As previously reported in The Dallas Express, former Dallas Independent School District (DISD) construction project manager Zachariah Manning earned the ire of his supervisors in 2015 when he raised concerns over potentially illegal activity in the district’s Capital Improvement Department, where he worked.
Manning accused then-department director Sylvia Peña of retaliating against him for voicing his opposition to “sequential purchasing,” the illicit practice of breaking up taxpayer-funded projects in such a way as to avoid competitive bidding.
“Immediately when I started making complaints about what was going on,” Manning recalled, speaking with WFAA back in 2018, “then — all of a sudden — my work product is not what it should be.”
Over the following months, Peña and Willie Burroughs, executive director of Maintenance and Facilities Services, allegedly overloaded Manning with work, repeatedly denied him additional training provided to his colleagues, reassigned his assistant, targeted him with a post-employment aptitude examination, wrote him up for unprofessional conduct, and criticized his job performance, according to a lawsuit Manning filed against the district.
Manning believed that Peña’s actions were intended to either drive him out of DISD or serve as a pretext by which to fire him at a later date.
He decided to lodge a complaint against Peña with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), accusing her of retaliation and blowing the whistle on Capital Improvement’s sequential purchasing of roofing projects.
“Projects are intentionally maintained under the $500,000 mark when it is known at or before assessment that they are over the mark so that the department can avoid sending the project out for competitive sealed bid,” wrote Manning.
“[Sylvia Peña] has stated on many occasions that it takes too long, and we don’t have time for that,” he claimed, further asserting that he was aware of as much as $15 million worth of taxpayer-funded purchase orders that were manipulated to bypass school board approval and competitive bidding.
Manning submitted his whistleblower complaint on August 4, 2016, writing in the cover letter, “I am filing this complaint under the Texas Whistleblower’s Act because our tax dollars should be more cared for.”
Eleven days later, on August 15, Manning asked Peña if there was any way he could transfer out of the department and keep the same incentives. Peña responded in an email later in the day, claiming there was no mechanism to fulfill his request.
Manning replied on August 17, explicitly outlining the reasons why he wanted to transfer out of Capital Improvements, which included the allegations that Peña was engaging in retaliation against him and that she and her superior had a complete disregard for school law.
That day, Manning also sent an email to then-DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, in which he reported the alleged retaliation and sequential purchasing.
Attached to that email was correspondence between himself and Robbie Daniels, a senior buyer with DISD Procurement Services. It turned out that other DISD employees outside Capital Improvements were familiar with Peña’s alleged practices.
Like Manning, Daniels would not play ball, instead choosing to reject requisition orders from Capital Improvements that smacked of sequential purchasing.
The attached correspondence showed Daniels identifying an instance of alleged sequential purchasing and Manning attributing it to Peña.
Hinojosa forwarded Manning’s email to a subordinate, instructing them, “Please have someone check into this ASAP.”
It is currently unclear what steps, if any, Hinojosa took to investigate Peña for retaliation and harassment. What does appear reasonably clear, according to court documents, is that Hinojosa and DISD administrators rallied to defend the district from a TEA investigation prompted by Manning’s whistleblower complaint.
Manning’s complaint, however, also set off an internal investigation by DISD’s Office of Internal Audit.
That investigation resulted in a damning report that appeared to substantiate Manning’s allegations against Peña and the Capital Improvements Department. The report was written by then-inspector Andrea Whelan, who by 2022 had become a whistleblower herself.
The Dallas Express will follow up on this story in future articles.