By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org
In the last five years, two Broward School Board members were convicted of corruption and a statewide grand jury described the board as both inept and corrupted by “contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.”
It was against that backdrop that the School Board this month chose to see no evil in a whistleblower’s sworn complaint that district administrators had “rigged” bidding procedures. Instead, they mostly complained about bad publicity and said they didn’t want to get involved in overseeing the process.
Except for Nora Rupert, board members during the March 17 meeting indicated that they did not want Superintendent Robert Runcie to send them any of the controversial bid documents. Instead, they grumbled about “the press,” the “nay nays,” and “Monday morning quarterbacks”.
Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to the superintendent, has claimed school administrators rigged bidding to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive the contract to manage $800 million in capital projects that voters agreed to finance. The contract is estimated to be worth as much as $20 million.
Marchetti told Runcie about the alleged rigging in two January emails and reported it to a Broward County School Police detective during a Feb. 10 sworn statement. Marchetti, who retired last month, also said that Jacobs executives violated the school district’s “Cone of Silence” in a telephone call to Marchetti and during a subsequent meeting they had with him.
The Cone of Silence policy prohibits bidders from talking to any school board member or district employee except “designated staff…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”
The school administration took no action on Marchetti’s claims until March 9 when FloridaBulldog.org sought comment about the allegations. The district then posted a notice reversing its recommendation to give the contract to Jacobs because company officials had violated the Cone of Silence policy. The administration also recommended splitting the contract into two parts when the work is rebid. Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officers, has said that should be soon.
BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR JACOBS
At its meeting two weeks ago, the board brushed aside Marchetti’s most serious assertion and unanimously approved the administration’s recommendations to rebid the contract in two parts. The board did not sanction Jacobs Project Management, or any of its officials. Jacobs is eligible to rebid on the new contracts.
Board Chairwoman Donna Korn suggested the board may need to change its policy so it can ban a company from future bidding and not just the company representative who violates the Cone of Silence. The chairwoman said the board currently can bar the representative from doing business with the school district for up to two years.
Jacobs Project Management is a subsidiary of the international engineering, architecture and construction firm Jacobs Engineering Group, headquartered in Pasadena, California.
Marchetti has alleged that Messier told him before bids were requested that he liked Jacobs, and that after bids were received Messier handpicked amenable administrators to sit on an ad hoc committee that selected Jacobs for the contract. The move bypassed the School Board entity that usually ranks bidders – the Qualifications, Selection and Evaluation Committee (QSEC) – before district staff negotiates a proposed contract for the board’s approval.
The board’s discussion focused not on why Messier created a special committee to vet the bids, but whether it was within policy.
Board policy requires the qualifications committee to be involved in contracts involving “total program managers.” Messier told the board the contract “fell outside QSEC.”
The issue centers on whether the contract involves “total program managers.”
School Board General Counsel J. Paul Carland II said bypassing the qualifications committee “doesn’t appear to be a…violation” because the proposed construction management contract is not for a “total program manager.” The attorney said he based that tentative opinion on Runcie’s interpretation of the policy, adding he needed to research the issue further.
Marchetti accused Runcie in an interview of “playing verbal games.”
Charlotte Greenbarg who served on the school district’s Audit Committee and Facilities Task Force between 1999 and 2014, agreed, saying Messier is wrong.
“If it is going to manage projects, how can they not go through QSEC?” she said in an interview.
Carland’s opinion prompted Board Chairwoman Korn to say she was “not comfortable with this going to QSEC…If we want this to go to QSEC, we need to change the policy…I haven’t seen something wrong here except for a breach of the Cone of Silence (policy).”
“THAT’S NOT MY JOB”
Board members Ann Murray and Abby Friedman expressed support for Messier and noting they didn’t want to “get into the weeds” concerning the allegations.
“That’s not my job,” said Murray.
“I never take the perspective that somebody is trying to hide something,” added Board member Rosalind Osgood.
Video of the meeting shows that only Rupert questioned the decision to bypass the qualifications committee, which she noted was “put in place to avoid situations such as we are in…We still do not know who was on this particular committee …was there any conflict…It doesn’t pass the smell test…”
Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s all volunteer Facilities Task Force, told board members Messier advised the task force in November that the qualifications committee would be bypassed. “The air in the room literally changed and people raised eyebrows. I advised that would not be the best course of action,” she said.
In an interview, Lynch-Walsh said she opposed Messier’s ad hoc group because the qualifications committee meets “in the sunshine” and includes a member from the Facilities Task Force and the school district auditor’s office.
“There was no task force member (and)…no auditor on (Messier’s) committee,” she said.
Task force members monitor the planning, construction and maintenance of school facilities. The board selects them from nominations submitted by its members, Parent-Teacher Associations, the League of Cities, the Broward Teachers Union and other organizations.
While giving Messier a thumbs-up to proceed in the face of Marchetti’s allegations, board members also used their platform to lash out at critics and the media.
“We will always have our critics, will always have our Monday morning quarterbacks and we will have people who question what we are doing..,” said member Patricia Good.
“I’m not going to get into the situation where the press and other nay nays can start taking us down one by one,” said Murray. “We are a whole and we have to stay a whole…I am going to support the superintendent and staff…”
The board split on whether to praise or criticize Marchetti, who earned a civilian award from the FBI in 2011 for his prior whistleblowing at the School Board.
Freedman and Murray bashed Marchetti for talking to a representative of a company covered by the cone of silence.
Korn, however, disagreed. “The violator is the lobbyist,” she said. “I don’t ever want an employee to feel like they are somehow guilty of something because they receive a phone call.”
“I actually think (he) should receive an award,” said Rupert.
Marchetti’s job was to talk to Jacobs company officials on a regular basis. The School Board earlier had awarded Jacobs a $1.2 million services contract to help the school district assess facilities needing repair. Cone of Silence violations occur when company officials discuss the new pending contract, not the older services contract.
Several board members cautioned the administration as it moved forward.
“Perception…Mr. Messier is very important,” said Heather Pomper Brinkworth. “We need to be very careful when we bring things forward we think about the process…and what the perception is going to be.”
Robin Bartleman urged Messier to work with the Facilities Task Force. “They are our watchdog,” she said.