TEA INVESTIGATES SHARY ISD
Tue, 2015-10-06 21:56 News Staff
IS SCHOOL DISTRICT GUILTY OF VIOLATING BID LAWS?
By G. Romero Wendorf
The ongoing TEA (Texas Education Agency) investigation of Sharyland ISD’s alleged illegal bidding practices is an interesting read, once some of the details come to light – for example, the district paid one vendor approximately $1.5 million over a three-year span without putting the work out for bid. Not a bad deal if you can get it.
Here’s what we know so far:
• In June 2012, the Shary school board hired Dr. Virginia Richter as its new superintendent after its former seven-year supe, Scott Owings, resigned four months prior amid gossip related to his conduct toward two female subordinates at an out-of-town meeting. At the time of her hiring, Richter was a 24-year veteran with PSJA ISD.
• At some point in 2013, 2014, according to several sources, Richter was apprised that something amiss was going on with regard to the district’s bidding practices. She consulted with the school attorney, informed the school board of her concerns, and then hired an outside local private investigation company, Hildreth Investigations, to look into the matter. At the time, the district was suffering from an approximate $2.3 million budget deficit.
• During an August 2014 interview under oath with the district’s assistant superintendent of business and finance, Jesus “Jessie” Muñiz, with his attorney present, bidding irregularities were allegedly uncovered by Hildreth Investigations. Prior to the interview, Richter had demoted Muñiz to maintenancedirector with no loss of income.
• A month after the Hildreth interview with Muñiz, the school board conducted a survey with school staff, said that teachers and administrators alike lacked confidence in Richter’s ability. Rather than discuss the survey in executive session, the school board elected to point out the superintendent’s alleged flaws during a public forum.
• A month later, September 2014, Richter announced her resignation after only 27 months on the job. The board rubber-stamped it, with only two dissenters: Trustees Eddie Montalvo and Rolando Peña,
• Since then, in May of this year, the Sharyland ISD Board of Trustees has hired Richter’s replacement, Robert O’Connor, previously from Marble Falls, and agreed to pay him approximately $70,000 more than his predecessor was making.
• In July of this year, Shary ISD finalized a settlement agreement with “Jesse” Muñiz to the tune of $128,740.22 to terminate his contract a year before it was scheduled to run out (2016). In exchange for the settlement, Muñiz promised not to sue the district. The vote was 5-1. The only trustee to vote against it was Rolando Peña who is not currently running for reelection.
• Today, fully employed by IDEA Public Schools, “Ginny” Richter won’t discuss her tenure at Shary.
• In January of this year, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched a formal investigation into the district’s business practices, over which Muñiz had been in charge for approximately 12 years. That investigation is still ongoing. TEA refuses to comment on it or release any reports related to it, referring all open-record requests submitted by this newspaper to the Attorney General for clarification. Apparently an internal audit of Shary ISD was conducted by in house personnel in the district’s bidding processes, but so far, the district has refused to release that as well, passing along this newspaper’s open-records request to the AG for his legal opinion.
The interview of Sharyland’s former assistant superintendent of business and finance, Jesus “Jesse” Muñiz, conducted by Hildreth Investigations, was recently leaked to this newspaper by a confidential source. It took place in Weslaco Aug. 5, 2014, at the law offices of Jones, Galligan, Key and Lozano. Present were Sonny and Joe Hildreth with McAllen-based PI firm Hildreth Investigations. Representing Muñiz was Edinburg-based Attorney Kevin O’Hanlon with O’Hanlon, Rodriguez, Beancourt and Demerath.
At the time, Hildreth Investigations had been authorized by Sharyland ISD Superintendent Dr. Arlene Richter and hired by the school district to look into and conduct an investigation into allegations that had been made related to no-bid construction projects, in particular those related to a particular school contractor and vendor.
The following information was garnered from that interview.
In Texas, if a school district wants a job done that’s estimated to exceed $50,000, it must legally go out for bids. The work for a particular job is cumulative. In other words, let’s say there is an $80,000 job that needs to be done. Under Texas law, it can’t be broken down into four jobs worth $20,000 each as a way of getting under the $50,000 cap, simply as a means of circumventing the bid requirement.
The construction work related to this one specific school vendor covers a time period between September 2011 and May of 2014.
The interview with Hildreth Investigations starts out with the allegation that there is sufficient evidence to show that Shary ISD committed to numerous jobs during that time period that exceeded the $50,000 cap but were never put out for bid. Much of the work had to do with the district’s new high school, Pioneer. Interviews with “many people” support that allegation, says one of the investigators, Joe Hildreth.
Information garnered from that interview as stated by Jesus Muñiz include the following quotes, some of which are selfexplanatory. For those quotes (answers from Muñiz) that are not self-explanatory, the questions presented to him by Hildreth are also included:
“Sometimes – you know, I’m not gonna say we’ve always done it, but we try to bid out everything that’s over $50,000.
“…and maybe I misunderstood the law, I don’t know, maybe that’s something that I need to work on the system or on the procedure…”
“some of those (bids) are verbal.”
Hildreth: “When was the last time you went to Vegas?
Muñiz: “Super Bowl..”
Hildreth: “Who did you go with?”
Muñiz: “My wife.”
Hildreth: “And the trip before, who did you go with?”
Muñiz: “I don’t remember.”
Hildreth: “ When you say that you don’t remember the trip before, have you ever been out there with any vendors or ever met any vendors out there?”
Muñiz: “Yes…(but I get comps) and the vendor pays his own way…I think I was able through some of our friends, we were able to procure him some free rooms because we play.”
At one point, Shary ISD paid the same vendor approximately $122,000 for clearing land, but it was listed as concrete work, and it wasn’t put out for bid. When asked by Hildreth whether or not the work should have been put out for bid, Muñiz said, “You’re correct, should have been bid out.”
For some reason, the vendor who did mowing for the school district also got work for clearing the land on which the new school was going to be built. The work cost approximately $150,000 but was never let out for bid. Whenasked by Hildreth the reason for not bidding the work, Muñiz said, “Yeah. We knew we had to comply, but we had to do some clearing, and yes, we went ahead and cleared it.” Asked if any other vendor was give the option to offer the district an estimate to clear the land, Muñiz said no.
Hildreth: “Back to the Vegas thing. You went out there with your wife (in early February 2014). Have you been (back) since, in maybe March, April?
Muñiz: “I don’t remember if I did or didn’t.”
Hildreth: “ You realize that March and April are only a few months ago?”
Muñiz: “I know, but I don’t remember. You know these past three weeks have been pretty (heart wrenching).”
Hildreth: “Do you agree that (this particular vendor) has had a pretty lucrative relationship with Sharyland ISD over the past three years?”
Muñiz: “He’s done pretty good, that I can say…”
Hildreth: “…well, actually, these are according to his 1099s, for the last three years, (he’s been paid $1.49 million by Sharyland ISD). And that is for labor. If there’s any equipment that he uses…the school district rents for him, correct?”
Hildreth: “Did you know that (this particular vendor) is refusing to meet with us?”
Muñiz: “No, sir.”
Hildreth: “Is that what you all do? I mean, you do things in phases so that you don’t have to – you can somehow justify – so that you can somehow justify not bidding it?
Muñiz: “I don’t think that’s true. We’ve done a lot of work at Sharyland, and we’ve tried to do it so that we could get more bang for the dollar. ….and this has not been a Jesse Muñiz thing. This has been, you know, a collaborative with everybody on the board.”
Hildreth: “You’re the one who picks (this vendor) for everything, is that correct? I mean, you pick him every time there is anything that you can use him for, yes or no?
Muñiz: “”Yes. We’ve used him a lot.”
Hildreth: “Okay. And you just want us to trust that you’re saving the taxpayers money? We don’t know if you are or not, because you’re not getting bids on things that you should. You let him clear the land, and you pay him a hundred grand or whatever it is, and then you lease him the equipment, and so now all he’s got is labor in this thing?”
Muñiz: “Not all the equipment.”
Hildreth: “Isn’t it true that you tell the board what you want them to know? I mean, you’re not telling them (the school board) that this is gonna cost a hundred grand, and we should get a bid, but I’m gonna give it to somebody without a bid? You don’t tell them that, do you?”
Muñiz: “I think I have.”
Hildreth: “So, for the (approximate $150,000) land clearing process, it did not go out for bid, correct?”
Muñiz: “That’s correct.”
No word on when the TEA investigation is expected to be completed.