Houston Community College has hired a law firm to investigate an accusation that trustee Carroll Robinson tried to steer part of a multimillion dollar construction contract to a company owned by a close friend, according to HCC records and interviews.
HCC, one of the largest community colleges in the nation, has been plagued in recent years by concerns that board members improperly meddled in contracts. The latest issue comes after the board tightened its ethics rules and voters entrusted the college last year with a $425 million bond issue for construction projects.
The company that HCC hired to oversee its bond program, Jacobs Project Management, proposed paying a little-known firm called Five Woods as a subcontractor to handle public outreach. Five Woods – owned by Robinson’s friend, Laolu Davies-Yemitan – could have earned up to $1.4 million over several years, according to Davies-Yemitan and HCC records.
But the plan drew concerns from Michelle Morris, an attorney the college had retained to monitor procurement.
“When I pressed Jacobs about how they came to select Five Woods,” Morris emailed the college, “the Jacobs representatives became very nervous, finally revealed that the Five Woods representative was ‘sent’ to them by Trustee Robinson.”
Morris also questioned why Jacobs was not using its usual public relations consultants.
“Again, the response from Jacobs to me is a nervous one, and they outright told me that they are in a ‘precarious position’ (their words, not mine),” Morris wrote in the October email.
Robinson, a former Houston city councilman serving his first term on the college board, denied pressuring Jacobs to hire his friend’s firm.
“I don’t appreciate anybody dragging my good name through the mud,” he said.
After the concerns surfaced, a Jacobs executive, Whit Robinson, who is not related to Carroll Robinson, wrote the college that no board members tried to influence the contract decision.
“We want to reconfirm with you that our choice of subconsultant was based on merit and our desire to support minority-owned small businesses here in Houston,” Whit Robinson wrote. “At no time was there any coercion or pressure from any person or entity outside of Jacobs to utilize this company.”
Davies-Yemitan said he had a four-person team that would have helped the college’s public relations staff – updating the community about the bond projects, coordinating groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and assisting small businesses interested in bidding on work.
But HCC and Jacobs ultimately did not agree on a deal to use Five Woods. A spokesman for HCC, Dan Arguijo, said this month that Five Woods was not part of the college’s final $7.3 million contract with Jacobs.
The bylaws for the HCC board ban trustees from suggesting subcontractors to vendors.
“If the behavior that was suggested occurred, it is improper behavior for a board member,” said Bruce Austin, the board’s chairman.
Regardless of whether or not there was inappropriate behavior, it’s just as well that nothing came of this. That’s the sort of thing that would have generated stories for years, whereas this one has a chance of being settled in the near future. Assuming that nothing questionable happened, of course. Investigate it thoroughly and let the chips fall where they may. If Robinson is correct, he deserves the chance to have his name cleared. If not, well, we’ll deal with that when we get to it.