Keeping it in the family?

May 15, 2008 1:51:38 PM PDT
The superintendent of North Forest schools has ordered a stop to all payments to special education consultants, as the district attorney's office probes possible charges of organized crime and theft. The spending scandal, unfolding in the troubled school district, may have cheated hundreds of kids with special needs.

The federal government gave North Forest schools millions to help their special ed children. And now, new evidence a top school official helped lots of her kin folks and friends get contracts.

"I'd like to talk to you about your relationship with (North Forest ISD Special Ed Director Dr.) Ruth Watson?" we said to Lester Houston, a contractor with North Forest ISD, but got no answer.

We caught up with Houston as he brought his company records to the Harris County grand jury.

"What's your relationship with Lester Houston?" we asked Dr. Watson.

"He works for me," she answered.

North Forest school records show Watson has approved more than $400,000 in federal grant payments to Houston's company.

"I'd like to talk to you about all the money you've made out of the North Forest school district," we said to Houston.

"No comment," he answered.

The DA's office is now probing the relationship.

"You're being messy now," Dr. Watson told us.

"I'm being messy?" we answered.

"Do you have a private relationship with Mr. Houston?" we asked Dr. Watson.

"I have a very, very private relationship with all my contractors," she said.

Lester Houston's name is on the directory of this Midtown apartment. You know whose name is on the utility bill? Ruth Watson.

"Your name is on the utility bill," we told Dr. Watson.

"You've got that all wrong," she told us.

And county records show Watson had a catering company. In 2003, the company address -- that very same Midtown apartment.

"It used to be an office she used and now, we took it over some years ago, long before North Forest," said Houston.

Houston's company, Hilliard and Associates, was hired to provide six experienced parent educators to help the parents of special ed children in North Forest, specializing in parents whose kids have dyslexia and related disorders.

"Go do your homework, Wayne, and see that we've employed at least 25 people," Houston told us.

But North Forest says it can't find any records detailing the names and qualifications of virtually any of these specialists, except one. There are bills, but no written evidence what parent got help when. Look at the bills. Just dates, no names; bills of nearly $1,000 a day.

"Don't you think taxpayers of North Forest deserve to hear what you're doing for all the money you are making?" we asked him.

Look at North Forest records. Last school year, $100,000 was budgeted for Houston's company. It was paid $280,000. This year, more than $132,000 paid in seven months; $40,000 more than the interim superintendent of the North Forest district will make for the entire year.

"Before we pay another dime, were going to review all of those requests for overtime and for duty pay and contractor services," said North Forest interim Superintendent Ira Jones.

We do have a company address on the invoice for Hilliard and Associates education consultants. It's a P.O. box in an eastside mail store.

"I'll talk to you after the investigation is done. How about that?" Houston told us. "I'll sit down and do an interview with you."

We tried for weeks to get Dr. Watson to call us back before we went to find her in Spring ISD. She was recently elected to that district's school board.

"I'm taking care of the business of children and what you're doing is you're interfering with that," she told us.

The school board meeting was inside. We were out in the parking lot.

"I'd be more than happy to come and show you anything you need," Dr. Watson told us. "You can come to the office tomorrow."

We did. Watson wasn't there and she hasn't called us back since. But we have confirmed that hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money has gone to relatives she hired. We found no evidence competing proposals were even asked for.

"I have three relatives who work there for me and they do a very good job," Dr. Watson told us.

Hopefully, Ms. Watson's special ed skills are better than her math because the special ed family affair is a lot bigger than that

Her sister, her nephew, her niece. Count them -- one, two, at least four cousins.

"If you can get anyone that's competent and qualified who's willing to come work with those children in that community, that's beautiful," said Dr. Watson.

"There were family involved that shouldn't have been involved," said state monitor Henry Boening.

The district attorney first subpoenaed special ed records from North Forest last October, but school board members haven't taken action against a single employee, despite growing evidence.

"If there's anything going on that's wrong," said Reverend Charles Taylor, a member of the North Forest ISD board. "I've always been against wrong. That's the bottom line."

Parents of North Forest special ed kids have been calling all day, saying they've never heard of some of the consultants supposedly hired to help them. Their families apparently aren't part of the family affair.

Tuesday at 10pm, a company hired to train special ed teachers to help kids with autism. Wait till you hear this one.

- Headlines at a glance


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