Houston Community College Trustee Dave Wilson is personally footing the bill for an investigation into his own board, Wilson and his attorney announced yesterday.
Amid a bribery scandal involving Trustee Chis Oliver that HCC's board of trustees say has blemished the college's reputation, Wilson has hired former KTRK investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino and attorney Keith Gross to investigate the Board of Trustees' procurement system and how it has used the $425 million in bond funding from the 2012 referendum. The board, particularly Chris Oliver, has sometimes been accused of partaking in a so-called "pay to play" system when awarding construction and other contracts.
"It's become clear to me that an independent investigation is vital to restore the public's confidence in our college," Wilson said. "The University of Houston's Brandon Rottinghaus said, 'The best sanitizer for any kind of ethical problem is sunlight.' And being vocal and being public about it is the way that a lot of these things become resolved. For the benefits of HCC students and the taxpayers of Harris County, this investigation must be conducted by an impartial third party who has not been tainted by the appearance of insider dealings."
HCC has also hired two investigators, former Harris County commissioner Gene Locke and former U.S. attorney Vidal Martinez to examine its procurement system—but Wilson claimed that both men are "political insiders" who had contributed to HCC board members' campaigns in the past to be considered completely independent. So Wilson said he hired his own investigators after the board declined to ask the Texas Attorney General's Office to get involved.
Wilson's announcement comes just weeks after unsealed federal court records indicated that Oliver pleaded guilty to bribery, and that a federal extortion charge was dropped against him as part of the plea deal. Oliver had accepted more than $12,000 from former Houston Public Works and Engineering Director Karun Sreerama in exchange for "promising to use his position to help [Sreerama] secure contracts with HCC," Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez said in a release. Sreerama recently stepped down at Mayor Sylvester Turner's request.
While Sreerama had been wearing a wire and working with the FBI to pay Oliver $12,000 as part of the investigation, Oliver also solicited more than $77,000 in illegal payments from Sreeraama between 2010 and 2013, which Sreerama maintains he had lent to Oliver as a friend going through a hard time, saying he expected no special treatment from HCC in return.
Special treatment to vendors who pay HCC trustees in the form of campaign contributions or other under-the-table payments appears to be exactly what Dolcefino and Gross will be looking for in this investigation. Dolcefino and Gross said they would be filing open records requests shortly, examining emails, phone calls and transactions. Wilson declined to give examples beyond the Oliver case of contracts or deals that made him suspicious, but as the Texas Tribune recently reported, examples of a type of kind of "pay-to-play" system at HCC are rife.
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For example, weeks before State Senator Roy West (D-Dallas) helped pass a bill that will boost dual-credit education programs and therefore boost HCC, HCC placed West's law firm on its list of legal services providers that the college pulls from when it needs legal advice. HCC's board did the same thing for Representative Ana Hernandez (D-Houston) after Hernandez filed a bill to reform public colleges' course numbering system, legislation HCC had pushed for, and supported other legislation the college was hoping for. The catch: Hernandez's law firm was ranked 17 out of 20 based on legal services providers scored for experience and qualifications to aid HCC, and the firm did not appear to have past experience with education legal services. (Both lawmakers insisted to the Tribune that they did not believe any of this amounted to a conflict of interest.)
Both Wilson and Dolcefino expressed the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, saying it is inappropriate for board members to award contracts to people who have given them money.
Asked whether the public can be confident that Dolcefino and Gross's investigation into the HCC board can be entirely impartial given a board member is paying them, Dolcefino reiterated that he "has no sacred cows," and no ties to HCC whatsoever. "We will go where the information leads us," he said.
Both he and Wilson maintained that even if Wilson himself became a part of the investigation, they would reveal 100 percent of the findings to the public and to the board.