HCC Trustee Asks for Transparency in Lawsuit With College's Fired Top Lawyer

Seems we're not the only ones who think it's a little gauche for a public institution to fight to keep internal records out of the public eye.

Over the past month, lawyers for Houston Community College, a taxpayer-funded institution, have twice asked a judge to seal certain internal emails, memos, or other communications if they're filed in court, arguing they fall under attorney-client privilege. At issue here is what will or won't become public in the college's legal fight against the HCC's former general counsel, Renee Byas. HCC sued Byas last summer, hoping to invalidate her contract. The college claims it fired Byas because of insubordination and problems with her contract extension (for instance, she turned in her signed copy of said contract extension to HR five days late...right), while Byas on the other hand alleges she was fired because she wouldn't play ball when trustees begged her to bend the rules for doling out contracts for the college's record $425 million bond project.

Byas' counterclaim against the college contained a number of other stunning allegations, including that she was cooperating with an ongoing FBI investigation into the college and that she even wore a wire to secretly record conversations in which trustees pressured her to "break the law." While still with the college, Byas opened an investigation into whether one particular trustee tried to improperly shuffle a $1.4 million contract to a close friend's business. Byas claims trustees regularly asked her to kill that investigation and fire the outside law firm conducting it. In fact, the day Byas was fired, HCC's board appointed another attorney to keep watch over that investigation, which ultimately concluded that there was no evidence the trustee in question did anything wrong.

The subject of that investigation was trustee Carroll Robinson (who's now running for Houston City Controller). Which is why it's so...well, interesting, that Robinson has been asking HCC to make everything related to Byas' firing public. Particularly interesting since, according to court records, Byas' attorneys plan to depose Robinson very soon.

On the afternoon of January 22, when we first wrote about HCC's attempt to seal documents in the case, Robinson emailed board chair Zeph Capo, vice chair Robert Glaser, secretary Adriana Tamez, and HCC chancellor Cesar Maldonado (yesterday Robinson forwarded the email to us and Chron reporter Ericka Mellon):

"In light of the recent Houston Press story on Renee Byas' lawsuit again HCC, I support releasing ALL non-attorney client protected information to the public and media, including the tape recordings made by Ms. Byas of some trustees. (I wonder why she has not released the tapes to the public?)

To a certain degree, I believe HCC should just release ALL the information to the public as this matter is being tried in the court of public opinion and HCC is losing and the reputation of the System is irreparable harmed when I, and as far as I know, HCC has nothing to hide.

It's time to stop being afraid.

Trustee Carroll G. Robinson"

Harris County District Court Judge Jeff Shadwick denied HCC's first request to seal records, saying the documents it wanted to seal were "described only generally, leaving the Court with the prospect of issuing an order which may be too vague to enforce."

So, Earlier this week, HCC went back to court hoping to convince the judge to seal, or at least redact, some records related to Byas' firing. So...we wrote about that (see: Houston Community College Still Wants to Seal Records in Lawsuit).

Yesterday, Robinson sent another email to Capo, Maldonado and Harvey Grant and Ayesha Najam, private lawyers HCC has hired to handle the Byas case, citing our story: "I am asking once again that all the documents including the tapes be released to the public and media immediately."

We asked Robinson to clarify what he means by "all documents and tapes" (you can read more here about the documents already filed in the case that have made HCC's attorneys bristle and cite attorney-client privilege, and what those documents tell us so far). All of the records related to the investigation into Robinson's conduct, the investigation Byas claims trustees asked her to kill? Byas' recorded conversations with trustees, in which Byas claims trustees "pressured her to break the law"? Any documents HCC or Byas has related to the FBI's investigation into the college? Documents produced in the course of Byas' termination/administrative hearing?

"My position is release EVERYTHING related to the investigation and the tapes and everything else," Robinson wrote us in an email. "I don't know anything about an FBI investigation but HCC and Mrs. Byas should release everything they both have."

We couldn't agree more.