African Americans Seem To Be Overwhelmingly on the Hit List of Federal Authorities in the Greater Houston Area
Hearing news stories about our local community leaders being indicted or hit with federal charges can be quite numbing to those who hold these individuals in high regard.
Sadly, it appears that the federal government continues to have a microscope focused squarely on African Americans in the city of Houston, as yet another group of individuals in our community have been hit with federal charges and have even plead guilty to charges levied against them.
This past Thursday, December 16th, the Greater Houston area was hit with another gut-punch as it was announced by the U.S. Department of Justice that guilty pleas were entered by several high-profile officials and employees after a federal grand jury indictment.
According to the 26-count indictment, former HISD Chief Operating Officer (COO) Brian Busby and contractor Anthony Hutchison were charged with conspiring to engage in a bribery scheme; whereby Busby allegedly helped award select HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison’s company, Southwest Wholesale.
According to the indictment, from 2011 to 2020, Hutchison systematically overbilled HISD and inflated bills for services, causing millions of dollars of losses to the school district, and that he allegedly paid cash bribes to Busby and provided free home remodeling.
It was reported back in February that federal agents had raided HISD headquarters, as well as the homes of Busby and Hutchinson, with $90,150 in cash being seized from Busby’s home and $95,874 in cash being seized from Hutchinson’s home and vehicle, according to court records.
What was even more shocking after the Justice Department announced the indictments, was the revelation that several HISD officials have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, including former Board President of HISD, Rhonda Skillern-Jones.
HISD’s Officer of Construction Services Derrick Sanders, General Manager of Facilities, Maintenance and Operations Alfred Hoskins, Area Manager for Maintenance (south) Gerron Hall and Area Manager for Maintenance (north) Luis Tovar entered plea agreements, but the community has been completely shocked of hearing the news that Skillern-Jones, who has been a solid public official, recently serving as Board Trustee at Houston Community College and as an active and vocal community advocate, was amongst them.
According to the indictment, Skillern-Jones, Sanders, Hoskins, Hall, and Tovar are all accused of conspiring with Busby and Hutchison to accept cash payments in exchange for helping award the contracts to Hutchison or refusing to interfere with the award of those contracts.
As part of her plea agreement, Skillern-Jones admitted that, in exchange for cash payments from Hutchison, she caused an expenditure of funds for school landscaping and construction projects to be placed on a 2017 HISD Board agenda and voted to approve it. They were eventually awarded to Hutchison. In her plea agreement, she also admitted that Busby personally delivered thousands of dollars in cash payments to her from Hutchison.
Skillern-Jones, Hoskins, Sanders, Hall, and Tovar are all facing up to five years in prison, while Busby and Hutchison have been charged with conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and witness tampering, and if convicted, are facing up to 5, 10 and 20 years, respectively, for the conspiracy, bribery and witness tampering charges. Hutchison has also been charged with wire fraud and faces up to 20 years for each count of wire fraud. All of the charges also carry a $250,000 maximum possible fine.
“We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery boldly proclaimed. “We will consider any matter our law enforcement partners bring us involving suspected fraud, waste and abuse of power by those in whom we have placed our faith and confidence and work to hold them accountable.”
If this doesn’t let you know that the Justice Department is hunting for more people to take down, I don’t know what does. The question becomes, is it worth it?
Sadly, the statement from Lowery has become an all-too-familiar utterance as it seemingly relates to the number of African American community leaders in the Greater Houston area that have gotten caught up in the web of the federal government—at least within the last six years that the Houston Forward Times has been reporting on this and similar cases.
Let’s take a look at a few local federal cases that go back as early as 2015.
Back in June 2015, the Forward Times reported that Earnest Gibson III, former president of Riverside General Hospital; his son, Earnest Gibson IV, operator of Devotions Care Solutions, a satellite psychiatric facility of Riverside General Hospital; and Regina Askew, owner of Safe and Sound group home, were all sentenced to 45 years, 20 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, for their roles in a $158 million Medicare fraud scheme involving Riverside General Hospital.
In addition to the significant terms of imprisonment, Earnest Gibson III was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $46,753,180; Earnest Gibson IV was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $7,518,480; and Regina Askew was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $46,255,893, after being convicted of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks, as well as related counts of paying or receiving illegal kickbacks.
The Forward Times also reported on former Houston Community College (HCC) Trustee Chris Oliver, who was indicted and arrested in March 2016, and pleaded guilty in May 2016 to federal bribery charges. In January 2018, Oliver was sentenced to serve a 70-month sentence and was further ordered to pay a $12,000 in forfeiture to the FBI and required to serve a one-year-term of supervised release following completion of the prison term.
Oliver was facing a maximum of 10 years in prison for the crime and was originally charged with two counts of bribery for allegedly accepting close to $90,000 in bribes to influence his decision-making on contracts and services involving HCC. However, he only pleaded guilty to one of the bribery charges to which the federal government alleged he accepted bribes totaling $12,000 in the form of Visa gift cards in exchange for voting in favor of contracts as part of his official capacity as a member of the HCC board of trustees. It was also noted that the bribes took place over an extended period, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016.
The Forward Times also followed the case involving local executives at Team Work Ready (TWR) from 2016 to their sentencing in 2018, where they were charged with conspiracy, health care fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering for their roles in a $18 million dollar nationwide Worker’s Compensation fraud scheme.
The chief executive officer of TWR, Jeffrey Rose, was sentenced to 233 months in federal prison; TWR vice president of operations Frankie Lee Sanders received a 300-month sentence; and chief financial officer Pamela Annette Rose received a 120-month sentence. Jeffrey Rose was ordered to pay $14,537,548.54 in restitution, Pamela Rose was also ordered to pay $14,537,548.54 in restitution, and Sanders was ordered to pay $13,365,525.38 in restitution.
Interestingly, Sanders had recently served 18 months in federal prison prior to this sentencing, for submitting fake vouchers and generating falsified hotel receipts, including one for the Hilton Garden Inn in New Orleans, which was closed because of damages suffered from Hurricane Katrina. For someone who had been no stranger to how heavy-handed the federal government is at handing out sentences to African Americans who make poor choices like this, one would have thought that Sanders, of all people, would have learned that lesson and passed that life lesson on to his colleagues and others. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the case.
Staying in 2018, Dr. Marian Annette Cluff and her husband, Alsie Cluff Jr., founders of The Varnett Public School, were both sentenced to maximum sentences after agreeing to separate plea deals, after initially pleading ‘not guilty’ to a 19-count federal indictment.
The Forward Times followed this case from 2015, before reporting in November 2017 that the Cluffs had been charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice.
According to the plea agreements, Marian pleaded guilty to two counts of Conspiracy to Commit Tax Evasion and Mail Fraud, while Alsie pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Tax Evasion. Also as part of the plea agreements, Marian agreed to a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison for both counts and Alsie agreed to a maximum sentence of up to 3 years in prison, with the couple agreeing to pay $4,443,755.69 in restitution prior to sentencing.
The 2015 federal indictment stated that the Cluffs embezzled in excess of $2.6 million in funds intended for the operation and function of the charter school and its programs, and also charged them with tax evasion, alleging they did not pay income taxes to the IRS of approximately $851,845, not including interest and penalties, on the money they received as a result of the scheme. If the Cluffs would have gone to trial and been convicted of either mail fraud or obstruction of justice, they would have faced up to 20 years in prison, as well as a possible five-year federal prison sentence for the conspiracy and tax evasion charges and a possible $250,000 fine.
Then earlier this year in January, well-known minister Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, former senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, was sentenced to 72 months in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, with no home confinement as an option. He will serve one additional year of supervised release and was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $3,588,500, as well as a fine of $125,000.
As stated, before and even now, there is no doubt that the federal government is closely watching the business and financial dealings of African American community and business leaders across the Greater Houston area, so there is no need to risk it by thinking you are immune.
Every African American in the Greater Houston area, regardless of their position or status, should learn from these examples and make wise decisions related to their business affairs.
The question is: Will We Learn?
We truly hope so, because the Forward Times finds no pleasure in reporting on yet another one of our Black business and community leaders being taken out because of something that could have been preventable and avoidable.