Former HCC Chancellor gets $150,000 settlement; likely much more money to come

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Houston Community College trustees Monday voted to settle a year-long legal battle with its former chancellor, signing off on a $150,000 settlement, but keeping mum on additional settlement cash she will be getting through the college's insurance.

The settlement with former HCC Chancellor Renee Byas is the third high-priced, high-profile settlement with college administrators in two years.

HCC officials say Byas was fired last August, in part, for "insubordination." Byas has claimed she was fired for talking to the FBI about trustees trying to steer contracts to friends and family members.

Fighting a settlement with Byas, whose contract initially said she could be let go for half her salary at $115,00, has come close to $1 million for the college so far, interviews and records show.

The soaring legal tab and the controversy surrounding was first reported Friday by Ted Oberg Investigates.

See the full Friday investigation here.

HCC Trustee Chairman Zeph Capo alluded to the expensive fight with Byas in a prepared statement just before the settlement vote.

"The expenses defending the institution against multiple legal claims, including questions on the validity of her contract and to protect the integrity of our actions are significant and increasing," Capo said. "They do not serve our students and their quest for success. Nor do they support the important transformational work happening across the college."

Capo said he was confident HCC would win in court if the college continued the legal battle. College officials have said that its legal insurance will likely keep its costs in total to the taxpayer to around $300,000. That's $185,000 more than Byas' original severance package could have been if officials had paid her last year before filing suit.

Capo was mum about what Byas' total payday might be after the college's insurance money is factored in.

The other recent settlements with a previous chancellor and her aide came to $650,000 and $600,000 each.

"I don't have an exact total with that right now," he said after the meeting. "That matter is something that is still being handled by the attorneys. We don't have that, but I'm sure that you'll get it once we do."

He also acknowledged that since the issue was "still being handled by the attorneys" that the lawyers' billing clock was still ticking.

"We have to sign the settlement, the other side has to sign the settlement," Capo said. "We're certainly not going to do it without legal representation."

The board voted 7-1 in favor of the settlement. Dave Wilson was the lone no vote.

Wilson has previously said that he fears that the total settlement to Byas, along with the fees to her attorney, "would be substantial."

"I was opposed to settling because it makes everybody on the board look like they've got something to hide," Wilson said. "What this comes down to in my mind, is that it's been extortion from her attorneys and our attorneys and we've been taken advantage off."

Byas' tenure as chancellor lasted around a year. Previously she had been HCC's general counsel, holding that post since 2008. After the board hired a new chancellor, Cesar Maldonado, in April 2014, Byas returned to her job as general counsel. Maldonado placed her on leave and ultimately fired her in August 2014 citing insubordination.

Byas' contract had a buy-out clause allowing the college to let her go for six months' salary totalling $115,000, but the college chose to file a lawsuit and fight that buyout. Court documents show that HCC argued she wasn't entitled to that severance pay because she turned in her contract in five days late and it was void.

HCC attorneys maintain they tried to settle with Byas early on but were rebuffed.

They also explained that after the college placed Byas on leave, she threatened to file multiple lawsuit claims against the college.

Byas' version of her firing differs from that of HCC officials.

In the midst of a 2012 $425 million bond vote, she helped draft new rules designed to erase conflicts of interest and favoritism in handing out HCC contracts. In a counter-lawsuit, Byas filed in October 2014, she alleged she was fired because she told the FBI that the trustees bristled at the new rules and that she had suspicions that board members wanted to dole out contracts to friends or family using bond money.

HCC has denied that Byas was fired in retaliation for talking to the FBI and officials said they were unaware of any instances in which board members tried to steer contracts to preferred vendors. null
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