It cost the Houston Independent School District more than $1.5 million in attorneys fees to defend former trustee Larry Marshall, who was convicted on November 16, 2016, of violations of the federal racketeering law for accepting bribes from construction contractors who did business with the district.
Construction contractor Gil Ramirez, who brought the suit in federal court, was awarded $5 million in damages by the jury and at the time, HISD was quick to point out that it was not a party to the suit (it had been removed as a governmental entity) and so the jury decision hadn’t cost the taxpayers anything.
But as it turns out, a public records request by civic activist Robert Kimball reveals that it did cost the taxpayers a considerable amount of money — in legal fees paid for by the district to defend Marshall. And Kimball points out that Marshall’s expected appeal is still ahead of him.
Kimball has written a letter to new HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza as well as several Texas legislators asking that they support a bill limiting the amount of money a district will fork over to defend one of its trustees.
“There are no dollar limits currently as to how much a school district can pay to cover the legal fees of a school board member,” Kimball wrote. “There are no incentives to prevent a school [board] member from engaging in illegal activity. They have access to unlimited funds to defend them against any and all alleged wrongdoings.”
According to Kimball, he and other supporters want a bill that limits school districts to a $250,000 max in legal fees for each trustee.
“Houston ISD has a shortfall of $160 million next year and it and other school districts can no longer afford to fund without limits for illegal actions, actual or alleged, of school board members with taxpayer funds.”
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HISD records show that payments in the case were made to the firms of Bracewell & Giuliani; Compton & Wendler; and Rogers, Morris & Grover. One set of records received by Kimball and supplied by Katheryne Ellison, assistant general counsel for the district, total $1,616,931.75 in legal payments by the district in the case. Another set of records sent by HISD public information assistant Courtney R. Crosby show a $1,865,156.75 total for legal payments.
Contacted Wednesday and asked for a statement in response to Kimball’s call for a limit to trustee attorney fees, HISD Press Secretary Jason Spencer said he wasn’t going to comment on anything that hasn’t come before the Legislature yet. He said the statement the district released back in November upon Marshall’s conviction would stand.
That November statement:
“HISD is not a party to the litigation involving job order contracts, and HISD taxpayers are not liable for any damages awarded. Today's verdict did not identify wrongdoing by HISD officials except for Mr. Marshall and the other non-HISD defendants. HISD remains committed to effective and transparent stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”