Black and White
Four members of the Beaumont Independent School District’s Board of Trustees; the district itself; Superintendent Carrol Thomas; Parsons, the company overseeing the district’s $388.6 million bond initiative; and HRE Inc. are being sued by L&L General Contractors claiming unlawful discrimination, saying it was not awarded a construction contract because its principles are white.
According to the lawsuit, filed last week and served Friday, April 1, during a special board meeting, trustees Woodrow Reece, Gwen Ambres, Terry Williams and Ollis Whitaker voted to give HRE Inc. a contract to rebuild the field house at West Brook High School even though the company was ranked fourth in a review of potential construction companies and had ceased working at a previous job it was hired to perform in the district.
The decision to award the contract to HRE Inc., which is based in Houston, came after two contentious school board meetings where trustees Reece and Williams chastised Parsons for not hiring minority businesses. Williams first complained about the issue in December when Parsons made a recommendation on another contractor that had no minority sub-contractors being used. Williams was adamant that minority companies be used for bond projects. Then, in January, Reece threatened to fire Parsons for not hiring “black folk.”
“Board policy was hiring local,” Reece began saying during the January meeting. “Local means local, not Houston. Minority means minority – black folk, Hispanics, whites and women. Last board meeting Mr. Williams brought out that’s not happening. Now, I don’t know if y’all don’t understand but this board has set the parameters and if they’re not being followed, I don’t know the board’s position but, I want any project that does not comply with those to be put on hold immediately, tonight. So, if you can’t — and I talked to you about this before — if you can’t and Parsons can’t get it, then we just going to stop it and we’ll do it over again. Because that is what we said, and I don’t think that is happening because it didn’t happen at the last board meeting.
“You have a board that feels uncomfortable with what’s going on. You know? Parsons, yeah we hired them but the same way you hire, you fire.”
Reece continued chastising Parsons, reiterating that the board was unhappy with the company. When the issue of West Brook’s field house came up for vote, it was tabled by the board. However, at a subsequent meeting, Parsons changed its recommendation from Houston based L&L General Contractors and recommended HRE Inc.
“The evaluation committee looked over the bids and makes a recommendation,” said attorney David Vann de Cordova, who along with attorney Mike Getz, is representing L&L General Contractors. “The evaluation committee went through and ranked L&L number one out of eight with HRE being number four, and BISD skipped all the way down to number four.”
Cordova said HRE was the lowest bidder but price was only a 40 percent factor in whether the district was getting the “best value” for its money. According to records from BISD, HRE Inc. was about $500,000 lower than all other bidders and Parsons originally believed they could not do the job for that price and would be coming back for more money. The remaining 60 percent of the criteria to be awarded the contract involves the company’s qualifications. In its original recommendation, Parsons included information that HRE Inc. had stopped work on a project and not followed the programs guidelines, which cost BISD taxpayers money.
“We had a bulk purchase of mechanical and electrical equipment and there was substantial savings to do that. The design firm elected to proceed with Carrier and to design around Carrier, and we directed them not to do that,” Parsons program manager Ed Caillouette told trustees at their February meeting. “They elected to proceed anyway and there was a substantial amount of money involved. They have elected to stop their work on other prototypes and we have directed the architectural firm to bring in another mechanical firm.”
Attempts to find out how much money HRE Inc. is said to have cost BISD taxpayers were not immediately successful. A public information request filed in accordance with Texas law has been submitted to BISD to obtain that information.
Cordova said he believes Parsons and BISD got together between the January and February meetings to determine a way to move forward with HRE Inc. and withdraw the recommendation of L&L General Contractors.
“Parsons made a recommendation and we believe they conspired with people of BISD to come up with this,” Cordova said. “After they got a reaming from Williams and Reece, they had a change of heart and recommended HRE despite their performance concerns. There were no complaints about them being from Houston because Parsons had got in line.”
He added that the reason Parsons is included in the lawsuit is because they had the opportunity to stick with their original recommendation, yet they chose not to.“Federal statute states that if you are in position to stop this and you don’t, then you are liable,” Cordova said. “They could have said they wouldn’t consider the contractor’s race but they caved and they recommended HRE, which is a Houston contractor, but it didn’t bother them because they are a minority firm.”When contacted, HRE Inc.’s president Eric Boutte said his address may be in Houston but his heart is in Beaumont.
“I grew up there. I went to school there,” Boutte told The Examiner. “What is this about? All of the other bids for these jobs have went to the low bidder. We were the low bidder and we are qualified. They never contacted our references. All we want to do is go in and do the job.”
When told what Parsons said about the previous job where they stated they had to get another company to finish HRE Inc.’s work, Boutte said he didn’t know where they were getting their information.
“I think he is misguided in his facts,” Boutte said. “They are making it up as they go along. The data shows that nine out of nine times the work has gone to the low bidder. I am not understanding this. You know, I have only talked to him (Caillouette) one time and he is the third program manager. They have had a lot of turnover.”
BISD trustee Tom Neild, along with Bill Nantz and Janice Brassard, is not listed in the lawsuit. Neild said he wants answers and he wants to make sure the district is doing what is right. And during the February board meeting, Neild appeared concerned that the district could get into legal trouble by skipping over three other more qualified bidders to give the contract to HRE Inc.
“They (Parsons) didn’t give us all of that information,” Neild told The Examiner. “What they told us at the board meeting was that there were some concerns over equipment.”
Cordova said the district was made aware of the concerns and knew the criteria to select the best qualified contractor but chose violate his client’s civil rights.“We connected the dots and our client is alleging violations of the purchasing provisions and it says the board shall select a contractor who provides the best value,” Cordova said. “It doesn’t say ‘may’; it says ‘shall.’ We are suing BISD and Thomas for an injunction to stop them from going forward because they did this in violation of the statute.
“That part is not a civil rights violation; that is under the purchasing code. But you have several constitutional provisions and constitutional statutes that guarantee equal rights in contracts, specifically the 14th amendment. The government can’t make decisions based on race of an individual, and 42 U.S.C. 1981 states all citizens shall enjoy the right to make contracts. The Supreme Court has ruled that right is not limited to just non-white citizens, and we are claiming that L&L was denied their right to make a contract with BISD because of race.”
Cordova said BISD did not have a compelling reason to enact its Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) program and he hopes the lawsuit will not only cease its use but also put the district’s business on a level playing field for everyone regardless of race.
“They had $400 million to spend and they wanted to make sure that minority companies got a big piece of the pie,” he said. “We don’t think it was a remedy for any past actions; we think they did it to discriminate against whites. The only people who are excluded from the MWBE program are white males when you sort through the definitions. That is what we believe the policy does, and we are going to try and enjoin implementation of the program as far as it concerns contracting issues.”BISD Attorney Melody Chappell denied there was any discriminatory action and pointed out that HRE Inc. was the lowest bidder.
“I understand what the claim is, but the same attorneys represented another contractor a couple of months ago who was actually ranked number two and they felt that because of his price they should have gotten the job,” Chappell said. “I have not looked at their allegations but I can tell you that whether a company is local or minority-, women-owned, economically disadvantaged or whatever, they only get a certain number of points for that. That does not mean you get a contract just because you are a local company or a minority company. You get points for that just like you get points for your costs, your booklet, your insurance rating. That doesn’t give a company any contract in this district.
“Certainly when you look at the contractors who have been chosen for bond projects, they are not overwhelmingly minority contractors.”