Today, after being reinstated this week following a five-month suspension, HISD Internal Auditor Richard Patton filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the district alleging retaliation for his reports of violations.
“In violation of [the “Whistleblower Act”], HISD suspended Patton with pay pending investigation into allegations that did not require suspension or even an investigation at all,” alleges the suit. The suit goes on to say, “HISD’s Board President [Manuel Rodriguez] spoke to the media regarding Patton’s suspension in such a manner as to place him in a negative light and damage his reputation in the community and his profession, in further retaliation for his good faith reports of violations of the law.”
The first of the reports that the lawsuit references took place in 2015 when Patton reported violations of the Texas Education Code and Texas Government Code by HISD’s Construction and Facilities Services (CFS) department. Patton reported to the chief of HISD police that CFS was splitting job order contracts to ensure the contract costs were under the amount that would trigger the need for board approval, a problem that was highlighted in HISD’s $200 million bond shortfall audit.
Included in the audit report, Patton issued a scathing rebuke of the district’s explanation. This drew pushback from former superintendent Terry Grier and some board members.
The second report took place in Spring 2016, following the Board of Trustees election. A complaint came in on the HISD “hotline” questioning the validity of newly elected trustee Diana Davila’s residence. As per his duties, Patton reported the complaint to the Harris County District Attorney.
The last report came when Patton informed the district’s counsel that he had been in discussions with the FBI who were investigating some of his previous reports. Three days later he was placed on suspension and eventually filed a grievance against the district.
Last week, HISD presented Patton with a “Return to Office Duty” memo alerting him that he would be reinstated, but with restricted duties that included the removal of his ethics and compliance responsibilities.
HISD has refused to release a copy of the investigation report into his suspension claiming it is of a “privileged nature.”
In response to HISD’s refusal, Patton’s suit says, “Refusal to produce this report to Patton is further demonstration that his suspension for purposes of conducting this investigation…was wholly unnecessary, and was only a thin veil for retaliation.”
This isn’t the district’s first allegation of retaliation for whistleblowing. Veteran employee Frank Hodges saw his duties gradually diminish and even faced disciplinary actions for his steadfast reporting of violations that he became aware of.
HISD’s actions come just two months before the start of the pay-to-play trial of former trustee Larry Marshall. All of the controversy surrounding the district further highlights the culture of corruption and retaliation that has long plagued HISD.