“The culture of corruption at HISD took a serious blow today.”
These were the strong, yet stinging words of attorney, Kelly Greenwood Prather, after a federal jury ruled in favor of her client and awarded him more than $5 million in damages, in a case involving a pay-to-play, bribery and kickback scheme allegation that has garnered the attention of many in the community and across the nation for nearly six years.
Gil Ramirez Jr., the owner of Houston-based construction company, the Gil Ramirez Group, has been on quest to prove his company was denied Houston Independent School District (HISD) contracts because he did not agree to pay bribes to former HISD trustee Larry Marshall.
The federal jury who heard the evidence in the case found that Marshall, along with his business associate, longtime friend and political campaign treasurer – consultant Joyce Moss-Clay, conspired with two of Ramirez’s construction competitors – Fort Bend Mechanical, which is owned by Pete Medford and RHJ-JOC, which is owned by Eva Jackson.
After days of testimony, including that of embattled former HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, the federal jury ruled in favor of Ramirez, and placed blame squarely on the shoulders of Marshall, Moss-Clay, Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ-JOC, finding that the co-defendants violated the federal racketeering law. As a result, the Gil Ramirez Group was awarded $450,000, an amount that is tripled to $1.5 million under that law. In addition to that, the federal jury also assessed another $3.4 million in punitive damages and $676,000 in actual damages, after agreeing with Ramirez’s attorneys that all four parties deliberately interfered with contracts.
Concerning the damages directly related to the interference, the federal jury assigned 30 percent of the financial responsibility to Marshall; 20 percent of the financial responsibility to Moss-Clay; 25 percent of the financial responsibility to Fort Bend Mechanical; and 25 percent of the financial responsibility to RHJ-JOC. Relative to the punitive damages, the jury assessed Marshall $1.4 million; Moss-Clay $500,000; Medford $500,000; and $1 million to Jackson.
The jury verdict came as a huge sigh of relief for Ramirez, especially after the same judge in 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison, reversed a lower court ruling and dismissed all claims in the original civil lawsuit that had been filed against HISD and Marshall, citing that there was no evidence to prove contracts were being manipulated. However, after continued legal posturing, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed any claims against HISD as a defendant in 2015, ruling that the district was exempt because it is a governmental entity, but allowed them to proceed against Marshall and the other co-defendants.
Last month, Marshall made a last-minute effort to the U.S Supreme Court to try and halt the trial from happening, but was denied the emergency petition.
The verdict by the jury, which will most likely be appealed, was a huge blow to the four parties to the civil lawsuit, but also to the overall reputation of HISD.
After the jury verdict, HISD released a statement indicating that it was not a part of the lawsuit, seeking to distance themselves from the scrutiny surrounding their former trustee.
“HISD is not a party to the litigation involving job order contracts, and HISD taxpayers are not liable for any damages awarded,” the HISD press release reads. “Today’s verdict did not identify wrongdoing by HISD officials except for Mr. Marshall and the other non-HISD defendants. HISD remains committed to effective and transparent stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”
The civil lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2010 by Ramirez, alleged that Marshall received a substantial amount of money in bribes from businesses seeking to do business with HISD, and funneled his kickbacks through consultant Moss-Clay. The suit included Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ-JOC, in that it was alleged that the two companies received contracts worth millions of dollars because they were engaged in the pay-to-play practice concocted by Marshall and Moss-Clay. In depositions that were taken after the lawsuit was filed, Marshall admitted that Moss-Clay did business with companies seeking HISD contracts, and Moss-Clay admitted that she would give Marshall’s consulting firm a significant portion of the money she received from those companies seeking HISD contracts.
The red flag and catalyst behind the civil lawsuit came when HISD awarded a contract to Ramirez’s newly-formed construction company, along with Fort Bend Mechanical and three other companies in November 2008, and added RHJ-JOC to the group in 2009. In 2010, HISD mysteriously rebid the project after the district’s inspector general stated that the companies that made up the group for the contract had not been recommended by the bid evaluation committee. After the contract was rebid and a new bid process was instituted, Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ-JOC were once again awarded the contracts, but Ramirez’s company was left out.
Documents uncovered in the case and testimony received during the deposition showed the elaborate way that Moss-Clay would provide significant kickbacks. Moss-Clay testified during the deposition that she would regularly give Marshall anywhere from 65 to 75 percent from the companies and others that did business with HISD and that she represented, such as Fort Bend Mechanical and RHJ-JOC. According to the lawsuit, Marshall allegedly not only received those substantial payouts from Moss-Clay through their consulting companies, it alleges he also received a free Super Bowl trip, expensive gifts, fancy meals and a $25,000 campaign contribution from Medford that was never reported on Marshall’s campaign finance report, along with other favors and offerings from Medford.
Unfortunately, the federal jury caught Marshall slipping, doing what many other elected officials before him, have fallen victim to. Using their political positions to pad their pockets financially or take care of others financially.
The problems of this civil lawsuit began in 2010, and although 2013 marked the end of his more than 50 years in public education, as both an employee and as a board member, the 84-year-old Marshall’s legacy has been dealt a major blow after this recent ruling.
Now comes the even more serious questions surrounding who else may have been involved or participated in any pay-to-play and bribery schemes while serving at HISD; whether on the board or working as part of the administration. There are some serious questions that need answering, especially in light of HISD’s suspicious suspension of internal auditor Richard Patton, who only got suspended after he questioned the top brass of HISD about the district’s shocking and unexpected $211 million bond shortfall. The lights need to be turned on at HISD and the covers need to be removed so taxpayers can really see what is going on and what more needs to be uncovered, especially now that several long-serving HISD trustees have either left or have all-of-a-sudden gotten a change of heart about continuing to serve the community as a trustee.
The Forward Times will stay on top of this issue and hopes to get the answers to what is really going on at HISD, and whether there are more pay-to-play scheme stories to highlight.