By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Texas Southern University sophomore Ashley Sloan was talking with friends in the parking lot of a university-owned apartment complex after a late-night party when suddenly a fight that had begun inside the bash erupted onto the streets in a blaze of gunfire. While many of Sloan's friends scrambled to take cover behind a parked car, a bullet tore into Sloan's head, killing her.
It was early December 2004, and amid a raucous outcry of accusations that TSU was not providing adequate security, students Oliver Brown, William Hudson and Justin Jordan took it upon themselves to begin patrolling campus looking for places where the school could beef up its safety measures.
"It was crazy and things were in bad shape," says Hudson. "We had a dead student on campus, there were areas of campus with no or very poor lighting and we had emergency phones that were inoperable. I took a sign off one of the call boxes that said, 'Attention, these emergency phones are non-functioning at the moment. If you have an emergency or need immediate assistance, please call 713-313-7000,' the number for campus safety. Right, so in an emergency you're supposed to call the police from the cell phone you don't have on you."
Hudson, Brown and Jordan were on their nightly patrol when Hudson mentioned an "ol' rusty-ass dump truck" sitting inside a chain-link-fenced parking lot next to the school's General Services Building. An Air Force veteran, Brown had driven dump trucks during his three years of service, so this piqued his interest. They strolled over to the lot and walked into the unlocked section where the truck sat. At 6'3" inches tall, Brown could easily see into the front seat.
"At first," says Brown, "all I saw was this mess of computer paper, so I get excited because one of the issues I'd been fighting on campus was the lack of computer paper. So I was like, 'Why can't we just reuse the back of this used paper so students can print out their bullshit and rough drafts and save the new paper for term papers and things like that?'"
The truck's door was unlocked, so Brown opened it and snagged the reams of dot-matrix paper from inside. The three students hovered over their find and began to read.
"As soon as we pulled it out," says Brown, "we knew we had found something big."
In fact, what they found that night would start them on a three-year investigation of university officials and policies that ultimately led to the criminal prosecution of ousted former TSU President Priscilla Slade this past fall.
Someone had dumped university payroll records inside the truck, complete with names, university ID numbers that consisted of employees' social security numbers, and salaries. The students took the records back to Hudson's apartment and began poring over the documents.
The three students cross-checked the payroll records with a copy of the school's budget they found in the campus library. A number of people listed as being paid did not appear in the budget, including a former library worker who they knew had not been on campus in months, Brown says.
In addition, Hudson, who worked for the university, says that when he went to pick up his paycheck he noticed that the daughter of Senior Vice-President Gayla Thomas was getting a check, despite the fact he did not think she was working for TSU at the time. (VP Thomas denies the allegations, saying her daughter had worked at TSU during the summer but was not receiving paychecks past the first week in September, just as her daughter's employment was ending.)
"We put two and two together and knew something was not right," says Brown. "But at that point, we had no idea how wrong things at the university really were."
For Brown, Hudson and Jordan, finding the payroll records catapulted them into a world of espionage and paranoia, and a war against the highest-ranking officials at the university. The three young men claim that during the next three years, administrators and regents tried to bribe and intimidate them, and that the university retaliated against them, causing Hudson's father to lose his job at the school.
Brown, Hudson and Jordan were all either suspended from school or placed on probation, and two of them were brought up on criminal charges, fingerprinted and arrested, only to have the charges quickly dismissed. Their grades plummeted and fellow students and administrators turned on them, calling the boys everything from liars to traitors to both their university and their race.
In 2005, Brown, Hudson and Jordan filed a lawsuit in federal court against TSU's board of regents, Slade, former regent J. Paul Johnson and five other university employees, most of whom are still at TSU, alleging numerous acts of retaliation. Due to the pending lawsuit, the majority of defendants contacted by the Houston Press either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
Throughout all of this, Brown, Hudson and Jordan persevered. Yes, at times they enjoyed the limelight and even reveled in the thrill of the hunt, but for the most part, they say they were following their consciences and doing what they felt was best for TSU. Brown says he served as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation along the way, and uncovered what he believes is evidence that former TSU regent and current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson was involved along with other former regents in the cover-up of a bogus performance bond secured to insure the construction of a student building.