Chief Auditor Richard Patton is expected to file a whistleblower lawsuit today against his employer, the Houston Independent School District, saying he has been retaliated against by the district for doing his job – namely investigating possible wrongdoing. Update: 11:45 a.m. The lawsuit was filed this morning.
Patton, who was ordered back to work this week after a five-month paid suspension, filed a grievance on June 6 with the district. In his lawsuit, he cites the fact that he reported what he considered illegalities on the part of the district to HISD Police Chief Robert Mock.
As has been reported before, the district was splitting job order contracts so that each one would fall beneath the $500,000 requiring board review. Patton notified the board of his communication with Mock in a November 3, 2015 letter.
This spring, Patton reported a violation of the Texas Election code in regards to the residency of newly re-elected trustee Diana Davila. According to the lawsuit, on March 7, Patton told the HISD attorney dealing with bonds “that he had been in discussions with the FBI regarding its investigation of matters that Patton had reported.”
Three days later, Patton was suspended amid vague allegations by the district that he was being investigated.
Friday at the news conference, we finally learned what those allegations were. Patton had from time to time asked an assistant to copy some personal papers of his at the office during the two years in his position. As his attorney, David Feldman, put it, if that rose to the standard of an investigation and suspension, then more than half of all HISD employees would probably be in trouble. This was brought up as a problem, Feldman said, only after Patton questioned what some board members and administrators were doing.
Starting by saying, “It is really unusual for me to be on this side of the docket,” considering all the years he spent defending school districts in lawsuits, Feldman said it was essential for someone charged with Patton's duties to be truly independent.
This Wednesday, Patton returned to work to find his job duties and responsibilities had been reduced. As previously reported, the Ethics and Compliance Office was moved from under Patton’s purview to Legal Services, HISD Chief Spokesman Jason Spencer said: "By law, the Internal Auditor of a public school district must report to the Board of Trustees. The Ethics and Compliance Office is not subject to this requirement. It became a part of the Internal Audit department solely because Mr. Patton took those duties with him when he transitioned from the job of Ethics and Compliance Officer to Chief Executive Auditor. Several changes were recently made to the district’s organizational structure in order to make the district more efficient and effective. The Ethics and Compliance Office was included among those organizational realignments.”
Friday, Feldman said that by moving the Ethics and Compliance office under the Legal Department, "you are in effect burying it under the attorney-client privilege." He said that if anyone asks for the release of public records, HISD asks for an Attorney General's opinion, effectively blocking or at least delaying the release of documents.
The attorney said other planned projects have been taken away from Patton, but he declined to be specific about what audits these were.
Update 2:42 p.m.: The HISD press office released a statement that the district "vehemently denies and rejects the false claims made in Richard Patton's meritless lawsuit and will vigorously dispute them in court."
The statement also takes Patton to task, saying, "Instead of focusing on work on behalf of our mission and students, Mr. Patton has instead chosen to pursue a lawsuit."
HISD also says he has made "false claims against elected members of the Board of Education."
Besides the main part of the lawsuit, an exhibit included in it contains Patton's "dispute resolution form" with HISD. In that, Patton claims that then-Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones didn't like his audits of the Job Order Contract program and challenged his conclusion that the law had been violated.
"Ms. Skillern-Jones would not let the matter rest and she took a number of steps to retaliate against [Patton], including trying to change the performance evaluation that had just been given to him by the Audit Committee and helping to instigate the suspension and investigation of [Patton] over a matter which, in the normal course, would have been treated in a benign manner, if addressed at all."
The Houston Press attempted to contact Skillern-Jones through HISD's Board Services office and by email this afternoon. We will update if we hear back from her.
The lawsuit states that HISD is refusing to supply a copy of its investigation into Patton. “Based on information and belief, HISD’s refusal to produce this report to Patton is further demonstration that his suspension for purposes of conducting the investigation, and the investigation itself, was wholly unnecessary, and was only a thin veil for retaliation.” The Press has filed a public information request seeking that document as well.
Patton’s contract has not been renewed and is up by the end of August. The lawsuit asks for actual and compensatory damages and an injunction against “further retaliation.”