Feds Unseal Bribery Indictment Involving Former HISD COO and Houston Vendor

Brian Busby in 2018 explaining new standardized bus times at an HISD
Brian Busby in 2018 explaining new standardized bus times at an HISD Photo by Margaret Downing

The former chief operating officer of Houston ISD participated in an alleged bribery scheme that reportedly paid him off in cash and home repairs in exchange for awarding inflated contracts to a Houston vendor, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Brian Busby, who has been under investigation for months by the FBI along with vendor Anthony Hutchison of Southwest Wholesale and Just Partners Construction were both arrested Thursday and charged with conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds — meant for students — and witness tampering. This went on from 2011 through 2020, according to prosecutors.

According to federal prosecutors who unveiled the 26-count federal grand jury indictment Thursday, the 43-year-old Busby and 60-year-old Hutchison did not operate the alleged kickback scheme by themselves. Those charged separately — all of whom have entered plea agreements with the government — were:

— Former HISD school board member and board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones — now a Houston Community College Board member who received a resounding endorsement from the Houston Chronicle when she resigned from HISD to run for the HCC board seat. Skillern-Jones has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. No word on whether she'll remain on the HCC board.

— The former HISD Officer of Construction Services, Derrick Sanders.

— Alfred Hoskins who was at different times, the HISD General Manager of Facilities. Maintenance. and Operations . the HISD General Manager of Maintenance Services and Repairs. and the HISD Senior Manager of Facilities Maintenance.

— The HISD Area Manager for Maintenance (South) Gerron Hall

— The HISD Area Manager for Maintenance (North) Luis Tovar.

According to the indictment, Hutchison overbilled the school district for mowing services and mulch "causing millions of dollars in loss to the school district."  He also paid kickbacks to Busby, Sanders, Hoskins, Hall, Tovar and Skillern-Jones.

In what had to be helpful to federal investigators, Hutchison kept a ledger of his bribe payments including what schools were involved what was done, the invoice amount, the amount of bribe paid with all the details about where  and when and to whom. Some were made on trips to Las Vegas with the bribe recipients, the indictment says.

Busby not only helped Hutchison get these jobs, but expedited payment so he could get his kickback money sooner. the indictment says.

Investigators say that Skillern-Jones got a school landscaping and construction contract for Hutchinson placed on the HISD Board agenda and voted for it. In return, "Busby personally delivered Hutchison's bribe payments to Skillern-Jones."

"Once Busby and Hutchison learned of the federal criminal investigation, they tried to interfere in the investigation," the indictment says. Hutchison allegedly told Hoskins to tell FBI agents that the payments in his ledger involved gambling winnings and losses rather than bribes. He also allegedly told Hoskins to tell Hall and Tovar to do the same. Busby is accused of trying to persuade Hoskins to lie to investigators by telling them that Busby did not direct anyone to use specific contactors when he did.

The  indictment lists payout amounts made to those involved in the alleged scheme from the HISD end. Payments were made at local restaurants, a gas station and on some HISD school campuses. According to investigations Hutchison paid about $293,000 to various contractor's for the remodeling of Busby's home in Houston.

Prosecutors also say that if convicted all property of Hutchison and Busby is subject to forfeiture and list $90,150 in case seized from Busby's home on February 27, 2020, $73, 474 in cash seized from Hutchison's home on the same date and $22,400 in cash seized form a fanny pack placed under a seat in Hutchison's vehicle on that date.

The HISD Press Office released the following statement:

HISD fully cooperated with the federal investigation into actions that allegedly took place from 2011 to 2020 which led to the charges that were made public today. As indicated in previous statements by HISD, from the time that HISD became aware of the federal investigation in February 2020, HISD provided information as requested by law enforcement with respect to the investigation. As that criminal investigation progressed, HISD also implemented additional internal procedures to safeguard against the type of conduct alleged in the charges announced today.
No person charged in connection with the indictments announced today is currently employed by HISD.
HISD fully respects the criminal justice process, and HISD cannot comment further with respect to the underlying facts of the investigation or the charges announced today pending resolution of those charges.
Through its history, HISD has been plagued with problems about and violations of its ethics policy -- most often concerning vendors and their contracts. Pledge after pledge is made that everything will be cleaned up, yet investigations and audits still find serious wrongdoing.

Busby and Hutchison haven't been convicted in this latest round so they deserve the presumption of innocence, although the plea agreements entered into by the others charged in the case might indicate otherwise.

The question is: will things get any better under new Superintendent Millard House II and the present HISD board? 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing