Although former long-time HISD Trustee Larry Marshall is on trial in a civil bribery case in Federal Court, the district's former head of procurement testified Thursday that the district's culture of bullying and cronyism went beyond the powerful power-broker Marshall.
While Stephen Pottinger claimed that Marshall made suggestions to push preferred vendors, he also said on the stand that a friend of former trustee Paula Harris caused problems for him and now-HISD president Manuel Rodriguez acted unethically.
Harris' friend and Houston Independent School District vendor Nicole West threatened Pottinger's job if he didn't sign off on her contract, he testified.
And he said that Rodriguez asked to see company bids at inappropriate times..
"I found that to be somewhat unethical," Pottinger said.
Pottinger also described how uncomfortable he felt when Marshall met with vendors in the HISD administration cafeteria..
"That might be allowed by law, but it doesn't smell right," Pottinger said from the stand.
A message left on Harris' cell phone was not returned Thursday evening. Rodriguez answered his phone but said he was unavailable. We will update this story when we hear back from either. In previous reports, Marshall, as well as Rodriguez and Harris have denied wrongdoing.
In his 2013 deposition Pottinger seemed clear on Marshall's influence.
"Over the 11 years I worked at HISD, I witnessed Mr. Marshall manipulating the contracting process," Pottinger said. "Mr. Marshall was very vocal on certain vendors and contractors."
Under questioning from Marshall attorney Richard Morris, Pottinger said Marshall's suggestions were more "subtle."
"It wasn't that Mr. Marshall said, 'Don't use this vendor or 'Use this vendor,' Pottinger said.
Pottinger said it was a process that unfolded where an innuendo was made, qualifications were given -- and a specific vendor was asked for without using the vendor's name.
Pottinger also said Thursday he that former HISD chief financial officer Melinda Garrett was under pressure from board members to hire particular firms.
"When we would have these discussions and she would say, 'I'm getting pressure from the board,'" he said. "In the discussions she would narrow that down to a specific board member. In some cases it was Mr. Marshall. In other cases it may be Mr. Rodriguez. And in other cases it would be Paula Harris."
Pottinger also claimed that HISD could not "prevent board members from using their powerful position to influence the award of contracts."
Pottinger was ultimately let go from HISD. He said it was for "making waves," but Marshall attorney Morris suggested it had to do with harassment complaints and practical jokes that Pottinger played on a friend and co-worker -- signing the worker up for a Russian bride service was one example.
Attorneys for the company suing Marshall -- former HISD vendor Gil Ramirez Group -- said Morris only brought out those details and an 'attempt to embarrass Pottinger."
Indeed, by most accounts Pottinger was an exemplary chief procurement officer.
His office won national awards under his watch including an "Outstanding Agency" award from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, now known as The Institute for Public Procurement, based in Herndon, Va., in 2006 and in 2011 -- the year his contract was not renewed.
The trial is in its third week. It was spurred by the Gil Ramirez Group, which alleges it lost out on lucrative Houston Independent School District work because it failed to pay a consultant fee to a "special friend" of Marshall's who would kick back up to 75 percent of those consulting fees to Marshall.
The company is seeking as much as $4 million in damages.
Testimony: HISD trustee's unethical behavior 'subtle,' 'didn't smell right.'
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