Gil Ramirez said if you weren’t willing to hand over bribes to Houston ISD trustee Larry Marshall, you could count on losing out on construction contracts with the school district.
It took six years, a reversal of a lower court ruling, and days upon days of testimony in federal court, but finally on Wednesday, a federal court jury agreed with Ramirez and awarded the construction contractor more than $5 million in damages.
Marshall wasn’t the only one on the wrong side of the suit. His co-defendants or co-conspirators as the jury determined them to be included Joyce Moss-Clay and her consulting company, as well as Ramirez’s competitors, Fort Bend Mechanical (and owner Pete Medford) and RHJ-JOC (Eva Jackson).
The jury assigned 30 percent of the "tortuous interference" responsibility to Marshall, 20 percent to Moss-Clay, 25 percent to Medford and 25 percent to Jackson. Under exemplary damages, the jurors assessed Marshall $1.4 million, Moss-Clay and Medford $500,000 each and $1 million to Jackson.
The jury found violations of the federal racketeering law and assessed an award of $450,000, which is automatically tripled under that law to $1.5 million. After agreeing with Ramirez’s lawyers that the group interfered with contracts, the jury tacked on another $3.4 million in punitive damages and $676,000 in actual damages.
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HISD quickly put out a press release Wednesday after the verdict saying it was not part of the lawsuit, not mentioning that it was the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals that removed the district since it was a governmental entity and therefore exempt.
“HISD is not a party to the litigation involving job order contracts, and HISD taxpayers are not liable for any damages awarded. Today's verdict did not identify wrongdoing by HISD officials except for Mr. Marshall and the other non-HISD defendants. HISD remains committed to effective and transparent stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
This hand-washing comes in contrast to the statements made by former superintendent Terry Grier and (now outgoing) trustee Greg Meyers, who in 2013, when U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison dismissed all claims, both lauded the work Marshall had done.
HISD has distanced itself from the jury’s findings, but it may find it harder to win in the court of public opinion, filled with people wondering how this extensive a kickback operation could have gone on so long – despite years of allegations – and totally without the notice of the administration or Marshall’s fellow trustees. Especially since earlier this year, it weakened its own ethics regulations, saying they were just too tough. And then there was the firing of Chief Auditor Richard Patton, who maintains he got crosswise with the board after questioning construction contracts.