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I don’t see any issue with HCC campaign contributions and the Maldonado vote

I appreciate the reporting in this story, but ultimately I think it’s a nothingburger.

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 chair was found expressing interest in the renewal effort, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Questions have arisen about the potential involvement of Jonathan Day from the Houston Business Education Coalition, after a voicemail recording surfaced where a man identifying himself as Day asked to speak to Chairwoman Cynthia Lenton-Gary about the issue.

Maldonado’s contract extension still failed, with five trustees – including Lenton-Gary – voting Wednesday against re-signing. (Lenton-Gary’s available campaign finance filings do not show any contributions from the PAC.)

“I’d be very interested in talking with you briefly about the pending issues with the renewal of the chancellor’s current arrangement with the college,” Day, naming himself as the chair of the coalition, said in the voicemail. “Please give me a call at your convenience.”

The recording signaled a more drawn-out fight over Maldonado’s contract than was previously known: Conversations 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 fight. Two of the trustees who voted against the renewal afterward cited steep declines in admission as well as lawsuits brought under the chancellor’s tenure – including one alleging discrimination against Black employees – as some of their personal reasons for opposing his continued leadership.

Trustees Monica Flores Richart, Eva L. Loredo, Charlene Ward Johnson and Adriana Tamez voted in favor of the extension. While they each reported campaign contributions from the business education PAC, all four denied financial influence in their decision making. Day also denied any ethical conflict occurred.

“We’re people who pay taxes, we have an interest in the performance of the college,” Day said in a phone interview. “That’s materially affected by the selection of the chancellor, the chief executive officer. We of course have an interest in that. I think it would be very disappointing if the business community here in Houston was not vitally involved in that kind of a matter at the college.”

[…]

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

In a letter issued to the HCC community, however, Maldonado cited several gains in student achievement and building a financial reserve of $256 million as some of his biggest 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 keep advancing the institution’s goals – keeping true to our North Star, the ultimate student experience, which shines bright and guides us from good to great in every aspect of our college’s service.”

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

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

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

The plaintiff’s attorneys also claim that Maldonado used a list of tactics to undermine and get rid of black employees, including padding their personnel files with false complaints to be used as reasons to fire them, using the word “transformation” as a code word for getting rid of black employees, placing doubt on black employees’ claims, and forcing black employees to take leaves of absence without cause in order to use those as grounds for termination.

[…]

Several of the trustees with donations from the PAC said they took issue with any claims that their votes were cast under financial influences. Richart said she received many perspectives and opinions on the matter of Maldonado’s contract, but the decision was hers alone.

“As a Trustee bound by law, ethics rules, HCC bylaws and policies, and my own moral code, I made this decision, as I have all other decisions as Trustee, based on the best interest of the College,” she said. “To suggest otherwise is an insult to not only me, but each one of my colleagues who have received campaign contributions from individuals and groups who care about the future of HCC and Houston.”

See here for the background. It’s very easy to slide into whataboutism when arguing about the ethics of campaign contributions, so let me just say that I found the case for possible shenanigans here to be unpersuasive. You can feel however you want to feel about Mr. Day and his PAC – I’d have to take a deeper look at their donation history, but it would not surprise me if I viewed them unfavorably, given the context. Lobbyists lobby, it’s what they do. That includes lobbyists for causes and organizations that most of us here support. As far as this example goes, put me down as in agreement with what Trustee Richart says.

The thing here is that there’s a perfectly good case for casting either vote on this matter. I thought it made sense to move on from Chancellor Maldonado, for reasons mostly in line with those of Trustee Flowers. Against that, it’s clear that he did a lot of good work – read the comments on my previous post for a strong defense of Maldonado – and retained the confidence of a significant portion of the HCC community. I don’t see any reason at this time to doubt the sincerity of anyone’s vote. I’m happy to have this phone call come to light – more sunlight, please do bring it on – I just don’t think it made any difference. If there’s more evidence out there to suggest otherwise, let’s hear it. For now, I have no issues with what happened.

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