Contractor sues HISD, trustee over construction bid
A construction contractor filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Houston ISD and former school board president Larry Marshall, accusing them of conspiring to award hefty contracts to a competing company.
The Gil Ramirez Group, which filed the suit in federal court, alleges Marshall pressured district staff to sever ties with the company in favor of one of his political campaign donors, Eva Jackson, who runs the firm RHJ-JOC.
"The evidence is going to demonstrate that HISD awards bidding contracts based on relationships instead of what's the best value for the district and the taxpayer," said attorney Chad Dunn, who is representing Gil Ramirez Jr., the chief executive of his namesake company.
Marshall denied in an interview that he orchestrated a scheme to hire RHJ for construction jobs. He said the Houston Independent School District's inspector general recommended ending contracts with the Gil Ramirez Group and five other companies this year because the original competitive bidding process in 2008 was flawed.
"That lawsuit in my judgement is without foundation," said Marshall, who still serves on the Houston school board of trustees but is no longer president.
Dunn said HISD owes his client more than $1 million for work it already did and for jobs it could have expected.
The lawsuit makes serious allegations, accusing Marshall, RHJ's Jackson and HISD (no specific employees are named) of racketeering, bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. The suit alleges that Marshall received payments — an amount is not cited - in change for giving "preferential treatment" to Jackson and her company.
"It's our belief that the evidence is going to show that Eva Jackson used her influence through political donations and perhaps other manners to get the process rebid in her favor," Dunn said.
Since 2008, an Eva Jackson has made at least one $2,500 contribution to Marshall's political campaign, according to finance reports on HISD's website. A Richard Jackson - Eva has a husband named Richard - contributed at least $1,000.
A phone message left for Jackson at RHJ was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
HISD, according to the lawsuit, engaged in wire fraud by sending payments to RHJ "that but for the bribery would not have been made." The suit, which claims violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, does not elaborate on the alleged bribery, and Dunn declined to discuss evidence.
RHJ has received about $1.8 million from HISD since January, according to the district's online check registry.
Saavedra: No comment
The lawsuit says that Marshall approached former HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra about arranging to hire RHJ. Saavedra, according to the lawsuit, refused to comply with Marshall's request. The suit alleges that Saavedra's denial forced Marshall to push to oust the superintendent.
Marshall said he "never" went to Saavedra about RHJ.
Saavedra declined to comment about that allegation.
"I'm not going to get into that," said Saavedra, who left HISD in the summer of 2009. "I'm just not going to start making comments publicly about what may or may not have occurred back then."
The lawsuit stems from a 2008 competitive bid for so-called job-order contractors. HISD was seeking proposals from companies to do construction jobs related to the district's $805 million bond referendum that voters approved in 2007. Saavedra's administration asked the school board in October 2008 to contract with five companies, including the Gil Ramirez Group. RHJ was not on the list.
About a year later, John Gerwin, an auditor in HISD's inspector general's office, issued a report questioning the bid process, according to documents the Houston Chronicle obtained under the state's public-information law.
Gerwin said the contractors that Saavedra's staff brought to the board for approval differed from those recommended by HISD's bid evaluation committee, and no documentation existed to justify the changes. Gerwin suggested voiding the contracts.
District stays mum
Under new Superintendent Terry Grier, the district solicited new bids for the job-order contractors this year and hired four companies. RHJ made the list. Gil Ramirez Group did not.
The suit mentions Grier's comments at a school board meeting expressing concerns over the bid process.
"I have seen a procurement department made up of independent folks rate bids from a variety of different companies … " Grier said. "And then I've seen staff - just for whatever reason - pull names off of a list and put other names back on a list, (with) no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from."
Grier did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.
The lawsuit also says that money laundering occurred with HISD charging its construction contractors a "marketing fee," requiring them to return 2 percent of the bond money the district pays them.
HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said district officials would not answer questions about the fee or the suit.
"We haven't been served with the lawsuit yet, and it's our policy not to comment on litigation," he said.
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