By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
At a packed public meeting early this year, Abel Davila's relatives walked down an aisle and squashed into a momentary traffic jam. Holding his baby son, Davila told them to turn sideways so all 12 could squeeze in near a microphone in front. They assembled around his father, Arturo Davila, parent of ten, who raised his right hand and began swearing in his son to a second term as trustee of the Houston Community College System. As the younger Davila repeated the final words in Spanish -- con la ayuda de Dios -- they broke into hearty applause.
"It's an honor and a privilege to serve on the Houston Community College board," Davila later told the crowd, "but I would like to start off by thanking my family. Please stand again."
Jim Murphy, the next trustee up to speak, was impressed by the protracted exhibition of family values. "Abel, can I borrow some of your family members here?" he said. "It looks like you have some spares."
Indeed, nothing punctuates a political moment like a family's praise for an anointed son. With his well-coiffed hair, sharp business suits and baby-faced charm, the 32-year-old pharmacist has earned the acclaim due a prodigy. Davila won his first seat on the HCCS board in 1998 and is said to be the youngest Hispanic male in Houston elected to office.
But if family members are to thank for his early success, Davila has been only too willing to return the favor.
Davila is accused of applying pressure to find HCCS jobs -- or promotions -- for various relatives and friends, despite stated policies against nepotism. College scholarship funds have been used for airfare and financial aid to members of his extended family. And another trustee exerted influence to gain a tuition waiver for his child.
Instead of heeding complaints about the problems, the paterfamilias of HCCS, Chancellor Bruce Leslie, apparently has sanctioned a climate in which would-be whistle-blowers either stay quiet or live in fear of retribution.
In the fall of 2002, Diana Castillo, then a college operations officer in charge of many hiring decisions, was walking out of a press conference at the Southeast campus when trustee Davila cornered her. Out of earshot of the collegiate masses, she says, he told her to find a full-time job for Isabel Aguilar.
Castillo was shocked. Trustees are supposed to set HCCS policy and deal with the chancellor, rather than interfering with staff-level hiring decisions.
But even worse, the woman Davila was touting for employment was his own sister-in-law.
"That was the first time things didn't feel right with him," she recalls.
In most cases, hiring the relative of a trustee directly violates HCCS nepotism policy, a policy Davila apparently broke when a brother-in-law was hired after Davila's first election.
But Castillo wasn't a scold or a whistle-blower. She merely tried to explain to Davila that she couldn't bring on Aguilar even if she wanted to, because her campus was in a hiring freeze.
She says Davila didn't care.
"If you aren't going to get Isabel a full-time job," she says he told her, "then I don't need this kind of Hispanic on campus."
After joining the HCCS board, Davila rose to a position of power, in part by stressing his personal ties to the Hispanic community and the college. Born to low-income Mexican immigrants, he earned a degree from Texas Southern University's pharmacy school after graduating from HCCS in the mid-1990s.
By the time he left HCCS as a student, the 34-year-old college system had already begun evolving from its early image as the runt of the educational litter, with most courses still offered at night in leased high school classrooms. Expansion in more recent years has transformed it into a $200 million operation with 55,000 students -- the second-largest singly accredited community college in the nation.
HCCS continues to grow rapidly. The trustees passed an 18 percent tax hike in 2000. They convinced voters last fall to approve a $151 million bond measure aimed at doubling enrollment by 2015. And they're currently promoting a plan to expand further by annexing four suburban school districts.
This history of brisk, institutional growth is the visible face of the board, but some trustees also have worked privately to increase their personal influence within HCCS, in part by threatening and intimidating high-ranking administrators.
Sylvia Ramos says she discovered that atmosphere of abuse after becoming founding president of the Southeast College, which opened in Houston's East End in 1991. An employee at HCCS since 1973, Ramos led the college for 12 years. She says she was forcefully pressured by board members to hire people they deemed appropriate.
"Those things happen, and it's not just Abel Davila doing it," says Ramos, who confirms Castillo's accounts of intimidation. "I've experienced it also. I have been threatened. I was threatened, and it was more than just one board member."
In the summer of 1999, the trustees ordered former chancellor Ruth Burgos-Sasscer to reinstate two terminated information technology employees -- one of them Castillo's son -- whom the chancellor had fired for allegedly deleting computer files. Burgos-Sasscer submitted a letter of resignation in protest, and ultimately quit in October 2000.