TEA: Agency officials got friends contracts; Exclusive: Neeley’s likely successor, foundation adviser are named

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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An internal investigation has found that top officials at the Texas Education Agency improperly steered state work to their friends.

The report from the agency’s inspector general says that the problems lead all the way up to TEA’s deputy commissioner, Robert Scott, the likely choice to succeed Shirley Neeley as education commissioner.

Investigators also found that a consultant for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had an unusual influence over how grant money was divvied up.

“These contracts were not competitively bid,” the report states. “Several associated subcontracts were awarded to individuals with ties to TEA senior staff. Key participants in the contracting process do not agree as to how subcontractors were chosen.”

Mr. Scott disputes the allegations.

“I did not tell anyone to hire anyone,” Mr. Scott said Wednesday night. “There are no concrete allegations in that report that can be substantiated about wrongdoing.”

The report’s timing is awkward for the agency. Friday is Dr. Neeley’s final day as education commissioner. She announced her resignation this month after Gov. Rick Perry informed her he would not reappoint her to the post.

Unless Mr. Perry announces her successor before Monday, Mr. Scott would be the likely choice to take over as acting commissioner.

A TEA spokeswoman said a number of agency officials shared Mr. Scott’s stance on the report.

“There are staff named in this report who believe there are factual inaccuracies in it,” spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.

The 23-page report details problems in six grant programs run by the agency. But two individuals appear with the most frequency: Mr. Scott and Jimmy Wynn, the Gates Foundation’s Texas advocacy representative.

They are referred to by their titles in the report, not their names. TEA officials confirmed their identities to The Dallas Morning News.

Mr. Wynn is a Houston resident known for his connections.

“He knows just about everybody in the world, as far as I could tell,” said his former boss John Sawyer, superintendent of Harris County schools. “Jimmy’s a public-relations guy. A promoter. He makes relationships and brings people to the table. That’s his long suit.”

Mr. Wynn went to Austin in 2004 to help Dr. Neeley make the transition into office.

“Shirley called me and asked if Jimmy could come up and help her for a while, get her used to Austin,” Dr. Sawyer said.

For the past several years, Mr. Wynn has used those connections with the Gates Foundation, the philanthropic body that has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving the quality of American education. Mr. Wynn did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. But the report said he “is adamant that, because of the wishes of his clients, he does not get involved in state procurement processes.”

Contract process

All six programs investigated by the inspector general’s office used complicated processes to award contracts. Four shared a common structure.

Each was farmed out to one of Texas’ 20 education service centers. As regional extensions of the state’s public education system, they sometimes are asked to administer TEA programs.

The report found that once a service center began working with a project, it was sometimes subject to interference from state officials or Mr. Wynn – who the report says “is closely identified with TEA senior staff.”

Take one example. In 2004, TEA decided it wanted to evaluate the quality of its hearing process, the system through which the state decides whether educators should be disciplined.

The agency decided to commit $100,000 to the evaluation and determined that the education service center in Waco would take the lead on the project.

A woman named Emily Miller was hired to do the work. According to the report, she is Mr. Wynn’s ex-wife. And the report states that she is a friend of both Mr. Scott and Adam Jones, TEA’s chief operating officer. It is unclear how she wound up heading the project, and the report states that agency officials gave contradictory explanations.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Scott told investigators that the service center staff had made all hiring decisions on their own.

But the service center’s executive director, Tom Norris, told investigators that Mr. Wynn “instructed him” to hire Ms. Miller and that “he had reason to believe [Mr. Wynn] spoke authoritatively for TEA.”

Ms. Miller told investigators that she “negotiated the terms” of her contract “with the TEA Deputy Commissioner before the contract was awarded to the ESC.”

Ms. Miller completed her work, which was done on a one-year contract, according to the report. She was then awarded an additional one-year contract and an additional $100,000.

This was done without the awareness of TEA senior staff, the report states. The agency could produce no copy of any reports or other work she may have produced during that second year. E-mails between TEA staff included phrases like “I am unsure why this contract would be continued” and “Why are we still funding this?”

Ms. Miller told investigators she never negotiated that second contract with service center staff. Instead, she said, she negotiated it directly with Mr. Scott.

Ms. Miller could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Mr. Scott said the report’s version of his role in Ms. Miller’s contracts was “absolutely false.” He called her “eminently qualified to do the work” and said that she had produced work out of her second contract.

‘Recommended’ hire

The report outlines another grant program in which Mr. Wynn played a key role. The purpose of the Commission for a College Ready Texas is to help prepare the state’s high school students for higher education.

The commission was handled by a different regional service center, in Austin. Investigators found that Mr. Wynn “at least recommended” the hiring of three individuals for that project, again including his ex-wife.

Another of the “recommended” hires: Mr. Scott’s former executive assistant.

In a third grant program, the executive director of the Austin service center said he “was instructed” to give work worth $189,000 over two years to Amy Williams, who had previously been Dr. Neeley’s speechwriter, the report states.

The instructions came from Christi Martin, a TEA policy adviser who left the agency this year for a job at the Gates Foundation. The grant program was funded with Gates money. And, according to the report, Mr. Wynn – a Gates Foundation consultant – also recommended Ms. Williams for the job. Ms. Martin did not return a phone message.

A spokesman for the Gates Foundation said its staff would need time to evaluate the state’s findings. He also said Mr. Wynn’s consulting contract with Gates expires this month.

“Our staff holds itself to the highest ethical standards,” spokesman Greg Shaw said.

The investigation began in February, after Dr. Neeley received a complaint about a grant program that trained principals. According to the report, “the original complainant expressed the belief that the Education Initiatives Division [of TEA] regularly and systemically manipulated the contract and grant process.”

TEA’s Education Initiatives office handles many of the new programs approved by the Legislature and Mr. Perry in recent years, including the Texas High School Project.

Changes proposed

The report also says that the grant programs analyzed are part of a larger problem. “This is not an exhaustive list of [programs] about which TEA staff members expressed concerns,” it states.

The programs investigated were “illustrative” of bigger issues. Investigators report that the number of cases where “practices were vulnerable to manipulation” suggests a contracting system in need of improvement.

The report includes 12 recommendations, including that TEA limit staffers’ ability to intervene with how service centers allocate contract money. The report also recommends “clear written procedures” for how much of a role outsiders like Mr. Wynn can have in state business.

Ms. Ratcliffe, the TEA spokeswoman, said the agency has already adopted one of the recommendations: additional oversight for contracts that don’t go through competitive bidding.

The agency is considering its options regarding the other recommendations. No one has faced disciplinary action as a result of the report, she said.

“We’re going to take this report very seriously, and we’re going to implement anything possible to make sure there’s no hint of anything improper,” Mr. Scott said.

The report has been turned over to the state auditor’s office for further evaluation. TEA did so citing a clause in state law that deals with cases where state money has been “lost, misappropriated, or misused” or where “fraudulent or unlawful conduct has occurred.”

Ms. Ratcliffe said staff members in the auditor’s office will meet soon with Michael Donley, TEA’s inspector general, to determine what additional steps may be taken as a result of the investigation.