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Broward School Board’s budding bid rigging scandal takes a twist

Update: March 17 –  In a public vote of confidence for Superintendent Robert Runcie and his staff amid allegations of bid rigging, the Broward School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to temporarily scrap plans to award a multi-million dollar management contract.

Instead, the board gave a thumbs-up to staff plans to split the contract and rebid it soon as two contracts – possibly by the end of the month.

The board acted after the school system verified statements made under oath by whistleblower Michael Marchetti that executives from Jacobs Project Management Company appeared to have violated a school policy that prohibits bidders from talking to all but designated school staff until a contract is awarded.

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward School Board headquarters in Fort Lauderdale

Broward School Board headquarters in Fort Lauderdale

In an about face, Broward School administrators will ask the School Board Tuesday to reject all bids for a controversial multi-million dollar contract to manage $800 million in capital projects. The board also will be asked to split the contract into two parts when the work is rebid.

FloridaBulldog.org obtained a document outlining the requests as it investigated a district whistleblower’s claims that Broward school administrators “rigged” bidding procedures to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive the contract. Click here to read last week’s exclusive story detailing the whistleblower’s claims.

The document reverses an earlier recommendation that Jacobs be awarded the entire contract. The document is dated March 9 – the same day a reporter sought comment about the allegations and asked to see public bid documents. School officials did not respond to either request.

Voters approved the $800 million bond sale in November to finance the capital projects, mostly to repair run down district schools.

Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to the superintendent, informed Runcie of his suspicions about bid rigging in two January emails. On Feb. 10, he outlined his allegations in a sworn statement to Broward County Schools Police Detective Edward Costello.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

Marchetti also told Runcie, and the detective under oath, that executives from Jacobs may have violated the school district’s “Cone of Silence” last January 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, the Superintendent, any Evaluation Committee Member or any other School District employee”…except “designated staff”…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”

Marchetti, who worked for the school district for 17 years, retired last month after the superintendent dismissed his concerns.

In an interview, Marchetti said Detective Costello told him the management contract Jacobs is seeking is worth about $20 million over six years.

Jacobs Project Management Company is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group, which is an international engineering, architecture, and construction firm. The main company is headquartered in Pasadena, California.

CONE OF SILENCE VIOLATION

The document says Jacobs’ bid should be rejected because company executives “violated the Cone of Silence” policy. The signature on the document is illegible. The district’s public information office did not respond to a question asking who decided to reject the proposals and rebid the contract.

Although Jacobs violated the Cone of Silence policy, the company can rebid for the new contracts when they are put out on the street again around March 25.

Derek Messier, Broward Schools chief facilities officer Photo: Local10.com

Derek Messier, Broward Schools chief facilities officer Photo: Local10.com

“It is my understanding that a cone of silence violation does not preclude a vendor from future solicitations,” Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer, said in an email to Broward School Board member Nora Rupert.

In his emails to the superintendent and in his sworn police statement, Marchetti identified Messier as the administrator mainly responsible for the alleged bid rigging. Messier declined to comment.

Marchetti told Detective Costello that the selection committee that voted last December to recommend Jacobs for the management contract was composed of district administrators handpicked by Messier. The school board committee that normally ranks bidders, and was bypassed by Messier, is the Qualifications, Selection and Evaluation Committee (QSEC).

Board member Rupert asked Messier if the Qualifications Committee will evaluate responses when the two contracts are put out for bid. Messier, who declined to discuss the matter with a reporter, indicated the Qualification Committee would not be used in a reply email that is both bureaucratic and unclear.

“The RFP for the PMO utilized a standard evaluation committee structure that is used by the district for solicitations that are not applicable to QSEC policy 7003,” Messier wrote. RFP stands for request for proposal; PMO is program manager office.

In an interview, Rupert said it would be a mistake not to use the Qualifications Committee to evaluate the bids. “I totally disagree” with Messier, she said.

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

Charlotte Greenbarg who served on the school district’s Audit Committee and Facilities Task Force between 1999 and 2014, agreed with Rupert.

“I don’t think he’s right,” Greenbarg said. “If it is going to manage projects, how can they not go through QSEC? They are trying to manipulate the process so they can put the people they want on the selection committee…He is bound and determined to give Jacobs that contract.”

‘A STAR CHAMBER’

Nick Sakhnovsky, vice chairman of the district’s Facilities Task Force, described Messier’s handpicked selection committee as “a special star chamber.” “It is pretty shocking to me, it’s pretty outrageous,” he said in an interview.

The company ranked second behind Jacobs by Messier’s committee was Los Angeles-based AECOM.

But the bid-rejection document also says all bidders – not just Jacobs – should be rejected because the school district’s initial request for bids does not allow for awarding the contract to “other (firms) than the one selected by the evaluation committee.”

That’s not the way the school board’s procurement system is supposed to operate.

Normally, school administrators negotiate a contract with the second ranked bidder if the top bidder becomes ineligible. A proposed contract is then presented to the School Board for approval.

Tuesday’s School Board agenda states that four companies bid on the contract.

Rupert, representing the Seventh District in North Broward, said the school district could open itself up to a lawsuit if it doesn’t attempt to negotiate a contract with AECOM.

“I don’t like to put the school district at risk,” Rupert said.

Marchetti agreed. “They should try to negotiate with the second proposer,” he said in an interview. “The RFP does not preclude them from negotiating with them.”

By rejecting all of the bids “prior to negotiating with the other finalist, the school district continues to reinforce the bid rigging allegations,” Marchetti added in a follow-up email. “As I outlined to Mr. Runcie, they wanted Jacobs all along.”

Greenbarg agreed the district could be liable for not negotiating with AECOM.

But “companies (not selected) rarely protest because they’ll get something later,” she said. The school district usually awards a losing company a contract in the future “as a consolation prize.”

Greenbarg suspects the school administration may be creating a consolation prize when the administration announced in the bid-rejection document that the contract would be split into two. One company will be hired to manage design and construction and another company will be hired to deal with cost and program control services.

‘A CONSOLATION PRIZE’

The administration is splitting the contract “to give somebody a consolation prize so nobody causes a commotion,” Greenbarg said.

“They are trying to break it up so Jacobs can still get a piece…so it doesn’t look like something they screwed up on,” Marchetti said in an interview. He described the district’s reasons for rejecting the bids and for dividing the contract into two as “mumble jumble…They are making this up as they go…Transparency is a joke.”

In a Friday email, school district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said that splitting the contract into two would help in the “implementation of improvements in district school facilities. These will address indoor air quality and operational life safety systems…”

Marchetti was unpopular among school administrators who remembered how his prior whistleblowing led to the corruption convictions of School Board members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft, and how, in 2013, the School Board paid Marchetti and his wife $190,000 to settle their lawsuit claiming she was laid off as a research assistant in retaliation for his whistleblowing.

Marchetti talked about his unpopularity in a March 2014 email to Superintendent Runcie. “Within days of (you) starting here, people told you I was crazy, a cancer and a pariah…and the first thing you needed to do was fire me.”

The superintendent transferred Marchetti from being his assistant to being Messier’s subordinate in November.

The relationship between Messier and Marchetti went south quickly.

In a Jan. 9 email, Messier accused Marchetti of “dragging…feet.” Six days later, Marchetti notified Runcie via email that Messier wanted him to attend “a pre-disciplinary meeting regarding my performance…”

Sakhnovsky, the vice chairman of the district’s Facilities Task Force, said Marchetti started to get bad work reviews about six months ago.

“Mike (Marchetti) has a history of being honest and forthcoming,” Sakhnovsky said. “That doesn’t make it comfortable for some people.”

Greenbarg called Marchetti “totally credible.” “Everything he has told me has been spot on,” she said.

Rupert, Runcie’s biggest critic on the nine-woman school board, says she’s a “huge fan of Mike Marchetti…I certainly believe everything he has brought forward.”

Rupert was one of two board members in interim evaluations to rank Runcie as “needs improvement.” Rupert noted Runcie “refused to hold staff accountable for missteps (and) blatant overspending…”

Runcie’s written reply: “We have successfully reduced expenses and increased operational efficiencies…Moreover, I have delivered on my promise to work to improve public trust and confidence in our school system.”

School Board Chairwoman Donna P. Korn, who rated Runcie mainly “effective”, and Heather P. Brinkworth, who rated Runcie mostly “needs improvement”, did not respond to requests for comment left with their assistants.

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  • BROWARD BULLDOG You have been doing wonderful work here in Broward, kudos!

    The diversity committee has a new website, it hasn’t ever been up, but we have it I am told. Perhaps one day the public can hear the deliberations, one might hope after all these decades… We just spent one entire year deliberating over bylaws I am told, seriously. I’m new.

    I was recently censored from airing by BECON TV – Two days later Ch. 10 aired a piece interviewing Dr. Pope of Broward Schools to divulge that Broward is number one in cases of sexual related problems in schools of ALL Florida counties. They edited me out so smoothly I’m embarrassed to say how many times I had to rewind to catch the edits, and I use to be co-owner of a TV Channel!

    Please note that just as the EPA in Florida cannot use the phrase “global warming” without risk of losing ones job, it is a written infraction to compare ANY education data on a Florida school to any other school or district OTHER than another Florida school.

    Mr. Runcie has said in aired interviews that 90 children out of 250,000 kids were bullied last year compared to 1,050 just a few years before… he IS clearly INCOMPETENT for this position and must be removed. If you overheard the mechanic you are about to leave your car with saying to “just pour some water in to level off the tank of someones car” – would you leave your car there for repair? That would be crazy right? Woefully misguided, incompetent or a liar?

    He is misguided is my call, based on his own harsh childhood he will see done to our children what he believes is necessary based on the harsh realities of his world as a child. Shame on us for allowing any child to be dealt such a harsh hand as was Mr. Runcie – shame on us to let it continue now under his clearly misguided (at best) leadership. Perhaps he can be educated, this is my hope. If not, he must be removed, clearly, and quickly. Mr. Runcie see’s no improvement in reading between grades 3 and 12 in our Broward schools as evidence that children just aren’t coming to school prepared, so it must be the parents fault and lack of adequate pre-kindergarden to blame – seriously, it’s the kids fault they can’t read, this is what he says out loud without blinking. Every single Broward HS has a ROTC, there isn’t even a county in TEXAS where that is true. We hand our kids over to the same system system exposed for abusing minors right HERE in Broward and it isn’t even discussed when the bills as blood money are paid the prison provider we hand our juveniles over to. Mr. Runcie has close ties with people associated with the prison system and its promotion, primarily through the Broad Foundation whose original charter was to dismantle the public school system as public enemy number one – the language has been cleaned-up considerably recently on their website. Broad employees came with Mr. Runcie along with the “deal.” I believe three Broad people came with him but they deny knowledge although I learned of it on the Broward school site. Perhaps someone OUT THERE IN THE PUBLIC can learn who these persons are or were that Mr. Runcie brought with him from the Broad Foundation? Just curious. Mr. Runcie can accomplish incredible GOOD by changing his plans and dropping his planned militarization and turning of Broward’s kids into the nations lackeys and service-people. Our kids can’t read not because they are poor, black, or anything else… they cannot read BECAUSE WE HAVE NOT TAUGHT THEM! Only five of 250 schools has passed all six subjects – this means that ONLY children going to one of these five schools will have the preparation needed and expected of them for graduation and that MORE THAN HALF OF ALL STUDENTS IN ALL 245 OTHER SCHOOLS have FAILED AT LEAST ONE SUBJECT – and many fail in multiple subjects – this is FACT and when brought up to Mr. Runcie 3 times has had NO RESPONSE from board or Mr. Runcie. Lies, lies and more lies. Enough! Our children are literally dying and being victimized – that they also cannot read is not even the main problem any longer!

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