HISD's E-Rate Report is Out, Some Mysteries Remain

It's debatable what's more amazing when reading over the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm's report on ethical violations in the so-called E-rate program by Houston ISD employees and their too-tempting IT vendors -- the stuff they can verify or the allegations that have been filed away as "not confirmed" by the district.

As detailed in Houston Chronicle reporter Ericka Mellon's story yesterday, there were fishing trips and cells phones and checks handed out and a lot of trips to vendors' conventions.

Mellon also notes that some former and present school board members -- the just-departed Diana Davila, former board president Kevin Hoffman, as well as present members Manuel Rodriguez Jr. and Larry Marshall -- all got campaign contributions from one or more of the three main players in this from the vendor side (Frankie Wong, Larry Lehmann and Frank Trifilio.) Mellon writes that all have said the contributions had no influence on their votes.

Hair Balls obtained its own copy of the report and even in its dryest, most lawyerlike language, it is clear that entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well among some employees dealing with hardware and Internet contracts ranging roughly from 2002 though the end of 2008. And that certain vendors -- Hewlett Packard, Micro Systems Engineering and Analytical Computer Services, Inc. -- were more than ready to facilitate their needs.

We already knew something had to be pretty seriously wrong when HISD settled with the feds back in March. Superintendent Terry Grier, who was not in his position when all this took place, authorized paying a $850,000 fine.

But now this report gives more of the details of what went so off track that the district's access to E-rate funds was frozen since 2006, a compliance officer had to be hired by the district and trustees had to further tighten their ethics rules. Hey, it might all make a good plot for one of those light-hearted caper movies, till you remember that as a result, a lot of low-income school kids got robbed of the equipment they needed.

Some highlights:

ACS gave former Superintendent Abe Saavedra tickets to three Houston Rockets playoffs games in 2005, which he then paid back with a $300 check delivered to Trifilio.

The same company also gave out cell phones to 26 district employees from August 2002 to February 2007 until the HISD chief financial officer stepped in in October 2007 and told everyone to give them back "and terminated all use of vendor-provided cell phones by employees."

Enterprising employee Laura Palmer regularly asked companies to pick up the tab for tickets and trickets. HP volunteered to pay her airfare, hotel and meals to a June 25, 2006 Hewlett Packard K12 Advisory Council meeting in Cupertino, California. The district cannot confirm whether she attended, just as it can't figure out whether ACS execs nominated Palmer for an HP School CIO of the Year award or if she went to dinner with an HP rep in April 2006.

Other Palmer highlights: She got a birthday dinner party at Truluck's paid for by MSE. Larry Lehmann, a business associate of the now notorious Frankie Wong (head of Micro Systems Engineering now residing in federal prison) wrote checks of about $30,000 to Palmer to help with "her son's personal issues." She cashed some of the checks and repaid the amounts received soon after. She and HISD's Bill Edwards went fishing on the boat "Sir Veza," guests of Wong.

Another former employee, Steve Kim, "may have taken" a trip to Las Vegas in February 2005 paid for by Wong, and "may" have taken another one in May 2005, again to Las Vegas, this time paid for by Hewlett Packard.

According to district policy, if employees are off on one of these junkets, they are supposed to "record their time as 'off campus duty.' " Alas, Kim did not.

Former school board member and HISD chief business officer Cathy Mincberg's name comes up a couple times. She and Kim and Palmer and two others failed to record "off campus duty" for an HP-paid for trip to its technology forum in New Orleans.

There's more and we invite you to wade through it.

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