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At a packed public meeting early this year, Abel Davila's relatives walked down an aisle and squashed into a momentary traffic jam. Holding his baby son, Davila told them to turn sideways so all 12 could squeeze in near a microphone in front. They assembled around his father, Arturo Davila, parent of ten, who raised his right hand and began swearing in his son to a second term as trustee of the Houston Community College System. As the younger Davila repeated the final words in Spanish -- con la ayuda de Dios -- they broke into hearty applause.

"It's an honor and a privilege to serve on the Houston Community College board," Davila later told the crowd, "but I would like to start off by thanking my family. Please stand again."

Jim Murphy, the next trustee up to speak, was impressed by the protracted exhibition of family values. "Abel, can I borrow some of your family members here?" he said. "It looks like you have some spares."

Indeed, nothing punctuates a political moment like a family's praise for an anointed son. With his well-coiffed hair, sharp business suits and baby-faced charm, the 32-year-old pharmacist has earned the acclaim due a prodigy. Davila won his first seat on the HCCS board in 1998 and is said to be the youngest Hispanic male in Houston elected to office.

But if family members are to thank for his early success, Davila has been only too willing to return the favor.

Davila is accused of applying pressure to find HCCS jobs -- or promotions -- for various relatives and friends, despite stated policies against nepotism. College scholarship funds have been used for airfare and financial aid to members of his extended family. And another trustee exerted influence to gain a tuition waiver for his child.

Instead of heeding complaints about the problems, the paterfamilias of HCCS, Chancellor Bruce Leslie, apparently has sanctioned a climate in which would-be whistle-blowers either stay quiet or live in fear of retribution.

In the fall of 2002, Diana Castillo, then a college operations officer in charge of many hiring decisions, was walking out of a press conference at the Southeast campus when trustee Davila cornered her. Out of earshot of the collegiate masses, she says, he told her to find a full-time job for Isabel Aguilar.

Castillo was shocked. Trustees are supposed to set HCCS policy and deal with the chancellor, rather than interfering with staff-level hiring decisions.

But even worse, the woman Davila was touting for employment was his own sister-in-law.

"That was the first time things didn't feel right with him," she recalls.

In most cases, hiring the relative of a trustee directly violates HCCS nepotism policy, a policy Davila apparently broke when a brother-in-law was hired after Davila's first election.

But Castillo wasn't a scold or a whistle-blower. She merely tried to explain to Davila that she couldn't bring on Aguilar even if she wanted to, because her campus was in a hiring freeze.

She says Davila didn't care.

"If you aren't going to get Isabel a full-time job," she says he told her, "then I don't need this kind of Hispanic on campus."

After joining the HCCS board, Davila rose to a position of power, in part by stressing his personal ties to the Hispanic community and the college. Born to low-income Mexican immigrants, he earned a degree from Texas Southern University's pharmacy school after graduating from HCCS in the mid-1990s.

By the time he left HCCS as a student, the 34-year-old college system had already begun evolving from its early image as the runt of the educational litter, with most courses still offered at night in leased high school classrooms. Expansion in more recent years has transformed it into a $200 million operation with 55,000 students -- the second-largest singly accredited community college in the nation.

HCCS continues to grow rapidly. The trustees passed an 18 percent tax hike in 2000. They convinced voters last fall to approve a $151 million bond measure aimed at doubling enrollment by 2015. And they're currently promoting a plan to expand further by annexing four suburban school districts.

This history of brisk, institutional growth is the visible face of the board, but some trustees also have worked privately to increase their personal influence within HCCS, in part by threatening and intimidating high-ranking administrators.

Sylvia Ramos says she discovered that atmosphere of abuse after becoming founding president of the Southeast College, which opened in Houston's East End in 1991. An employee at HCCS since 1973, Ramos led the college for 12 years. She says she was forcefully pressured by board members to hire people they deemed appropriate.

"Those things happen, and it's not just Abel Davila doing it," says Ramos, who confirms Castillo's accounts of intimidation. "I've experienced it also. I have been threatened. I was threatened, and it was more than just one board member."

In the summer of 1999, the trustees ordered former chancellor Ruth Burgos-Sasscer to reinstate two terminated information technology employees -- one of them Castillo's son -- whom the chancellor had fired for allegedly deleting computer files. Burgos-Sasscer submitted a letter of resignation in protest, and ultimately quit in October 2000.

Two months later, the problem of improper meddling by trustees prompted an investigation by the college's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The association's rules require colleges to maintain a "clear and appropriate distinction" between the role of the board as a policy-making body and the responsibility of the administration to implement policy.

At HCCS, that means that the hiring of staff members is supposed to be left to administrators. Investigators put the college "on notice" that it could lose its accreditation if the overstepping of boundaries continued.

Citing improvements by early 2002, the association removed HCCS from being on notice. But interference from trustees allegedly has continued, in part during closed sessions at board meetings. An upper-level administrator tells of seeing board members tamper six to ten times per year with hiring decisions that should have been left to the staff.

"I have seen them hold up the hiring of a position for up to seven or eight months," the administrator says, "because the people they want to see in the final [list of candidates] are not [there].

"I'm convinced it's because somebody wants their best friend hired," the HCCS official says, "and I have seen a lot of people hired even without the proper documentation and experience."

In an interview at HCCS headquarters, Chancellor Leslie and Chairman Herman Litt strongly deny that the board ever rejects a staff recommendation to hire an administrator. "I don't think the board has ever said we don't want to hire a particular person," Litt says, "and I have been here five and a half years."

Whatever the climate of meetings, board influence behind closed doors has remained a problem in the HCCS household. Ramos says she grew so disgusted with intimidation from board members that she announced plans to quit HCCS last year to lead a college in Chicago.

"I put up with that for 12 years," she says. "It's part of the reason I had to leave. It was time. Because it takes away from the day-to-day operations. You cannot try to serve two masters. You cannot serve the administration and then serve the activist [trustees] on the other side. You cannot have two supervisors. You can't."

Before she left, she recommended Castillo as her interim replacement. Castillo was a 50-year-old college operations officer who had worked her way up the ranks at HCCS for 26 years. She grew up in a small town in the Rio Grande Valley, in a bedroom she shared with her four siblings. Her father worked odd jobs, but Castillo graduated from college and graduate school. She seems like a perfect role model for the students at Southeast, many of whom come from low-income Hispanic families.

Yet Ramos, speaking over the phone from Chicago, seems to regret subjecting Castillo to her old post, which remains a target. "I was a little bit more bullet-proof than she," she says. "...They pulled out all the stops going after her."

As soon as Davila learned Castillo would serve as interim campus president, his threats intensified, Castillo says. During an event held by the scholarship fund-raising committee at Magic Island in December 2002, word circulated among the guests that she had been offered the position. Her husband told her Davila wanted to speak with her, and when she found Davila in another room, she says the trustee told her: "Congratulations, it looks like you're going to be interim president. Well, let's see how much you're really going to do for Hispanics."

Davila called Castillo at her office two days later and asked if she had found a full-time job for his sister-in-law Aguilar. Castillo told him she had no openings to fill. But she knew that Aguilar, who was the only breadwinner in her family and a good employee, needed the money. So she arranged for the HCCS receptionist to work additional part-time hours during the holidays.

This wasn't the first time Castillo had helped Davila. In addition to contributing roughly $800 to Davila's first race for trustee, she had listened earlier that year when he told her his friend Manuel Barrera was interested in working as a professor on campus, she says. A colleague during Davila's days as a Houston City Council staffer, Barrera lacked the credentials for the job. However, Castillo found he qualified for a part-time campus manager position available on the weekends. She approached Ramos about it, and they hired him.

Yet Davila apparently decided these efforts weren't enough, and he enlisted other administrators to put even more pressure on Castillo.

Castillo was walking out of Wal-Mart a few days before Christmas when she received a call on her cell phone from Irene Porcarello, the interim vice-chancellor for institutional development. She says Porcarello told her to call Davila, and to "take care of the relationship" because "Abel has a great deal of power."

Castillo says she phoned him immediately and he told her, "Look, if you are not going to hire Isabel full-time, then your assignment will be short." She says that Davila told her to get Barrera hired as a full-time campus manager making at least $96,000 a year. "He said it very emphatically and threateningly," she says. "And he said, 'Look, if you can't get a Hispanic hired, I can't work with you.' "

Castillo recalls trying to tell Davila why his demands were impractical. As second-in-charge on campus, even she earned less than $96,000 a year, she told him. "I said, 'At some point I need to sit down and explain it to you, because this is not how hires work.'"

Davila declines to confirm or deny ever pressuring Castillo to hire Aguilar and Barrera. He says he can't comment for fear of jeopardizing his defense in the event Castillo sues him. She might file a lawsuit to force the college to promote her to a higher position, he suggests.

"There's a lot of lawsuits going on and people trying to get promoted that way," he says. "And I don't know why they are thinking that by smearing people, that's how they are going to get there."

Castillo calls Davila's suggestion ridiculous; she doesn't even plan to seek the permanent campus president job. "I never had the intention to sue anybody," she says. "I just want to protect myself. And they are the ones who put me in the corner."

Davila readily admits he knew Isabel Aguilar recently worked at HCCS. Aguilar's hiring didn't break college nepotism policy because she was employed before 1998, when Davila became a trustee. But Davila also confirms that his brother-in-law, Arturo Aguilar, works for HCCS as a campus police officer. Arturo Aguilar was hired in 2001, putting Davila in violation of the nepotism policy.

After the Houston Press made inquiries about Arturo Aguilar this month, his employment with HCCS ended, an administrator says. Davila did not return calls seeking comment on the departure.

Davila and other board members were briefed by Chancellor Leslie on nepotism policies early this year, a session prompted by another apparent infraction.

Three months after Davila chewed out Castillo as she left the Wal-Mart parking lot, Larry Flores, the son of board member Yolanda Navarro Flores, applied for a position at the Southeast campus as a part-time GED instructor. He indicated on his application that he was related to an HCCS trustee, but two college administrators recommended he be hired anyway.

His job application later came to the attention of Marc Campos, who was managing Mario Gallegos's campaign for reelection to the Texas Senate. His Democratic primary opponent was Yolanda Flores.

Campos submitted a complaint, prompting an investigation. Larry Flores had filled out W-4 tax forms and a form for the college's retirement savings program, yet it turned out he hadn't started work because the college was still awaiting a grant to fund the job.

"If the grant would have come on when they anticipated," Campos says, "I had people over there tell me he was going to be hired."

Castillo learned about the investigation and called the employees who had been involved in recommending Flores. They included workforce dean Johnella Bradford, program specialist Aurora Martinez and Ruth Stevelman, the director of contract training and continuing education. They told her Martinez had recommended the hire because Yolanda Flores had pressured her. When Castillo asked Martinez to elaborate, she says, Martinez told her Flores had "cursed and used four-letter words" to chastise her for not hiring Larry Flores faster.

Castillo says she drafted a letter to Leslie about the incident but the employees would not sign it for fear of creating political turmoil. Martinez did not return a call for comment.

That spring, Castillo called Leslie and described what she knew about Martinez's account of the incident, she says.

Leslie denies any knowledge of Yolanda Flores's involvement.

HCCS attorney Miles LeBlanc released a response to Campos's complaint in April that said the allegations had been thoroughly investigated. "There is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Flores was aware that her son filed an application of employment with HCCS," he wrote.

Leslie was questioned this month about how a mother could not know her son was applying for a job within her own college system. "That I can't answer," he said. "There is no way I can answer that."

Flores also apparently was unaware her son and husband were listed as major donors to her Texas Senate campaign. Flores's treasurer, husband Larry Flores Sr., recently issued a correction stating 17 reported contributions -- totaling roughly $40,000 -- had never happened. Many had been reported as coming from relatives; one was even listed as from treasurer Larry Flores himself. The reason given for the correction was "data entry error."

But the other half of the "data entry error" raises questions about whether the errors were unintentional. The treasurer's correction, in addition to admitting that donations were overstated by $40,000, exposed a $35,000 loan that hadn't been disclosed earlier.

Campos, who unearthed the correction, finds it galling. "It looks like she got a loan but she don't wanna report the loan, so she assigns bits and portions of the loan to family members," he says.

"Then she figured out some of us were questioning, for instance, how her son could give $2,500 and his wife could give $2,500" to her campaign, he says. Flores's son was working a low-paying job at the time, Campos has repeatedly argued, and could have scarcely afforded such donations.

Campos complained about the incident to the Texas Ethics Commission, which he says sent Flores what is known as a resolution. Such resolutions typically give recipients the choice between a hearing or some form of punishment, a commission spokesperson says, but he can't comment on the incident until the matter is resolved and posted on the agency's Web site.

Flores declined repeated requests for an interview.

Complaints about Davila extend beyond his alleged efforts to land jobs for friends and family. Castillo says that in January 2003 Davila walked into her office and handed her assistant, Cassandra Nino, a list of five students. His message, Castillo says, was that the students were to be awarded with Hispanic Educational Scholarships.

Davila had conceived the scholarship program in early 2002 as a way to complement the type of financial aid available to African-Americans. The program would serve primarily low-income Hispanics, some of whom were undocumented immigrants lacking access to most scholarships. Davila worked closely with Castillo for much of that year to plan the first fund-raiser.

The event took place that September as a banquet, complete with music, Mexican food and a few big-name attendees such as Mexican Consul Eduardo Ibarolla and state Senator Gallegos. Representatives from major Houston companies, many of them HCCS contractors such as Johnson Controls and the consulting firm of McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy, paid up to $5,000 per table.

The event raised more than $80,000. It was deposited in a special HCCS bank account until a foundation could be created to review applications and grant awards. The money still sat in that college system account, and the foundation had yet to be formed, when Davila allegedly presented Castillo's office with his list of names.

Castillo thought the list strange, but says it was her assistant, Nino, who first recognized one of the names as Davila's nephew Andrew. Alarmed, Castillo says she approached Ramos, then the president of the Southeast campus, and asked what should be done.

To release the scholarship funds, the signatures of Castillo and Vice-Chancellor Porcarello were required. Ramos advised Castillo to sign and then wash her hands of the foundation and any scholarship fund-raisers. Castillo complied.

Davila denies ever requesting a scholarship for his nephew and says he doesn't get involved in selecting scholarships. But he says he can't remember if he delivered a list of names to Castillo's office. "I don't think I did that," he says, "but I don't recall."

Whatever Davila did or didn't do that January, there's no doubt his nephew was rewarded. For the fall 2002 semester, Andrew received $500.

A college list of scholarship recipients, obtained by the Houston Press, indicates he was the only one honored with funding that semester. The list shows Davila's nephew got another $500 that spring, along with just a handful of other students.

By fall 2003, the scholarships had become more well known on campus. Jose Salazar, the Central College program director who was in charge of selecting recipients, was receiving hundreds of calls from potential applicants, he says. Even so, the awards for the Davila family kept coming. Nephew Andrew received $250 that fall and $250 in the spring. Another student who cashed in on $500 in Hispanic scholarships that school year was Davila's niece, Jessika.

His niece also may have received her scholarships through questionable channels. Without naming Jessika specifically, Salazar confirms that one of Davila's nieces didn't apply directly to the program, but instead submitted her application to Porcarello, who passed it on to him.

He says nobody pressured him to award the scholarship, but several sources say Davila and Porcarello are close. In fact, Salazar reports that Porcarello had told him shortly after the first fund-raiser that five scholarships should be awarded. He says Porcarello told him the scholarships were needed immediately for students who lacked money.

Porcarello declined to comment.

At a minimum, says an employee involved in the scholarship program, Davila's niece has chutzpah. The worker says the young woman approached one day and asked, "Am I going to get the scholarship again?"

By the time of the second scholarship banquet in September 2003, Davila's influence over the event had expanded. He used scholarship funds to fly a member of his extended family to the event from Mexico, the employee says.

Mexico City poet Amparo Lago Sanchez was flown to the fund-raiser to read her poem "Mexico." The employee says the scholarship committee not only purchased her ticket with scholarship funds but also bought copies of her book with the money and handed them out to guests.

Davila denies Lago Sanchez is a member of his family. "She's a real good poet that wrote two poet books, and she's not related," he says. "I wish she was; I don't mind claiming her if she was related to me."

But Davila is closer to Lago Sanchez than he lets on. Reached over the phone in Mexico City, the poet explained that Davila is the brother of her daughter-in-law. "He was born in Mexico," she said in Spanish, "...and he still maintains a connection to the people."

During the HCCS campaign for the $151 million bond election last year, Castillo says, Davila again tightened his pressure in a dispute over funds to promote the measure.

All of the college presidents had been allocated bond campaign money, but how they spent it was touchy business. Castillo had been assigned to work with then-trustee Herlinda Garcia, who was also campaigning at the time for her own re-election. To stay within the boundaries of campaign laws, Castillo had to be careful not to cross beyond pushing the bond to promoting Garcia.

A 15-year veteran on the board and a friend of Castillo's, Garcia was increasingly being painted as the board's dissident. Insiders say Davila, Flores and trustee Michael Williams had united in an effort to oust her, in part because she hadn't supported Davila for a second term as chairman.

And Castillo, who hadn't found a job for Aguilar, had dropped out of the scholarship program and was now supporting Garcia, was being swept into this internecine conflict faster than a Kentucky cousin.

On September 24, Castillo says, Leslie pulled Castillo into his office and said Davila was unhappy with her because she hadn't presented plans to campaign in his district for the bond measure. Castillo told Leslie she didn't know she was supposed to work with Davila, she says.

Later that day, she tried to tell Davila there had been a misunderstanding, but he wouldn't listen, she says. According to her, he became enraged, claiming she had ignored him and demanding half of the $76,000 in bond campaign funds she had received.

A high-ranking faculty member, who saw Castillo crying shortly after the confrontation, says he's inclined to believe her reports. "If you see somebody that is obviously disheveled and in tears, it's hard to imagine that they just made something up out of whole cloth," he says. "There has to be some merit to what they're saying. And if that person is harmed and there is retribution, I think that's just horrible."

Castillo says she offered to meet with Davila, and the next day he accused her of campaigning for Garcia on HCCS time -- threatening to publicly report her to the board and the media. "You had better hope Herlinda Garcia wins her election," she says he told her, "because the moment she doesn't, you will be out of here." Castillo again broke into tears.

Castillo says she described the confrontations to Chancellor Leslie in a letter and he agreed Davila's actions were inappropriate. "That's not his job to do that," he told her. Leslie declined to discuss the subject, citing the confidentiality of "personnel issues."

The high-profile law firm of Rusty Hardin & Associates was called in to investigate Castillo's claims (as well as allegations that had been made against her, she would later learn). Lawyers with the firm declined to comment, but Castillo says she told them everything she knew, sparing no detail about the scholarships and Davila's behavior regarding Barrera and Aguilar.

And then she waited -- for somebody to confront Davila about the incidents, or at least to tell her she shouldn't be subjected to verbal abuse. But September turned into October. And in November, Garcia narrowly lost her bid for re-election.

Davila, Flores and Williams, along with their new colleague, Diane Olmos Guzmán, had forged a tightly knit kinship. And Castillo felt like she was an increasingly vulnerable orphan.

At the HCCS board retreat early this year, Williams, who says he counts Davila as his biggest board ally, had his own criticism waiting for Castillo and her employees at the Southeast College. He accused them of rudely bungling the registration of his daughter. Lauren Williams had signed up for her fall and spring classes earlier that January.

Williams repeated his harsh words last month from his office at the Joy Baptist Tabernacle, where a sign says the church is "Producing Whole People in a Broken World." The world of customer service, he says, is in particular disrepair: "Customer service is a major problem," he says. "...I mean, people are not polite, they're not interested."

Williams says his daughter experienced long lines and "sort of indifferent people [who were] not really paying attention" at Southeast. Asked to elaborate in a later phone interview, he adds that the cashier wouldn't accept his personal check for his daughter's tuition because she couldn't show his driver's license. He called Castillo at that time and asked her to vouch for his identity.

"Since I am a known person and I am not going anywhere, the president was in a position to say, 'Yes, indeed, that is him,'" he says. "And that's it. That's all that happened. If anyone said anything else, that is absolutely untrue."

But a February 4 e-mail from Lisa Galvan, the cashier who dealt with Williams's daughter, strongly contradicts his account. Galvan says she asked Lauren Williams for her father's driver's license number (making no mention of any need for the license itself). "After several attempts to contact her father through her family members and his staff," she wrote, "the student finally contacted her dad and got the TDL number."

Galvan then proceeded to process the check. And that's when she says she ran into problems: TeleCheck, the check-verification company used by HCCS and many merchants, rejected Williams's check. "I informed the student in confidentiality that we received a code 3 from TELECHECK and for her to contact them," she wrote. His daughter said okay and left the counter, Galvan's e-mail reported.

HCCS policy allows students who can't pay tuition to register anyway, says Porcarello, the interim vice-chancellor. But every Friday the college computer system drops students with unpaid accounts from their classes. Lauren Williams had taken advantage of this policy to register in 2003, Porcarello says. Her tuition check was initially declined, but she produced the funds before the end of the week.

Yet by this year, Michael Williams apparently had decided this standard procedure wasn't good enough, at least not for the daughter of a trustee. Instead of sending Lauren Williams back to the cashier later that week with a valid check, he dialed up Castillo, she says, and told her to solve the problem immediately. "He didn't want [his daughter] to have to come back," she recalls.

Castillo had only one way to accommodate Williams. She overrode the computer system, indicating he had paid $282 in tuition. She's unsure if Williams ever reimbursed the college.

HCCS attorney LeBlanc refused to provide tuition payment records for Lauren Williams, arguing they are confidential under federal law. Michael Williams denies any knowledge of the declined check, or ever discussing tuition accommodations with Castillo.

However, during the board's retreat, Williams railed about the poor service as Castillo listened silently. She says Davila played off the comments and -- making eye contact with her -- he talked about the need to "take a whip" to bad executives. It didn't take her long to figure out what that meant.

Two weeks after the board retreat, Castillo was about to leave her office to catch a flight when a secretary told her a man and a woman were there to see her. The secretary said they wouldn't give their names. The couple sat down at Castillo's desk, pulled out police badges and told her she was under investigation for allegedly using public money to pay for Garcia's political campaign.

"That's when all hell broke loose," she says.

The investigators questioned her about using HCCS funds to pay a public relations writer to pen a campaign piece on Garcia for the Houston Chronicle. She was also accused of giving speeches promoting Garcia at HCCS bond campaign events, purchasing extra copies of a college newsletter that spoke favorably of Garcia and paying employees to campaign for Garcia on HCCS time.

The accusations took Castillo by surprise; the chancellor had never discussed any of them with her. "We have had many cases at HCC where people have done wrong," she says, "and it has never gone to a D.A. So why would they do this to an interim president, with my supervisor not even saying anything to me about it?"

Asked to discuss the accusations and name those who initiated the investigation, both Leslie and D.A. investigator Dan McAnulty declined to comment.

"The only thing I will say about it is when there are allegations made, then it is important that we investigate them," Leslie said. "And we do this on an ongoing basis. My style is to do that. Rather than let something sit, whenever there is an allegation made against somebody, then I will investigate or have it investigated."

In February, Castillo hired attorney Clyde Williams, who drafted responses to the allegations. In a recent interview, Williams denies Castillo ever asked her employees to campaign for Garcia or offered them comp time for the job. The attorney says Castillo never knew about the Chronicle story on Garcia until it had been written. Williams admits Castillo made copies of a newsletter for Garcia, but referred to a memo sent from public relations director Rosie Barrera that specifically authorized the printing of extra newsletters when requested by a trustee. And Castillo never campaigned for Garcia during the bond activities, Williams says; she only introduced her as she would any trustee who was giving a speech.

"I think the sole motivator" for the allegations "was retaliation," Williams says.

The investigation has exacted a heavy toll on Castillo, and not only in legal fees. Her mind raced at night and her head swam with distracting worries during the day. She began seeing a psychotherapist, who put her on sleeping pills and Zoloft, an antidepressant.

She had worked at HCCS for 28 years, but the college suddenly seemed like a different place. "I felt like I was in hell," she says. "The worst part was that I couldn't talk about it with anyone because it was so private.

"It seemed like the whole thing was to break me. And for a while they did break me. It's just nobody saw that but my family and my friends."

She remained stubbornly defiant. "I believe this bloc [of board members] wants control of the Southeast campus so they can have a puppet president who will do whatever they want," she says.

After six months under scrutiny, Castillo learned in June that the investigation had been dropped.

"I am not going to say that there wasn't something to investigate," says McAnulty. "There were allegations of misconduct. As a result of the investigation, we believe there is insufficient evidence to take this case to a grand jury."

Life on campus remains eerily unchanged for Castillo. She works in the same brick building, parks in the same reserved parking spot and clicks on the same computer every day. She meets with the chancellor and presents facts to the board. And nobody acknowledges the criminal investigation ever happened.

Even worse, there has been no response to her complaints against Davila. "Nobody has ever come back to her and said, 'Hey, we investigated it and we think you are full of bull,'" says attorney Williams. "That's very suspect."

Leslie declined to comment, again citing a pledge to keep "personnel matters" confidential. Even so, he claims he received limited information about the Davila incidents. He says he never heard allegations that Davila pressured administrators to hire or promote Isabel Aguilar and Manuel Barrera or to award scholarships to his relatives.

Questioned further, Leslie would not say whether he read or received a briefing on the investigation by Hardin's firm, which presumably would include details about the incidents. Yet other sources say he was apprised of the findings and should have known about whatever Castillo reported.

Leslie also refused to comment on why he or the board apparently pursued a criminal investigation of Castillo but apparently didn't follow the same course with Davila.

"I will do what's appropriate," he says. "That's as far as I will go [to comment] on that."

Board Chairman Herman Litt indicates many trustees might be even more unaware of Castillo's situation. He says he has never heard of the D.A.'s probe. But if Castillo brings her allegations against trustees to the board, Litt suggests he will take action.

"If board members are not doing what they should be doing, then we need to take care of it," he says. "That's just the way it is. I think every board should be that way, and we should be that way, and we will be."

For now, Castillo feels betrayed by the system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep HCCS trustees honest. Even so, she remains surprisingly upbeat about the college's future. "It's made up of wonderful faculty and staff that are there for the students day in and day out," she says.

Yet she doubts the college will stay that way unless faculty and administrators believe they can raise concerns without worry of reprisals. "That culture of fear does not validate folks," she says. "And when people don't feel validated, they cannot be creative. So you will have an institution that is in decline.

"I think in a sense the institution feels like it is in a funk now, like it is in purgatory," she adds. "And we have an opportunity to get beyond that."

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