Follow the Bouncing Checks!

The invitations last spring for the third annual Hispanic Scholarship of Greater Houston reception at Minute Maid Park looked impressive. They listed virtually every local Latino politician as an honoree and claimed solid corporate sponsors like the Houston Astros and Aramark food services. As one star-struck student applicant who attended the event recalls, its extravagance seemed a guarantee that the scholarships being handed out were as good as money in the bank.

Dr. Max Castillo, the University of Houston-Downtown's president, served as honorary host, and among the honorary chairs were Dionel Aviles, an engineer and Texas A&M regent. Their ties to the event, however, didn't last much longer. They both soon discovered that the Rincon Hispanic Scholarship Foundation had issued hot checks to some scholarship recipients, and that director Greg Rincon has a history of writing bad checks from Austin to Houston.

Rincon, 35, is president of the foundation and paid coordinator for the Eastwood/Broadmoor Area Community Development Corporation. Rincon and several family members run the foundation, which honors his late father, Joe Rincon, an avid golfer and air-conditioning businessman.

The complaints are dismissed by Rincon, who says the insufficient checks were caused by clerical errors as well as a vendetta. He says a group of local politicos is upset that he managed the losing primary campaign of Al Flores against incumbent state Representative Joe Moreno last spring. During that contest, Rincon accused state Representative Jessica Farrar of illegally removing Flores's campaign signs.

Rincon also admits to a lengthy police record. "I've had some mistakes and wrote some bad checks, and of course I had to face the consequence of those," says Rincon. "I owned up to those mistakes…I like to think I've shown the community I've learned from those choices."

According to Rincon, "Those situations are more than ten years old and over, and we move on and try to become a better person. All of this has come out because of certain political support I've given to other candidates that aren't in the same line of support with other elected officials."

Actually, Rincon was arrested for DWI four years ago. His last round of hot-check charges occurred when he was an Austin aide for state Senator Mario Gallegos in 1994. Gallegos says Texas legislative policies restrict him from discussing the tenure of Rincon or any former employee. Other sources say Gallegos was pressed to fire Rincon after he wrote bad checks. Rincon says the reason for his dismissal was never made clear.

Rincon runs the scholarship foundation and the Eastwood CDC out of the same office. As Eastwood's coordinator, he has rallied neighborhood groups against plans for a rail line by Burlington Northern and area chemical companies. As the foundation president, he accepted a large Burlington Northern contribution, pegged by one source at $10,000, for the scholarship fund. Rincon sees no conflict.

"These are two different issues. I ask corporations that I believe would be willing to support a worthy foundation to contribute."

Rincon blames rival politicians, including Gallegos, for campaigning to damage his credibility and destroy the foundation. But judging by a letter late last month from UH-Downtown president Castillo to Gallegos about the foundation's financial performance, Rincon is doing a pretty good job of that himself.

According to the Castillo letter, Rincon's foundation issued two bad checks to student recipients in the fall of 2000, and Rincon eventually covered them four months later after receiving demand letters from the school. UH-Downtown has a policy of matching contributions from Rincon's group with contributions from its own scholarship fund.

Last year, a check to one of the scholarship students bounced and still remains unpaid. Another student, who asked that her name not be publicized, attempted to use a scholarship letter from Rincon's group to claim matching money, but was told by UH officials that they will no longer accept checks from that foundation.

"To date, this is the only student who has been awarded a scholarship [from the Rincon group] but a check has yet to be received," reported Castillo. "We have alerted the Foundation that we will not accept any more scholarship checks from them, only money orders or cashier's checks, to avoid similar situations in the future."

"I've bugged them a lot to send my check because I don't have the money to pay for my first year of college full-time," says the part-time student, a sophomore majoring in international business.

"I've left messages and e-mails asking about my check all through the summer because it was supposed to come around July, and I never received it." The student is paying fall tuition out of her own pocket on an installment plan.

After The Insider contacted Rincon, the student says, he promised to take steps immediately to settle up with her.

Others are not waiting to distance themselves from the group. An Astros spokesman says the team's only tie was the rental of stadium space for the reception. Aviles, the A&M regent, wrote Rincon in July, stating that information he received about the foundation leads him to "request that you remove my name as Honorary Chair from any solicitation relating to any and all functions dealing with your organization."

Rincon says he considers Aviles a friend and supporter of the group. He says he hopes Aviles will continue that relationship once he hears Rincon's explanation of the financial information.

In another letter, Gallegos, Moreno, Farrar and City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado accuse Rincon of using their names without permission. They are calling for a comprehensive and independent audit of the foundation.

Rincon explains that a full audit would cost too much but says he has an accountant preparing a report on the first three years of the foundation's operations. He indicates the group will go forward with plans for fund-raising and scholarships for 24 recipients.

"We're going to continue as before," vows Rincon. "I have contacted the majority of our corporate sponsors to be aware there's some phone tagging going on."

Gallegos indicates that however things turn out, students will not be left holding a hot check for their tuition.

"It concerns me because my name was on that invitation," says Rincon's former boss. "As an elected official, those kids are my first worry, and because my name is on there I've offered to make those checks good."

Profs Flunk UH Administrators

The clock is running down on University of Houston Chancellor-President Art Smith, who has not yet given notice about when he plans to retire. The UH Faculty Senate, with the expectation of a regime change early next year, is starting the search for a successor with critical reviews of Smith and his controversial provost Ed Sheridan.

The recently released 2002 Faculty Climate Survey Report taps into the opinions of nearly 500 academic staffers, ranging from full professors to librarians. The results won't get Smith and company on any honor rolls.

The administration got positive ratings from 24 percent of respondents, neutral from 22 percent and negative from 54 percent. Smith himself received a mixed rating, with 43 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval.

Most striking was data concerning Sheridan, who has been rumored as a possible interim chancellor after Smith departs. Only 18 percent of respondents viewed him favorably, while 73 percent gave the thumbs down -- and 47 percent of those were "strongly disapproving."

Opposition to the provost has been building among professorial ranks over the past year (see "Hot Springtime for Sheridan," April 11). His efforts to centralize governance and control the appointment of department chairs fueled a revolt that has yet to subside. The most negative areas of the survey deal with issues directly under the control of the provost, including faculty salaries, hiring and evaluation of deans, and shared governance and dialogue with faculty.

Not surprisingly, the faculty respondents also had a pointed message concerning Smith's successor. By an overwhelming majority, they favored a comprehensive national search to find new leadership.

At least two key lieutenants of Smith have already made their escape, albeit with an assist from the head man. Chief financial officer Randy Harris left in early June to join a Mormon mission to Central America. General counsel Dennis Duffy exited in May for AOL Time Warner in New York. At Smith's suggestion, Duffy continues to provide legal advice long distance.

In both cases, Smith approved an extension of their effective leave dates to allow the pair a full five-year tenure. That was important because it qualified them, under special benefits in their contracts, for a fat payoff of about $100,000 each. They could collect it only if they stayed the full five years -- and Smith made certain they got it.

Don't you wish your boss would provide you with such a cushy getaway?

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck