Trustee files criminal complaint with DA over $8.5 million HCC land deal

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Trustee Dave Wilson said he believes there is criminal activity behind a questionable land deal the college closed on this year using tax dollars. (KTRK)

A Houston Community College trustee filed a criminal complaint Wednesday with the Harris County District Attorney, alleging that land deals brought to light by Ted Oberg Investigates violated the law.

At the center of Trustee Dave Wilson's complaint is a land deal where HCC used $8.5 million tax dollars earlier this year to buy a vacant retail building, with the pricetag based on a lease between HCC and the car company Tesla.

The lease never materialized.

In addition, documents obtained by ABC-13 show the building was appraised for $5.3 million by the college's appraisers just three months before the higher-priced sale.

Along with Wilson, another HCC trustee and a former HCC board member have said that the college overpaid for the building, a 25,000 square-foot former Conns that is valued on the Harris County tax rolls at $2.5 million.

Wilson alleges that the actions of HCC officials, including Chancellor Cesar Maldonado, led to misappropriating bond funds at inflated amounts and that there never was a lease with Tesla.

Wilson on Wednesday called the deal "immoral and unethical."

See the original ABC-13 investigation here.

See Wilson's full complaint here.

"We've taken $8.5 million away from projects to buy a piece of property we don't need," Wilson said. "All I'm interested in is somebody digging out the facts and finding out what the situation exactly is."

Wilson also added, "I think there's been criminal activity."

HCC officials declined comment.

A spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney said they will not comment on whether or not the DA will investigate.

The retail building, which sits on an acre-and-a-half parcel on the South Loop, was purchased as part of the $425 million bond voters agreed to in 2012 for a system-wide college expansion plan.

But none of those potential future buildouts in connection with the former Conn's building are part of the $425 million bond.

Some of building will be used for classrooms, but "I don't know how far out that is," Maldonado said in a previous interview with ABC-13.

HCC based its $8.5 million purchase price on a lease with Tesla Motors, the cutting-edge, Silicon Valley electric car company, records obtained by ABC-13 show.

On an appraisal by a company hired by HCC dated January 15, appraisers said the building was worth $8.5 million -- more than three times its value on the Harris County tax rolls.

"We assume the property is leased to Tesla Motors at $23.00 a square foot on a 5 year term with a 4-year, 11-month option," the document reads.

Wilson didn't vote for the deal, saying he was never given enough information. Now, months later, he said he believes he and the other trustees were lied to by college officials.

"There is no lease," Wilson said. "I've never seen it. We've been told there was a lease. I've been thinking about this for three months. I've been worrying about it. I was hoping there was a lease. But time passed and time passed and time passed and then they opened the Tesla showroom up on I-45 and Airtex. That leads me to believe that Tesla isn't going to come through with any kind of lease."

Maldonado in April said to ABC-13 that that he never told the trustees that a lease with Tesla was a done deal.

"That was never delivered to the board as a feat that was already accomplished," he said. "It was in negotiation."

Maldonado added: "What I told the trustees was that we were in the process of negotiating with Tesla. Our hope was to include in that negotiation the ability to use their technology, their equipment and their resources to help us start up a program in our automotive and our transportation area."

HCC provided ABC-13 with an unsigned letter of intent with Tesla Motors. There is no mention of training or job placement opportunities.

Appraisers were not shown letters of intent, records show, even though they asked for them. Indeed,appraisers called a lease with Tesla "an extraordinary assumption."

Ted Oberg Investigates also uncovered an appraisal of the former Conn's dated Nov. 3, 2014 conducted by Valbridge Property Advisors that valued the property at $5.3 million.

That's the same company hired by HCC to evaluate the building for the January appraisal that came out at $8.5 million.

Maldonado said in April that the college was in the "tail end" of negotiations with another company to lease the building.

Now, nearly four months later, no lease deal has yet been announced.

This sale is not the only questionable land deal that the Houston Community College System has entered into.

Ted Oberg Investigates in an April report also found:
  • Nine acres of vacant property just off State Highway 288 along North MacGregor Way HCC purchased in 1990 for $800,000. They sold it 10 years later for $2 million and then repurchased it in 2013 for $13.6 million -- $12.8 million more than taxpayers paid for it the first time.

  • Twenty-three acres just north of Westheimer on the west side, purchased for $8 million by the college 2011. The then-HCC board chair saying there were no plans to ever use the land. FEMA describes the parcel as having a high flood risk.

  • A half-acre of land acquired in 1997 near the East Loop and I-10, located under power lines and partially in a floodway. Tax records describe it as worthless.

  • A vacant warehouse on the city's East Side, owned for seven years and described in HCC records as a parking option. It is a 46-minute walk to HCC's main campus on Main Street.

  • HCC owns more than 150 separate pieces of property. Dozens of those parcels are unused or vacant.
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