A storyteller's story

Friendship opens door to building opportunity

In print on August 24, 2010 at 1:10 am

Byline: By Akilah Johnson Staff Writer
Date: Saturday, October 31, 2009

When his longtime buddy wanted to break into the school construction business in Broward County, School Board member Bob Parks stepped in to help.

He set up a meet-and-greet between Biltmore Construction, based near Clearwater, and Michael Garretson, the man in charge of the district’s billion-dollar construction budget.

“And my comment to Mike Garretson was: ‘There is nothing in this for me. I have no ties at all, except this was my, not only my lifelong friend, but we also played ball together in Key West,’ ” said Parks of Biltmore’s former business developer, whom he declined to name.

The construction company never built anything for the district, but not for lack of trying. Twice in 2006, district staff asked the School Board to approve a $2.5 million classroom project by Biltmore.

Both times, the item was withdrawn at the insistence of auditors, who discovered Biltmore was not pre-qualified at the time to work for the school system.

Parks, according to district documents, demanded an explanation.

“I spoke with Dr. Parks this morning about the Biltmore contract,” reads a Feb. 2, 2006, e-mail to the auditors from Garretson. “If this is not going to be on next week’s agenda, he would like Audit to give him an explanation before the meeting.”

Links between board members and companies seeking school business have been under increased scrutiny since the Sept. 23 arrest of board member Beverly Gallagher on charges of accepting bribes and the recent disclosure that board member Stephanie Kraft may have influenced votes for companies that employed her husband.

Parks and Kraft have been critical of the audit department. After the July release of a controversial report, they demanded that audits not be released without a response from those being looked at.

Parks said this week that he is careful not to pressure staff but makes simple follow-up inquiries that are “absolutely not” meddling. But ethics experts say when board members suggest meetings with a specific company, then make inquires of district personnel about the firm, the implication exists that it is the preferred company.

“No elected official should say, ‘You should talk to so-and-so,’ ” said Norm Ostrau, former chairman of the state ethics commission. “People want to please their boss.”

Biltmore Construction became pre-qualified in 2003 to do up to $65 million of work with the district. Pre-qualification means district staff has scrutinized a company’s experience and overall financial status, licenses and insurance coverage. It doesn’t mean a company will be awarded a contract, and Biltmore hadn’t been given any district work.

Then, in late 2005/early 2006, Parks arranged the meeting with Garretson. Soon after, Biltmore was tentatively awarded a contract to build 12 classrooms at Silver Lake Middle in North Lauderdale. However, at that point, Biltmore’s pre-qualification status had expired.

District auditors were asked to review the contract before it went to the School Board for final approval on Feb. 7, 2006. They signed off but had some questions.

“If they are not going to the [district’s evaluation committee] for renewal of their pre-qualification certification until Feb. 8, 2006 . . . what happens if the [committee chooses] not to recertify?” asked auditor Dave Rhodes in a Feb. 3, 2006, e-mail.

The request for approval was withdrawn and placed on a later agenda, but questions arose as to whether Biltmore should have been awarded work in the first place.

The job was part of a contract initially approved in 2004. According to that contract and School Board attorneys, only five firms were supposed to build the additional classrooms. If a tie occurred between firms for the fifth spot – as it did between Biltmore and Centex Rooney – officials were to flip a coin. Instead, all six firms were chosen.

Auditors took their concerns to then-Superintendent Frank Till, who documents show told Garretson to “bring it forward” when asked if the item should appear before the board.

The Biltmore contract approval was placed on the Feb. 21, 2006, agenda. Auditors protested again, and it was withdrawn.

After a third unsuccessful attempt to bring the item before the board, auditors hired an outside firm to scrutinize the contract, which started as a $30 million, eight-school project and ballooned to $183 million and 52 schools.

The firm confirmed what district auditors said but also found that the district had abused its contract, bypassed competitive bids and paid a select number of contractors questionably high fees.

When asked if he had animosity toward district auditors because they – Rhodes in particular – pointed out the problems with the Biltmore contract, Parks replied: “I don’t have any animosity toward [Chief Auditor] Pat Reilly.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4257.

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