HISD's watchdog is back on the job, but with a leash

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Embattled Houston Independent School District auditor Richard Patton was ordered back to the office Wednesday, four months after district trustees suspended him.

Patton returns to HISD with reduced responsibilities -- and he wants an apology.

"HISD owes Richard Patton a public apology," Patton attorney David Feldman said. "The district ordered him back to work today after a four-month suspension, following an unnecessary investigation by outside counsel that obviously proved what we have said from the start -- Mr. Patton was punished for doing his job protecting the taxpayers. We have been told that HISD has reduced Mr. Patton's responsibilities, trying to further silence the man who is supposed to be your watchdog."

Specifically, the ethics and compliance office was moved out of Patton's department and into the legal department, a district spokesman said. If so, that will keep some of what the office does from public view, and will also diminish Patton's responsibility.

Patton was suspended after he questioned top district officials' rationale behind the HISD's massive $211 million bond shortfall and after he spoke with the FBI about ethics issues that reached to the very top of the school district.

He was suspended with pay in April and the district never fully explained why.

District officials have refused to release a report they ordered up to investigate Patton. Ted Oberg Investigates has repeatedly asked for this report and asked for it again Wednesday.

"HISD now refuses to show the public the costly investigative report they paid for, or to meaningfully address the grievance filed by Mr. Patton, who has alleged his suspension was in retaliation for reporting violations of law to HISD police and the FBI," Feldman said.

In a grievance Patton sent to HISD trustees in June, he outlined a series of ethical red flags he uncovered as auditor, including the splitting of job orders, a violation of law by dividing pricey contracts into smaller amounts, usually to avoid having to put those deals out to bid. Splitting job orders also makes it easier for those in power to steer contracts to friends and family.

Patton's return may ruffle feathers.

"Mr. Patton, through his attorney David Feldman, has decided to publicly complain about the terms of his return to his HISD office duties," district officials said through a spokesman. "Mr. Patton, like any HISD employee regardless of rank, is subject to HISD policies and procedures in the face of allegations of misconduct. The district is disappointed that Mr. Feldman would publicly complain about the written return-to-office-duty memo, which was drafted with his input. The district has gone out of its way to respect Mr. Patton's privacy during the pendency of his reassignment, and looks forward to the resolution of Mr. Patton's grievance through the normal channels."
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