Part of a $30 million renovation, the new classroom building at Worthing High School, in Houston’s underprivileged Sunnyside neighborhood, is a shining, gleaming paean to progress.
“The building is brighter,” the school’s principal, Duane Clark, told a group of school district and community representatives on a recent tour, according to the Houston Independent School District’s website. “It brings a different sense of pride.”
The Worthing overhaul is a boon to the school’s roughly 680 students, more than 70 percent of whom are classified as economically disadvantaged. The Worthing student body is 86 percent African-American and 13 percent Hispanic .
At a December 2015 beam-signing ceremony marking just how far the new construction had come, former principal John Modest said, “There’s been so much frustration, so much mistrust in the community about when the school was going to be built, and we need to change that. And so today, we’re changing it.”
The pomp and circumstance was covered by the Houston Chronicle, which described the school’s choir launching into a gospel song as students put Sharpie to exposed steel, as if God were the contractor who finally got the ball rolling. They sang a tune called “Happy,” which contains the line “Everything about you is right; it covers all my wrong.”
It was fitting, because everything about the building that was aboveground covered the fact that the underground piers and concrete foundation appear to have been built using structural plans that were never approved by the City of Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering.
According to records that surfaced from a lawsuit between HISD and the building’s original contractor, Fort Bend Mechanical, the architectural firm that designed the building pulled a switcheroo in the field, and ordered all contractors to work from a set of plans that building officials had not seen.
Not only that, but licensed structural engineers hired by the architectural firm misled city permitting officials by sending letters claiming that the building’s foundation was completed in accordance with city-approved plans.
In the course of research the Houston Press did for this story, no city or HISD officials, or anyone from the architectural or engineering firms, explained the reasons behind this, or, more important, what exactly is underneath the building that children were thanking God for. They actually could not have been less interested.
On the one hand, officials’ utter nonchalance is strangely reassuring, suggesting that, at the end of the day, everyone is satisfied with whatever plans were used to construct the Worthing addition, whether or not the plans were permitted.
On the other hand, the issue raises a question: If it’s so easy to bamboozle, or at least circumvent, building officials during a taxpayer-funded $30 million construction project, how often does this type of thing happen, and did it happen during the building of any other schools in HISD’s sweeping renovation program?
In December 2012, according to depositions, HISD officials told David “Pete” Medford of Fort Bend Mechanical that his crew should not work on Worthing or any of the other five schools in its $30 million contract with HISD over the winter break.
It was an unusual order — ordinarily, working when school is not in session is ideal, and Fort Bend Mechanical was trying to stay on schedule.
At $14.3 million, the Worthing project was the most elaborate of his company’s six construction jobs.
Chock-full of science labs, “career and technology education spaces,” and a “collegiate-style lecture hall,” the two-story, 91,000-square-foot structure was a product of a districtwide construction project funded by two highly publicized bond issues totaling $2.7 billion. The district facelift is part of a movement toward, in the language of HISD flacks, “21st century learning environments that bring today’s schools into the modern age.”
Medford’s crew locked up the 14 giant on-site storage boxes full of the company’s equipment, expecting to pick up where they left off in January. But when the crew returned, they discovered that someone had cut off their locks and put on new ones.
This was part of what one HISD contractor would later refer to as the “exit strategy” to kick Medford off the job.
At the time, Medford was a key player in a civil lawsuit that had been filed against the school district and its most controversial trustee, Larry Marshall, who had parlayed years of public stewardship into quite a lucrative endeavor.
Gil Ramirez, a contractor who unsuccessfully bid on HISD’s bond program work, sued Marshall and the district in 2010, claiming that he didn’t win any jobs because he refused to bribe Marshall. Ramirez accused Medford of paying Marshall $25,000 and giving him Super Bowl tickets in exchange for Fort Bend Mechanical’s fat HISD contract. (Ramirez also accused another company, RHJ, of engaging in “pay-to-play” tactics.)
Ramirez also pointed out in his lawsuit that Marshall’s campaign manager and former business associate, Joyce Moss-Clay, had become a paid “consultant” for Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ, and he accused Moss-Clay of funneling money back to Marshall. Court records revealed that Marshall had been questioned by the FBI.
Marshall has denied the bribery allegations; his attorney claimed that the only reason Ramirez’s company failed to obtain a contract was that an HISD procurement committee ranked it lower than other companies that bid on jobs.
Moss-Clay, a former HISD facilities manager, has stated in depositions that she kicked some of her consulting fees Marshall’s way only because he was a mentor and because he helped her with the consulting work. She denied allegations that her consulting work influenced HISD contracts. (Marshall’s term expired in 2013, and he did not run for re-election.)
Although HISD was ultimately dismissed as a defendant, the district is still paying for Marshall’s legal expenses. As other Houston media have pointed out, Marshall’s legal bills exceeded $630,000 by February 2013 — a sum that could have covered the salaries of roughly 13 first-year teachers.
From a public relations standpoint, HISD had good reason to sack Fort Bend Mechanical. Although Medford claimed that the $25,000 check to Marshall was just a campaign contribution that Marshall simply forgot to file, and that the Super Bowl tickets didn’t actually violate state ethics laws, any contractor in Marshall’s orbit carried a stink.
The stink spread to the Fort Bend Independent School District, whose trustees revoked Medford’s contract with the district after only 18 months. One of the trustees on that board, Jim Rice, was the co-founder of an engineering and construction management firm that was overseeing projects for HISD involving Medford.
In an April 2016 deposition, Rice claimed that Medford’s company was doing less than stellar work on at least one school, Jane Long Middle School. In fact, Rice claimed, the work was so shoddy that a bathroom ceiling caved in. Rice said in his deposition that he complained about Medford’s crew to HISD, and, ultimately, his complaints were heard.
It’s unclear if Rice’s wife, Mary Walker, notified him of a potential hitch: Walker was the head of the architectural firm, Molina Walker, that had drafted the Worthing blueprints, and that was in charge of overseeing all the contractors in the field. Molina Walker’s man in the field, Noe Almaguer, would reveal at an August 2015 deposition that his company had ordered contractors to work from an alternate set of plans that the city had not approved. (Rice and Walker did not respond to requests for comment.)
Whoever replaced Medford at Worthing would almost assuredly discover that Molina Walker had called an audible on the permitted plans. It was a real risk. Walker could have helped her husband — and the district — by at least warning him that her firm was playing by its own rules.
It’s as simple as this: The structural design for the 91,000-square-foot addition at Worthing High School was approved by city officials in May 2011.
But Almaguer, the Molina Walker representative on the Worthing site, stated in his deposition that Molina Walker drafted a new set of plans in November 2011, and that those plans — unapproved by the city — were given to contractors.
This came to light after Medford sued HISD in May 2014, saying the district had stiffed his company out of $17.5 million. The district denied the allegations and also claimed that, as a governmental entity, HISD had immunity. The district then countersued, accusing Fort Bend Mechanical of doing sloppy work, and demanding $2.5 million in damages.
By the time HISD countersued, the district claimed that a new contractor brought in to inspect Fort Bend Mechanical’s work found that the piers were not installed properly. But Medford was confident that his crew had done the work according to the specs. There was a simple reason for this: In his August 2015 deposition, Almaguer said that the new contractor was given a different set of plans.
An assistant project manager for the new contractor, B3CI, announced the inspection results in a December 18, 2013, letter to Almaguer.
“The piers are not located as per plans and specifications,” the letter states, referring only to a set of exposed piers.
There were other piers located under a concrete slab that would also have to be inspected, which could take up to four weeks.
The letter also states that the existing piers required final approval from a structural engineer and city inspectors.
But Molina Walker apparently had other plans.
On January 8, 2014, three weeks after the B3CI report, an engineer hired by Molina Walker notified the city’s code enforcement and structural inspection division that the piers were fine. The letter was directed to the attention of the city’s chief structural inspector.
The piers were installed “to the best of my knowledge, in conformance with the permitted construction plans and specifications,” wrote Louis Hamilton of the engineering firm Stanley Spurling & Hamilton. The letter was stamped by Hamilton.
It’s a letter that is stunning in its wrongness. For one thing, the piers were not installed according to permitted plans. They were installed based on an unapproved set drafted by Molina Walker, which was paying Hamilton. If city inspectors had waddled over to the site in January 2014, they would have caught that. But they didn’t. They blindly accepted Hamilton’s letter. (Hamilton declined to comment for this story.)
Furthermore, why was Hamilton assuring the City of Houston that the piers were fine when, three weeks earlier, BC31 stated the opposite?
Of course, the letter was also crafted with an escape hatch to plausible deniability. At Almaguer’s deposition, an attorney for another HISD contractor who was dragged into the lawsuit asked, “Is it because [Hamilton] puts ‘to the best of our knowledge’ that he gets out of jail free on this?”
When we asked Bob Oakes, deputy assistant director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, about these discrepancies, we got no response. When we asked public works spokesperson Julie Gilbert, we got abject confusion, followed by frustration, followed by a brush-off suggestion to file a public records request. If Oakes or Gilbert was surprised or concerned that a building meant to be occupied by children was built from a set of plans they had never seen — and that an engineer had in fact sent a misleading letter — they had a strange way of showing it.
The department’s open records employee we checked with could find no record of the November 2011 plans used for the Worthing construction.
“It may have never made it to our office,” Humberto Garcia told us in an email.
Six months after his colleague told the city the piers were kosher, engineer Ken Stanley wrote a letter stating they were defective. The July 2014 letter claimed that further inspection turned up a “25 percent failure rate” on the piers.
Armed with these allegations, Barry Rabon, the lawyer representing HISD in its lawsuit against Fort Bend Mechanical, wrote a letter to Medford’s lawyer in October 2014.
Rabon’s letter stated that some of the piers had missing or incorrectly sized rebar, and some were installed at an angle, among other defects. HISD estimated the cost to correct the work at $1.8 million. The new contractor “is in the process of remedying this issue and [the work] should be complete in the next three weeks. If you wish to visit the project site during that time to observe the work or perform an investigation, please contact me as soon as possible.”
According to court records, Medford and Buchanan went to the property a week after they received the letter and saw that the work had already been done. The allegedly defective piers had been covered with a concrete slab. There was no way for Medford, his attorney or Medford’s bonding company to tell just what exactly had been done and what plans were followed.
One month later, on November 18, 2014, Stanley sent the City of Houston Code Enforcement Division a letter stating that the piers and foundation were completed “to the best of my knowledge, in conformance with the permitted construction plans and specifications.”
It appears that, once again, city officials accepted an engineer’s letter in lieu of conducting a personal inspection. City records show that, between September 4 and October 13, 2014, Joseph Tomaselli, with HISD contractor Balfour Beatty, canceled three scheduled inspections of the piers and foundation. The records show that the same city inspector was notified each time.
No reason is listed for the cancellations, but Tomaselli told the Press they could be weather-related. Tomaselli said he does remember city inspectors being on-site some days, and he says that he worked from city-approved plans.
When contacted, Tomaselli was working outside of Houston and did not have access to a copy of those plans. When the Press called Balfour Beatty’s Houston office to find out which plans the company used in 2014, an employee who would only identify himself as “John” said he would need HISD’s permission before he could talk to us. Then he hung up.
HISD spokeswoman Ashley Anthony disagreed with “John,” telling us in an email, “Requests for comments from a company that is not HISD should be made directly with that entity,” leaving us in a sort of existential quandary.
Still, Tomaselli told us, “Anything that we built under our construction permit was inspected by the City of Houston.”
That’s good enough for HISD, and it apparently should be good enough for the public.
As the nation’s seventh-largest school district, HISD spends a lot of money on lawyers and public relations specialists, neither of whom did the district any favors when it comes to the Worthing issue.
By August 2015 — Almaguer’s deposition — HISD attorney Rabon was made aware that Molina Walker had used an unapproved set of plans in the field. But it doesn’t appear Rabon bothered to pick up the phone and give a heads-up to HISD flacks Ashley Anthony and Jason Spencer, Anthony’s supervisor.
Together, these individuals are paid well over $100,000 a year by taxpayers for a job that largely involves attempting to keep HISD from looking stupid. Depending on the issue at hand, they can use all the help they can get.
Because city officials could not provide documentation showing that the November 2011 plans used in the field were ever approved, we had hoped HISD might have a set lying around, maybe under a pile of papers on someone’s desk. It seemed like a rather mundane request — we just wanted to see approved plans for a publicly funded building.
All anyone had to do — be they from the city, HISD, Molina Walker or Stanley Spurling & Hamilton — was email, fax or carrier-pigeon a copy of the stamped, approved November 2011 building plans. Even HISD lawyer Rabon, who was present when Almaguer spilled the beans and who is intimately familiar with the issue, declined comment.
To this date, no one has provided a copy of plans showing that the work that was done on the foundation was actually approved by the city. Based on everyone’s reactions, we may as well have been asking for the Pentagon Papers.
Ashley Anthony at first referred us to the city’s online permitting database, which, for the purposes of this story, is immensely non-specific and largely irrelevant. Over the course of nearly two weeks, Anthony was unable to provide anything approaching an answer to our questions. At one point, she referred us to Sylvia Wood, the general manager for HISD’s business operations and bond communications. Presumably, she would be someone with direct knowledge of a discrepancy in building plans. But Wood didn’t want to talk.
When Jason Spencer returned from vacation, he, too, seemed baffled by our inquiries.
“What is your story?” he asked. “Do you think that we have built a school without the right permit?”
When we told him that, generally, buildings constructed within the city limits have to be approved by city building officials, Spencer’s response seemed to call into question the very notion of a city having to approve stuff before it’s built: “Where do you get that understanding from? Is there some policy that you’ve read that says it has to have that? Or is this…some source telling you it’s supposed to have that?”
We would have expected more from seasoned spin doctors — perhaps a statement acknowledging the discrepancy in building plans and the suspicious letters from Hamilton and Stanley, along with a vow to get to the bottom of things, and a self-serving sentence about how seriously HISD takes the safety and well-being of children, blah blah blah. To drive home the point of how inane HISD considered the Press’s inquiry, the statement could have tossed in something about how building plans were merely suggestions and, on top of it, none of the public’s business.
Instead, Spencer asked us to send him an email restating our questions. He asked us our deadline. It was almost as if he planned on answering our questions, but our hopes were dashed when, after three days of silence, he told us we’d have to file an open records request if we wanted any information. It hurt.
In the end, we were left with Anthony’s generic non-statement: “While HISD doesn’t comment on pending litigation, we can confirm that plans for Phase 1 of [the] Worthing High School rebuild were approved by the city as required. In fact, the city in June granted the project a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy after inspecting the building and verifying that it was constructed according to the approved plans.”
The non-statement echoes what HISD’s officer of construction, Derrick Sanders, told trustee Wanda Adams in an email.
The Press had reached out to Adams, who oversees the district where Worthing is located, for help in cutting through red tape and getting the basic documentation that would show that city inspectors knew exactly how the piers were installed.
Sanders told Adams, “The new Worthing High School addition that is opening this summer was fully permitted and has already received a temporary Certificate of Occupation (TCO) from the City of Houston Code Enforcement Division. That TCO indicates the construction work has been inspected by the City, passed those inspections, and it is their belief that the building has been built in accordance with the City-permitted plans.” (Sanders subsequently sent the Press a copy of the certificate as well.)
Both Sanders’s and Anthony’s non-statements ignore the very issue, which is that, when the addition was being constructed, contractors were not working with “city-permitted plans.” It is of course possible that, by mid-2014, Molina Walker had a change of heart and decided to undo all the construction completed to that point and revert back to the city-approved plans. But in such a case, there should be city documents detailing that.
Then, just before deadline, our heart went a-flutter: Spencer suspended HISD’s silent treatment just long enough to send us a confusing email. In it, he outlined what is apparently HISD’s understanding of the Worthing construction’s permitting process. And that understanding is that Molina Walker’s unapproved drawings (November 2011) were ultimately permitted by the city in August 2013.
Warning — You’re about to be hit with annoying permit numbers: Spencer noted in his email that the May 2011 permitted drawings were given the number 11043269.
The revised, permitted plans — the ones HISD says included the November 2011 drawings — were given the number 13060214.
The problem is, Garcia at the city’s Public Works Open Records Department told us in an email, “We do not have any plans associated with the project number of 13060214, with the exception of an elevator plan.”
Project number 13060214, we were told, “is just a re-permit” of the May 2011 plans.
“The same plans were used,” Garcia wrote.
Our mind numbed by numbers, we asked Garcia this: At the end of the day, is there a way to find out when the city approved whatever the hell is under Worthing as of July 2016? (And we don’t think it’s an elevator.)
For that, Garcia pointed us to Louis Hamilton’s January 2014 letter to the city, and his partner Ken Stanley’s November 2014 letter to the city, both stating that the piers and foundation were done “in conformance with the permitted construction plans and specifications.” Curiously, neither letter actually contains the date of these “permitted construction plans.”
Noe Almaguer, the Molina Walker architect who was deposed in August 2015 about the two different sets of drawings, opined that Hamilton’s letter probably misled city building officials. (Almaguer was another in a long list of people who had better things to do than talk to us for this story.)
Under oath, Almaguer stated that at the time of Hamilton’s letter, the City of Houston had only one set of permitted plans on file. And those were from May 2011.
Medford’s lawyer, Byron Buchanan, asked Almaguer how city officials would have interpreted Hamilton’s letter.
Buchanan: “When they received this letter, isn’t it reasonable for them to have assumed — when it says ‘the work was performed in conformance with the permit and construction plans’ — it would be the ones that they have on file?”
Buchanan subsequently asked, “Mr. Hamilton’s representations that they were done in accordance with the permit and construction plan is incorrect?”
Almaguer answered, “Based on his statement here, yes.”
This, of course, is information that was available to HISD lawyer Barry Rabon nearly a year ago, but apparently, Rabon never thought to clue in anyone from HISD, which is strange, because even if it were a quick email or phone call, he could certainly bill it.
So if Spencer or anyone else had wanted to get caught up to speed, they’d have to wade through Almaguer’s hourslong deposition, which is really only exciting for about two minutes. Then, Spencer could have moved on to Jim Rice’s deposition.
In his deposition, Rice said things that run counter to how his wife’s company, Molina Walker, went about its work on Worthing, such as: “It would be inappropriate for an owner to direct a contractor to work off a set of plans that was not approved by the City of Houston,” and “The contractor has an obligation to conform to the permit set of plans.”
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Rice actually said that, in the old days — way back before 2007 — contractors were known to bypass city permits rather frequently.
“That was a practice that was prevalent in the City of Houston prior to that time,” Rice alleged.
Molina Walker architects had plenty of time to clue in HISD about the change in plans, if HISD didn’t already know. The agenda minutes over three years of “parent action team” meetings at Worthing High detail the excruciating minutiae discussed regarding the school’s construction project.
For example, minutes show that Almaguer was present at a December 2013 meeting when a researcher from Wiesbaden, Germany, “provided a lecture on ergonomics” that included an exploration of “the types of furniture students should use to accommodate the body’s natural movements.” Perhaps Almaguer didn’t want to disrupt what was most certainly a captivating performance, but he could always have brought up the permit issue afterward.
In the end, though, it appears that, for HISD and the City of Houston, the issue is not worth the trouble. Getting to the bottom of what’s at the bottom of the Worthing addition would require expensive inspection and, possibly, more delays. And for what? The problem is, quite literally, buried. It’s not like a slanted ceiling or a buckling wall, which anyone could see. It’s underground, paved over with a cement slab, leaving only the shiny new pretty part. The important part. Best to just leave everything else covered up.