HISD's contract-awarding process put to question

Our investigation reveals two-thirds of bond contracts given after the passage of the HISD's 2012 bond went to campaign donors
May 7, 2014 1:21:19 PM PDT
Houston ISD, Texas' largest school district, is in the midst of a nearly $2 billion building boom. Every one of those dollars is from taxpayers, but the money used to campaign for the bond program largely came from companies that wanted big contracts from the district. And now our investigation reveals two-thirds of bond contracts went to campaign donors.

It's the district's largest ever bond program and will rebuild 33 schools. But in the process, HISD Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier is out to make sure there is no perception of Pay to Play. Pay to Play means an unofficial system where contractors feel they are expected to give money, usually political donations, to get government contracts.

On a recent tour of Lee High School, a campus set to be rebuilt, Grier told Ted Oberg, "We've changed a lot of practices that have been in place heretofore to make sure we deliver on what we promised."

Grier candidly admits he's in the midst of transforming a long held perception about how business was done in the state's largest school district.

Ted Oberg asked, "You heard that HISD had a Pay to Play culture?"

"No question I heard that" Grier told us. " I heard that before I came to work here and so I made it very clear when I interviewed for the job, that we don't operate that way.

"I heard about Good ol' boy awards being given to friends of friends or friend of friends. People who donated money to a board member's campaign got contracts," he said.

Whether or not Pay to Play existed at HISD in the past, Dr. Grier says he is certain it doesn't today. After reviewing piles of HISD email and internal documents, we still have questions about at least the perception of how the district is run today.

We started by looking at the 2012 campaign to pass the bond measure. In 2012, bond supporters put up $750,000 for a pro-bond campaign -? much of it from companies that work or want to work for the district.

The campaign's largest donor, a plumbing supply vendor, recalled a lunch event before the election in which he rubbed elbows with not only Dr. Grier, but the district's construction supervisors -- some of the people who would eventually make recommendations about which companies would get hired.

Architects invited Grier to their fundraising event for the campaign. Contractors working to help pass the bond sought Grier's attendance at their fundraisers.

One group willing to work the polls also boldly suggested they wanted Dr. Grier at their fundraiser to "financially sow their seed."

All of this was in the days running up to the bond election, months before any contract would be considered.

George Pontikes, who owns a large contracting firm, called Grier a special guest at a fundraiser at Ponitkes' home. Ponitkes firm, Satterfield & Pontikes, is now set to rebuild the very school where we met Dr. Grier for an interview a few days ago.

Records show and Grier told us Satterfield & Pontikes has three HISD Bond contracts.

We asked Grier about PBK, an architecture firm. PBK claims it raised $78,000 for the bond campaign. The firm also has three HISD bond contracts.

"Good!" said Dr. Grier when we asked about the firms. "What I would say to you about that is guess what? They apparently had the lowest bid."

Pontikes said he's never seen Pay to Play at HISD, adding he wanted Grier at the fundraiser to explain Grier's own vision and the donations helped communicate the campaign's message.

PBK did not reply to our numerous attempts for comment.

Our analysis of all the contracts that have been awarded so far, show 63 percent of all bond contracts went to firms that gave donations to the campaign.

Again, Dr. Grier was not alarmed.

"That doesn't surprise me," Grier told us. "You would expect nothing less. We knew architects and engineers would be interested in the bond passing for two reasons: I believe they really believed it was good for Houston, as do I; and two, they wanted the opportunity to bid on the work. No bond, no work."

There is one change this year that was keeping millions in public spending secret, keeping us from seeing who is losing out on HISD work and why.

It's a policy Dr. Grier himself said makes no sense until we questioned him on it. What he did and a closer look at the bid on one school Friday on Eyewitness News at 6.

Find Ted on Facebook at ABC13TedOberg or on Twitter at @tedoberg


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