Digging Up the Dirt

One can imagine Bob Lanier testifying before the grand jury about the excesses of the Department of Public Works during his administration. As far as he knew, Lanier might mumble sincerely, Jimmie Schindewolf and his fine staff did a great job implementing the mayor's program to upgrade Houston's infrastructure, the most sweeping and ambitious overhaul in city history. Though, of course, if rules had been bent, he had no direct knowledge. It would only have been done in the interest of making neighborhoods better and schools safer. Apple pie stuff.

The prosecutor may or may not have asked Lanier about the millions of dollars Schindewolf and his gang of enablers wasted on overpriced consultants, substandard paving jobs and inflated contracts, first exposed by the Press a year and a half ago. As for the allegations of shuffling money between contracts to circumvent state bidding laws, Lanier would likely parrot the line he gave the softball-tossing Chronicle: That would be a "fairly technical question."

It doesn't take an engineer, however, to interpret a 1995 memo former deputy assistant director Jerry Dinkins issued about a project to renovate the City Hall annex. Dinkins, who oversaw that and other big-ticket construction jobs under investigation, ordered that money appropriated for a testing contract instead be paid to another company whose own contract funds had run dry. "There is no other testing services anticipated for the above mentioned project," Dinkins wrote ungrammatically. "Please close the account for the above mentioned contract and utilize the remaining $55,012 to fund the balance of South Coast Construction Services, Inc. contract."

Such blatant disregard for the rules was the norm during Lanier's reign -- as early as 1992, managers were firing off memos directing that funds be moved from one contract to another. The primary purpose was to avoid having to go before City Council to get more cash for projects that ran over budget, which saved time and embarrassment. And given that dozens of projects blew past their limit to the tune of millions, for reasons that remain a mystery, the department's desire to shield that fact from public view is understandable.

To Lanier, that's merely a technicality.
But not to the county grand jury, which indicted Dinkins on ten counts of tampering with government documents and another of violating state bid laws. Jurors also nailed former public works deputy director Dan Jones and his girlfriend, Janet King, with a bid-law violation charge and slapped project manager Steve Harris with four tampering counts.

That may only be the beginning. According to prosecutor Roberto Gutierrez, the grand jury investigation is but the first in a series. "There's going to be more than one part to this," Gutierrez says.

Part Two will likely focus on the inspection and testing of pavement and other work that had to meet certain quality-control standards -- specifically, why contractors whose projects failed large percentages of their tests were never held accountable, and why city inspectors signed off on the substandard work. This gets a little tricky in terms of identifying what laws may have been broken, though Gutierrez says he'll look at whether anyone falsified government documents along the way. "That's one of the angles," he says.

Whether the District Attorney's Office will ever pierce the complex web of dirty deals that marked Lanier's public works department is doubtful. Instead, prosecutors will likely have to nibble around the edges and try to snag the managers such as Jones and Dinkins whose names actually appear on tainted documents and incriminating memos. Boss Schindewolf, who gets credit as the master architect of Lanier's infrastructure plan, is not among the suspects being scoped by the D.A.; there's no evidence tying him directly to the illicit activity, according to Gutierrez.

That seems to suit the current administration just fine. Rather than distance himself from the architects of the system that -- at the very least -- created a climate that fostered waste, mismanagement and apparent lawlessness, Mayor Lee Brown seems to have climbed into bed with them.

Former finance and administration director Richard Lewis, whose office funneled public works payments and should have had known how the finances were jimmied, is now the No. 3 man in the city. Until his suspension, indictee Jones served as Brown's agenda director. Various upper management cronies whose names appear on money-shuffling memos are still on the public works payroll.

And Schindewolf continues to feed at the public trough as a $25,000-a-month consultant to the Sports Authority, ironically to safeguard the city's interests during construction of the new ballpark. His right-hand man: Jerry Dinkins.

The idea that flunkies such as Dinkins orchestrated department policy or acted without direction from above is patently absurd. The same goes for Showri Nandagiri, now a senior assistant director. During an interview with the Press while Schindewolf was still in power, Nandagiri took time out to do the money shuffle with a contractor who stopped by.

Perhaps this explains why the city has been plodding along with its own public works investigation for more than a year. Thus far, all that has come of it are the temporary suspensions of five city employees, including Jones and Harris. And while Inspector General Tim Oettmeier promises that "part of the investigation is designed to determine culpability," the identity of at least one of the suspended employees casts a shadow on that guarantee. Bill Pugh, who headed the Public Works Quality Control Division, now sits at home under virtual house arrest, with no explanation from the city as to his alleged crime.

It may have been this: Pugh and his underling, Moh'd Warrad (also on suspension), created a paper trail that helped auditors and investigators uncover many of the problems at Public Works. They even complained to their superiors that the rules were being broken. Yet nothing was done, and only the ostriches don't know why.

As late as last November, as investigators were poring over the evidence that led to the indictments, Pugh identified a breach of the rules involving improper payments. "I have recently discovered another case of the misuse of a laboratory contract," he wrote, arguing that the quality control section needed more authority to oversee testing jobs. "Abuses such as this will cause the department extreme embarrassment (or worse) should they be discovered in future audits."

Pugh's prophesy came true, though he didn't foresee himself as the accused. If the city is looking for a scapegoat to deflect attention from those truly responsible, which many observers feel is the case, Pugh makes a tempting target. But unlike Jones and Dinkins, old-school loyalists who would never finger their superiors to save their skins, don't expect Pugh -- or Warrad -- to take the fall quietly. And if they start talking, Lanier may yet have to change his take on those little technicalities.


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