HISD pressed for answers about bidding process


We wanted to look closer to see who was and who was not working and see if we could learn why.

C.C. Lee is a Houston architect. He's done work for the school district in the last three bond programs, and when he saw the list of new projects for this round, he told us he really hoped to work on the Mandarin School.

Lee is Chinese-American. He owns three architecture offices in China. He's a real life Feng Shui master. Who, he asked, could be more qualified than his firm to build a Chinese language immersion school? He made it to the short list of architecture firms for the project but didn't get the job.

"No," he told us, "my understanding is PBK got the job."

PBK gets a lot of HISD jobs and has done good work in the past. They're a big award-winning architecture and engineering firm with offices all over Texas, but the company was also the third largest political donor to the campaign pushing to pass the bond.

Records show the firm's CEO gave $15,000 to the group helping to get the HISD bond passed in 2012. Days before early voting started, the CEO included HISD Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier on a group email which said, "PBK has raised an additional $73,000 for the (bond campaign)." The email included a list of all the companies he raised money from, in his words, "for their records."

Ted Oberg asked Dr. Grier, "Why were they doing that?"

"Oh, I don't know, and I am being honest with you. I don't know. I can promise you it got them nowhere" Grier said.

When we showed the email to Lee for his reaction, he told us, "Most small firms, we cannot support (the bond) with a big amount."

"You cannot afford to compete?" Ted Oberg asked.

"That's true," Lee said.

Lee didn't give to the campaign this year. His firm wasn't chosen to design any school. Since the bond passed, PBK -- which Lee admits is a good firm -- won three multi-million dollar deals including the Mandarin school.

PBK's CEO did not respond to numerous requests for comment on his email and fundraising efforts.

Dr. Grier denied any connection between donations and district contracts.

"The key is there are no promises made. No promises made to anyone who donated money. There's no quid pro quo; you give me money to the campaign, you get work," Grier said.

One of the ways to check HISD's statements is to look at the documents the district used to select architects. In Texas, those are not through the lowest bid, but through a process that looks at firms' qualifications.

We asked HISD for documents detailing how architects were selected but the district refused. In the past, those documents were routinely released; but this year, HISD wasn't planning on releasing anything until all the architects had been picked. That could take years.

It frustrated Lee, and when we asked Dr. Grier about it, he changed the policy on the spot.

"That makes no sense to me," Grier told us.

Asked when it would change, Grier said, "I told them last week for it to change. So I hope it has changed or is changing."

That was January 21.

We got the documents just two days ago after waiting for months and just an hour after we told HISD when this investigation would air.

In the thousands of documents the district turned over, there are some notes evaluating firms and proposals, but there's nothing in writing to explain how or why a committee of six district employees picked PBK over more than 29 other firms for the Mandarin school. The district explains it was a collaborative, subjective process and few notes were taken on the first eight contracts. Later deals are slightly more detailed with substantive comments.

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