Fight Club at HCC: More Allegations Spill Out in College's Lawsuit Against Former General Counsel

If you believe Renee Byas, the Houston Community College Board of Trustees had devolved into a den of iniquity during her tenure at the school.

In court filings made this week in the drawn-out legal fight between Byas, the former general counsel fired by HCC last summer, and the multi-million dollar community college system, Byas outlines some explosive allegations against current and former members of the HCC board, including:

-- "How an HCC Trustee had taken free trips to places such as the Caribbean with an HCC vendor on the vendor's plane."

-- "How three HCC Trustees had entered into an agreement with an individual that the three Trustees would convince the HCC Board of Trustees to buy property from the individual and, in exchange, the three Trustees would receive 10% of the money that HCC paid to the seller."

And...(here's the kicker):

-- "How during a closed session meeting an HCC Trustee had accused another Trustee of accepting bribes and kickbacks and how the accused Trustee started punching the accuser."

HCC claims it put Byas on administrative leave last summer and ultimately fired her because she was "insubordinate" and because new HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado had lost confidence in her ability to lead the college's legal team. Byas, however, sees things much differently. When the college sued her last year, hoping to get a judge to invalidate her contract (and force Byas to pay any legal fees the college assumed in the course of firing her), Byas fired back with a counter-suit alleging she'd been ousted for refusing to let HCC's board "use a $425 million public bond project as a private slush fund."

Byas says that before HCC passed its largest-ever near-half-billion dollar bond that she helped draft new rules meant to quash any hint of favoritism in handing out contracts (which is apparently a recurring issue with HCC). The new rules banned vendors from giving gifts to trustees, limited financial contributions from vendors to trustees' political campaigns, and expanded conflict-of-interest questionnaires, among other things.

According to Byas, HCC trustees hated one new rule in particular: that instead of handpicking the numerous contractors for each of the bond's 14 major construction projects, the new rules required that the board tap 14 "construction managers at risk," general contractors large enough to put up a $2 million bid bond. Those firms would then tap the numerous local subcontractors to finish the job, giving the board oversight but insulating them from all that money.

Meaning the trustees -- if they wanted to -- would have a tough time micromanaging the bond and shuffling contracts to friends and family. In her counter-suit, however, Byas claimed HCC trustees wanted to do exactly that. And because she wouldn't play ball, and because she started talking to the FBI when federal investigators came sniffing around, HCC fired her, according to her counter-suit.

The result has been a laborious, protracted legal fight between HCC's hired guns (attorneys with Gibbs & Bruns) and Byas's high-profile lawyer Rusty Hardin. Remarkably enough, much of the case thus far has centered on whether internal records from a public, taxpayer-funded institution should be made public.

In Byas's response to some interrogatories, which were filed in court Tuesday, the college's former general counsel repeated some of what she's already alleged in court documents -- that certain trustees pressured her to bend the rules for handing out bond contracts and urged her to quash outside investigations into whether trustees had abused their office.

But Byas's responses also elaborate on her contact with federal investigators while she was at HCC. Byas claims that in 2011 and 2012 she spoke with officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Texas, whom she says had subpoenaed HCC documents related to bond money, vendors, bond counsel, and RFQs that trustees had issued for certain projects. She says an FBI investigator also came around in 2011 and 2012 asking her office for information regarding various HCC vendors, the so-called Veselka investigation -- which, among other things, showed that an HCC trustee had steered work to her son's construction company and got free campaign consulting services from an HCC vendor. The FBI investigator, she claims, also wanted information on these six trustees (some of them former, some of them current): Abe Davila, Diane Olmos Guzman, Yolanda Flores, Neeta Sane, Chris Oliver and Gloria Walker.

Byas says she continued to meet with FBI special agents from late 2013 until June 2014, when she was forced out by Maldonado, HCC's new chancellor. (She also says she spoke several times with officials at the Harris County District Attorney's Office.)

Byas claims she discussed numerous allegations with these investigators, including claims that HCC trustees tried to skirt the bond procurement rules; conducted personal business with HCC vendors, despite ethics rules forbidding it; took free trips to the Caribbean with an HCC vendor on the vendor's plane; and how a fight broke out in closed session when one trustee accused another of accepting bribes.

Byas also claims that numerous former and current trustees either attempted to or did in fact violate the Texas Open Meetings Act, state election statutes, and criminal laws against public officials accepting kickbacks, gifts or bribes.

In its response filings, HCC says that Byas's widespread allegations of crime and fraud is a tactic "as unfounded as it is offensive. ... Unfortunately for Ms. Byas, the truth is not remotely nefarious, much less criminal."

HCC claims trustees had simply asked for more time to vet individual construction manager contracts, rather than accept all of the bids at once as Byas and HCC staff had pushed for. "Accordingly, certain Trustees sought to conduct some due diligence before voting to pay hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to the recommended companies. Imaginatively, Ms. Byas now casts this due diligence as an elaborate criminal enterprise."

"None of these are particularly exciting explanations," HCC says. "They would not sell newspapers. They are, in fact, quite boring. But they are the truth."

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas