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
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.
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.
“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.
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.