Criminal Justice

Former Houston schools trustee kept a ‘bribe ledger’ listing $20,000 in illegal payoffs, feds say

Rhonda Skillern-Jones’ plea deal was part of an investigation that also led to the indictment of the district’s former chief operating officer on Thursday.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The FBI said it was conducting “court authorized law enforcement activity” at HISD’s Hattie Mae White Administration Building Thursday.

A former Houston ISD trustee and board president agreed to cooperate with the federal government for her role in an alleged scheme in which prosecutors say she kept a "bribe ledger" to keep track of $20,000 in payments from a contractor – part of an investigation that also led to the indictment of the district's former chief operating officer on Thursday.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones used her role at the district to push for the hiring of a landscaping contractor who was later at the center of an alleged illegal kickback scheme in 2017, according to her plea agreement.

Court documents say Skillern-Jones requested $231,645 to hire the contractor for schools in her district, approved at an Aug. 10, 2017 Board of Trustees meeting. A "bribe ledger" obtained by the FBI later allegedly showed two payments listed from the contractor, Anthony Hutchison, for $10,000 each. Skillern-Jones' plea indicated that she only remembers receiving $12,000.

She pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and faces up to five years in prison along with a possible $250,000 fine. Her lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

Skillern-Jones was a Houston Community College trustee at the time of her plea. The college did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

The alleged scheme focuses on the actions of former COO Brian Busby, who according to the plea recommended hiring Hutchison so "they can get a little something from it." Busby was indicted Friday.

According to court documents, Busby allegedly helped award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling.

According to the indictment, Busby and others accepted bribes from Hutchison for landscaping, maintenance, construction and repair contracts at HISD schools. Prosecutors say Hutchison overbilled the district to the tune of millions of dollars, and subsequently paid off Busby in both cash and free home remodeling.

The FBI executed search warrants last year at the HISD Hattie Mae White administrative building, as well as the homes of Busby and Hutchison. Prosecutors say more than $186,000 in cash was discovered at their homes.

Both men were charged with conspiracy, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, and witness tampering.

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