In a head-spinning board meeting Monday night, the San Antonio Independent School District’s trustees agreed to create a special panel to review the district’s ethics policies – then tabled its formation after being unable to agree on its scope.
SAISD Board President Patti Radle proposed forming an ethics committee to review potentially unethical practices by board members in the wake of former District 6 trustee Olga Hernandez’s trial on federal bribery charges. Radle wanted the panel to specifically analyze notes taken at Hernandez’s December trial by SAISD Chief of Staff Tiffany Grant, who served as a key witness. Grant kept detailed notes on ethical questions that arose from the trial.
Radle said Grant’s notes address “ethics procedures and understandings and perhaps loopholes that need to be closed, perhaps [policies] that need to be strengthened.”
After naming trustees to serve on the committee and agreeing to its necessity, trustees debated how far the committee should go in its review of the board’s ethics policies. District 1 trustee Steve Lecholop, whom Radle named to chair the ethics panel, said he wanted the committee to have broader jurisdiction.
A vote on the panel’s formation was delayed until the board’s next meeting so trustees could reach consensus on its purpose.
“I’m hoping we will have a sort of limited time frame and purpose,” Radle said prior to deciding to table the committee’s formation.
On Dec. 19, a jury acquitted Hernandez of the federal charges of conspiracy to solicit and accept bribes, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. During her trial, Hernandez acknowledged that she had received trips to Las Vegas casinos and Spurs playoff basketball tickets, among other things, from insurance brokers seeking to win a contract with SAISD. However, she testified that she considered them to be “gifts” from friends, not bribes to win influence.
Even though Hernandez was found innocent, questions arose about best practices for board members.
Radle had said she wanted the committee to make recommendations by June for future policies based on the notes. These recommendations would then go to the district’s Governance Committee for further review and eventually be implemented by the board.
Some recommendations might not be implemented due to limitations of state law, but Radle said she hoped the spirit of the ethics review would ensure district trustees do all they can locally to avoid quandaries like those highlighted in Hernandez’s case.
“It gives members a chance when they are approached by somebody…that if they feel it doesn’t fit in a comfortable way, they can say we have these procedures,” Radle said.
In addition to Lecholop, Radle appointed trustees James Howard (D2) and Christina Martinez, Hernandez’s successor, as the other members on the committee. Radle also asked Grant and members of the legal team to serve on the committee.
Lecholop said he thought the work of the ethics committee could be as transformational to the school district as work going on to change the operations on failing campuses.
Hernandez’s arrest took place as part of an FBI investigation into fraudulent activities across South Texas. As a result of the arrest, she resigned her position from the SAISD board.
“This is not the way I wanted to end my work as your public servant,” Hernandez said at the time.
Samuel Mullen, one of the accused brokers, pled guilty to participating in the alleged conspiracy when he served as chief financial officer with Mullen Pension and Benefit Group.
The board unanimously voted to appoint Martinez as Hernandez’s replacement. Martinez’s term will end in May 2019.