HCC has million-dollar legal bill as former chancellor's settlement looms

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HCC has million-dollar legal bill as former chancellor's settlement looms (KTRK)

A settlement for former Houston Community College System Chancellor Renee Byas is likely to be voted on Monday and HCC has already run up an $810,000 legal bill as of May leading up to the deal, records show.

The final tab for legal fees is likely closer to a million dollars now, interviews and records indicate.

That amount does not include the amount of Byas' settlement, which will not be disclosed until Monday's HCC trustee meeting.

While college officials say the hit to taxpayers will be lower because of legal insurance, when you add the legal bills that taxpayers on the hook for for this latest settlement, as well as the $1.2 million trustees agreed on in 2013 to buy out the contacts of former Chancellor Mary Spangler and her deputy, HCC has used up enough cash to pay for 444 students to earn a degree at the institution.

"I'm afraid it will be a substantial amount," HCC Trustee Dave Wilson said Friday. "It hurts students, It hurts the taxpayers, it hurts the image of HCC, it hurts our credibility. It hurts the trust that as a board we have with the community. It hurts everybody."

Byas' tenure as chancellor was short, lasting less than 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.

"Only after its offer was rejected did HCC file its petition for declaratory judgment regarding the validity Byas's contract," attorneys said in a statement.
Wilson said trustees aren't clear about the chain of events surround the lawsuits.

"I don't know what's going on," Wilson said. "The thing that's so bad about being a board member is that I get more information through the grapevine and through the TV stations telling me what's going on over there than I get officialy from the administration."

The public -- and Wilson -- will know more on Monday, he said.

"We have a responsibility to share the good, the bad and the ugly with the people of Houston," Wilson said. "I'm afraid on Monday they're going to get a bunch of bad and ugly news."

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 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.

ABC-13 spoke to students who said they were stunned at the amount of money their college spent on legal fees.

"They spent $810,000 on lawyers?," said HCC student Brandon Chriestmon. "Wow. I think there's a better way to spend money."

Former HCC student Devon Glenn asked college officials, "What are you thinking?"

Byas' lawyers declined comment.

College officials also declined comment except to say that the lion's share of the legal fees will be covered by insurance and lowered by because of the law firm's "courtesy."

"We should note that HCC's actual costs will be substantially less than is reflected on the invoices," according to a statement from HCC officials. "While these invoices reflect our outside counsel's (Gibbs & Bruns LLP) normal billing rates, the firm has agreed to reduce its rates as a courtesy to HCC, to help keep HCC's out-of-pocket costs at or close to its insurance deductible of approximately $300,000."

An ABC-13 analysis shows t that even if the total cost to the taxpayer is kept to $300,000, that still is $185,000 more than Byas' severance package could have been.

"It's incredible," Wilson said. " It's like burning down the barn to get rid of the rats."
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