Houston Community College trustees refuse PAC-influenced chancellor vote

Houston Community College trustees refuse PAC-influenced chancellor vote
Houston Community College trustees refuse PAC-influenced chancellor vote

The four trustees who voted to extend Houston Community College Chancellor Cesar Maldonado’s contract received a combined $78,000 in campaign donations from a political action committee whose leader was found to be expressing interest in the renewal effort, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Questions have been raised about the potential involvement of Jonathan Day of the Houston Business Education Coalition, after a voicemail recording surfaced in which a man who identified himself as Day asked to speak to board chair Cynthia Lenton-Gary about the issue.

Maldonado’s contract extension still failed, with five trustees – including Lenton-Gary – voting against re-signing on Wednesday. (Lenton-Gary’s available campaign finances show no contributions from the PAC.)

“I would be very interested to speak with you briefly about the pending issues with the renewal of the chancellor’s current arrangement with the college,” Day, who identified himself as the leader of the coalition, said on his answering machine. “Please call me at your convenience.”

The footage signaled a more protracted battle over Maldonado’s contract than previously known: Talks about the pending deal had largely taken place behind closed doors in executive session. But several administrative problems in Maldonado’s nine years as chancellor were part of the struggle. Two of the trustees who voted against the renewal afterward cited steep declines in enrollment as well as lawsuits filed during the chancellor’s tenure—including one alleging discrimination against black employees—as some of their personal reasons for opposing his continued leadership.

Trustees say the PAC did not influence the vote

Trustees Monica Flores Richart, Eva L. Loredo, Charlene Ward Johnson and Adriana Tamez voted for the expansion. While reporting campaign contributions from the business education PAC, all four denied financial influence in the decision-making process. Day also denied that an ethical conflict arose.

“We’re taxpaying people, we have a vested interest in the college’s performance,” Day said in a telephone interview. “It is significantly influenced by the choice of the chancellor, the executive director. Of course, we have an interest in that. I think it would be very disappointing if the business community here in Houston was not significantly involved in those kinds of matters at the college.”

In addition to chairing the PAC, Day is special counsel at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. An HCC watchdog asked Wednesday if the phone call was overboard.

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Tamez, of District III, received more than $14,000 from the Houston Business Education Coalition in 2021. Loredo, of District VIII, received more than $25,000 from the PAC that same year. Ward Johnson, of District II, sought $19,000 from the group in 2022. And Richart, of District I, sent in $19,500 in 2019, according to HCC campaign finance records.

“I smell a rat,” said Candice Matthews, policy minister for the New Black Panther Nation. “I’m very concerned with those who said yes – they’re the ones whose campaign reports I look at.”

However, an expert specializing in campaign finance regulation warned that direct links between a donation and a policy must occur to make such interactions unethical.

“If somebody calls somebody else and says, ‘We won’t support you unless …’ then I think you have something illegal,” Richard Briffault said.
Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School. “The bottom line is quid pro quo. We make a deal here, or we want to enforce a previous deal. It might be a little uncomfortable, maybe not illegal.”

No votes point to lawsuit, registration

The five trustees who voted against Maldonado’s contract extension did not immediately give a reason after Wednesday’s vote, nor did the chancellor respond. He did not respond to requests for comment.

However, in a letter issued to the HCC community, Maldonado cited several gains in student achievement and building a $256 million financial reserve as some of his greatest accomplishments.

“I am proud of my service as chancellor of HCC and of the many accomplishments, awards and recognitions we have achieved together since May 2014,” Maldonado said. “The best is yet to come, and we must all continue to advance the institution’s goals—staying true to our North Star, the ultimate student experience, which shines brightly and guides us from good to great in all aspects of the College’s service.”

But in separate phone calls, two trustees pointed to a series of management issues in Maldonado’s administration as their reasons for voting no. One of these is a system-wide decline in enrollment, with more than 12,000 students lost between fall 2019 and fall 2020 — even though system officials say they expect more than a 30 percent increase in enrollment growth through 2035.

“I did not vote to renew the chancellor’s contract because of the steep decline in enrollment, underperforming campuses, financial mismanagement, absence of a turnaround plan and an astounding number of lawsuits involving current and former personnel,” said District IV Trustee Reagan Flowers. “I fundamentally believe that we need to move this institution in a new direction going forward under different leadership.”

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One of those lawsuits is seeking $100 million from the system. The suit, filed in 2020 on behalf of hundreds of current and former black employees, alleges that 90 percent of longtime black professionals at the community college have either been fired or demoted since Maldonado arrived, compared to 10 percent of white employees who have been Displaced. However, Hispanic hiring and promotions have increased by 50 percent, according to court documents.

The plaintiff’s lawyers also allege that Maldonado used a list of tactics to undermine and get rid of black employees, including filling personnel files with false complaints to be used as grounds for firing them, using the word “transformation” as a code word for to get rid of black employees, cast doubt on black employees’ claims, and force black employees to take leaves without reason in order to use these as grounds for dismissal.

“There’s a bunch of negative clouds hanging over his head,” District VI Trustee Dave Wilson said. “That was the easy part, not renewing that contract. We’re all going to have to work together as a group and turn this school around and stop the bleeding.”

Steward: Voicemail was “deeply disturbing”

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