the city's Public Works and Engineering Department. The transaction likely would have raised more than a few eyebrows, if any of Gilmore's superiors had known about it: Gator produced an asphalt additive used by the city in paving jobs, and Gilmore was largely responsible for determining if the material was worth buying.

A year later, contractor Anthony Karam bought a boat trailer hitch from Trailer Wheel and Frame Co. on his credit card. The $260 hitch didn't end up on any of Karam's vehicles, however -- it was tailored for Paul Gilmore's 1986 Ford Aerostar van. Karam had worked on projects supervised by Gilmore.

According to court records and an internal public works security report, the dealings remained secret until January 1997, when Karam complained about a $3,800 bribe he claimed Gilmore solicited to buy Gilmore's daughter a car.

"He was trying to squeeze me," Karam recalls. "I got pissed off."
The contractor told a public works investigator about the trailer hitch, which he now describes as a loan, not a gift. "He said he'll pay me back," says Karam. "He never paid me back."

The matter was turned over to the Houston Police Department's Public Integrity Review Group (PIRG), which verified the hitch purchase and uncovered Gator Recycles' gift of Rockets tickets to Gilmore. In May, the police confronted Gilmore with the evidence. Within two months, the inspector had resigned from his job and pleaded guilty to one count of accepting an illegal gift, for the Rockets tickets. He received deferred adjudication, meaning his record will be clean at the end of a two-year probation period.

Prior to his departure, Gilmore had worked on a number of projects in the public works department's Street and Bridge Division, and at one time oversaw the multimillion-dollar overlay program that has been responsible for tons of fresh asphalt laid on Houston streets under Mayor Bob Lanier. Though hard evidence was lacking until Karam came forward, at least some of Gilmore's colleagues had long suspected him of improprieties. "He was a time bomb waiting to explode," says a city engineer.

Gilmore admits he took the two gifts but says the givers got nothing in return. And he denies that he accepted or solicited any other gratuities, including the $3,800 car payment alleged by Karam, though he can't say the same for his former colleagues. "I ain't the only person that took presents from contractors," Gilmore claims.

Karam and others agree, though no one is willing to name names. "Everybody in the city takes [gifts], to be honest with you, from the top to the bottom," Karam says.

Under the circumstances, public works managers might have been expected to review Gilmore's work for indications that his decisions had been influenced by something other than professional judgment. That never happened. "Maybe we should have," acknowledges deputy director Buddy Barnes, though he adds that it's never too late to check.

Maybe indeed. Four letters from testing laboratories obtained by the Press indicate that on several overlay projects, Gilmore was instrumental in keeping the labs from checking asphalt samples at job sites during construction. Those projects later failed post-construction tests, though the city never held the contractors accountable for substandard work. (Gilmore says he doesn't recall ordering the labs not to conduct the field tests.)

Not only did the public works department allow Gilmore to resign and quietly disappear, it never considered sanctions against the firms that illegally gave him gifts. Anthony Karam continues to do business with the city and currently works on two municipal projects. "The city's primary focus was on its employee," explains street and bridge chief John Hatch.

But it isn't like the department to worry too much about the past, what with more than $700 million to spend every year on new pavement, storm sewers and other projects. Close scrutiny of inspections or any other aspect of project design and construction might mean pesky delays or unpleasant confrontations with contractors or consultants over shoddy work. That seems especially low on the priority list of public works director Jimmie Schindewolf, a former paving contractor himself.

As reported earlier, the Press uncovered numerous instances where overlays and other paving projects collapsed within months of completion, at a cost to taxpayers of many millions of dollars. But with the exception of one ongoing lawsuit filed after a developer complained, the city has taken no action against those responsible.

In addition, the Press has uncovered a number of other problems with inspections that raise questions about the public works department's ability to maintain control of its projects:

*In a dozen cases reviewed by the Press, the results of tests performed during and just after construction indicated that the work or materials were substandard. But "final inspections" were later conducted for each project without any mention of any testing irregularities.

*Though testing results are supposed to be widely distributed to public works administrators so that substandard work doesn't escape notice, the project files the city maintains often don't contain the reports. Several higher-ups with responsibility over pavement projects, including John Hatch, say they don't know about any failed tests.

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