HISD Abruptly Reinstates the Chief Auditor It Sent Home 5 Months Ago [UPDATED]

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In a sudden and terse announcement, the Houston ISD today said that its embattled chief auditor, Richard Patton, has been told to come back to work and resume the duties he was barred from five months ago. His home leave came after he headed up a report critical of the district's contract oversight procedures.

No explanation for Wednesday's turnaround was given in the emailed notification other than “HISD has resolved the issues related to his temporary reassignment.”

Patton's Wednesday return to work (just in time for the new superintendent and the new school year) came after he was sent home on March 10 when he received a letter relieving him of his duties and assigning him to (undisclosed) home duties.

That letter was signed by Gloria Cavazos, chief human resource officer in HISD's Human Resources Department, who wrote that “allegations of misconduct and other performance concerns” had been made against him. It directed Patton “not to have contact with staff, students, parents, colleagues, or participate in any district activities regarding official HISD business.” The district never issued any specific allegations.

Just as HISD representatives declined to reveal who'd made the decision to send Patton home, it was unknown Wednesday who decided to reinstate him or how that reassessment process was carried out. When we called the HISD public relations department today, no one answered the phone. Update 2:26 p.m.: Chief spokesman Jason Spencer returned our call and said HISD had nothing to add to its statement. 

Update 3:15 p.m.:  Attorney David Feldman, who has been retained by Patton in this case, issued this statement: 

HISD owes Richard Patton a public apology.  The District ordered him back to work today after an almost five-month suspension, following an unnecessary investigation by outside counsel that obviously proved what we have said from the start -  Mr. Patton was punished for doing his job protecting the taxpayers.

HISD now refuses to show the public the costly investigative report they paid for, or to meaningfully address the grievance filed by Mr. Patton, who has alleged his suspension was in retaliation for reporting violations of law to HISD police and the FBI.

We have been told that HISD has reduced Mr. Patton’s responsibilities, trying to further silence the man who is supposed to be your watchdog.

Update: 3:46 p.m.: The Houston Press obtained a copy of the August 2 letter sent to Patton instructing him to return to work. The letter signed by Board President Manuel Rodriguez and Cavazos lifts the restriction barring Patton from any "contact with students, staff, parents, collegagues or participate in any district activities."

Some of the terms and conditions of Patton's return which follow are troubling. For instance the directive that:

"No individual member of HISD administration, member of the Board, or Committee of the Board shall have the authority to request that Internal Audit undertake work activities not set out in the annual audit plan, and any such additional work activities must be approved by the Board as a written amendment to the annual audit plan. Should the Internal Audit Department have any additional requests for work activities, or the need to bring any information or matter of concern not set out in the audit plan to the Board's attention, the Internal Audit Department should do so through written communication to the Board of Education President."  

When Patton released his report in October 2015 he was subsequently publicly chastised by then- Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobidilla who said Patton had only been asked to do math, not investigate anything about how the 2012 bond funds were being handled. Sounds like Patton won't be doing any investigations of anything without express board president approval. 

And then there's the move that apparently puts the chief auditor's work under the direction of the HISD legal department.  Which means if the Legal Department doesn't want some information made public that would be potentially embarrassing to HISD, it can block it. 

"You shall work to ensure that the Internal Audit Department coordinates with the HISD Office of Legal Services or HISD Board counsel with respect to any issues relating to interpretation of law or conclusions of law as may be required as part of the Internal Audit Department activities or reports."

So Patton is back, but in apparently significantly neutered form. 

Update 4:46 p.m. : Trustee Anna Eastman, a longtime member of the HISD Audit Committee had this to say:

"As a part of the team that both hired and worked with Richard to begin the much needed overhaul of the audit department, I am relieved to know he is back on the job. I hope he and the board can work together productively to inspire th confidence of the taxpayers."

Patton came to work for the district in February 2010 as its new E-Rate compliance officer, with a $150,000 annual salary, after the district had gotten itself in trouble for its bidding process (vendors were supposedly gifting board members to affect their votes). The feds had suspended the district's E-rate program funding, which offered discounts on technology. The district reached a settlement with the government and paid $850,000 – but clearly lost a lot of funding while everything was on hold.

Update 5:56 p.m. HISD Chief Spokesman Jason Spencer emailed us this information:

The decision to place the Ethics and Compliance Office under Legal Services is not related to any allegations regarding board member conduct or allegations of investigations of such conduct.

By law, the Internal Auditor of a public school district must report to the Board of Trustees. The Ethics and Compliance Office is not subject to this requirement. It became a part of the Internal Audit department solely because Mr. Patton took those duties with him when he transitioned from the job of Ethics and Compliance Officer to Chief Executive Auditor. Several changes were recently made to the district’s organizational structure in order to make the district more efficient and effective. The Ethics and Compliance Office was included among those organizational realignments. 

Update 6:37 p.m. Spencer emailed us again:

Mr. Patton, through his attorney David Feldman, has decided to publicly complain about the terms of his return to his HISD office duties. Mr. Patton, like any HISD employee regardless of rank, is subject to HISD policies and procedures in the face of allegations of misconduct. The district is disappointed that Mr. Feldman would publicly complain about the written return-to-office-duty memo, which was drafted with his input. The district has gone out of its way to respect Mr. Patton’s privacy during the pendency of his reassignment, and looks forward to the resolution of Mr. Patton's grievance through the normal channels.

As our recent cover story about the renovations at Worthing High and the apparent lack of construction oversight there shows, Patton still has plenty of ground to cover in HISD. 

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