Update: Attorney Finds Nothing Illegal With Leon School Construction Contract Awards

Nov 10, 2014

Leon School Superintendent Jackie Pons says he believes allegations of contracting bias are, "politically motivated."

Update 8:35 p.m.:  An independent analysis of Leon County school construction projects has turned up no criminal wrongdoing, but the district needs to do a better job of documenting its decisions. That’s according to the Jacksonville lawyer hired by the Leon County School board to represent it in investigations into school building contracts.

After months of waiting, Attorney Hank Coxe issued a preliminary report on his review of the “book” as it’s come to be called by district officials. The “Book” is a notebook of allegations and documents alleging Superintendent Jackie Pons steered several school construction contracts to his political donors.

On that issue, Coxe says the allegations can’t be validated, and that Pons did no wrong. He also notes there’s no direct correlation between how much a company gave and how much they received in contracts. Furthermore, Coxe says donations from the construction companies made up only nine-percent of Pons’ campaign contributions since 2006-- dropping to six-percent after the Superintendent issued refunds after his elections.

That doesn’t mean there are no problems. Coxe says the district has left itself open to questions when it can’t provide documents to back up how it made decisions.

For example: Back in May, WFSU reported the district had lost documents associated with a construction project at Griffin Middle School.  The project had started to go through a bidding process, but was stopped after officials decided against demolishing a wing at the school.

“We’ve been looking for them...but they were never opened and we did get statements from staff involved with them that they were never opened,” Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills said at the time.

Monday Coxe highlighted the project as an example of the paperwork problems plaguing the district. When the FBI requested the bidding documents from the Leon County School district, officials couldn’t provide them because they no longer exist. That, says Coxe, is what got the district subpoenaed by a federal grand jury and the FBI.

He says Leon School officials have been working with the FBI on the inquiry into the district’s school construction funding process for “seven-to-eight months.”

Coxe says he spoke with more than 40 people at the district about the construction awards outlined in the notebook of allegations and that even the people who have already admitted to being involved with the distribution of the “book” have said they don’t have any direct knowledge of wrongdoing. But he says that doesn’t let the district off the hook completely. While he found no criminal activity, Coxe says the district’s practice of using the no-bid system to award contracts under $2 million to select companies, while legal, “violates the spirit of the law.”

After Monday’s workshop to hear Coxe’s report, the school board collectively expressed relief at the findings.  

Many school officials believe the notebook and the distribution of the allegations are political attacks, including the man at the center of them.

“As days go by its becoming clear—I think this was politically motivated,” says Superintendent Pons.

This marks the sixth investigation into the school construction allegations. Both the district’s own Internal Auditor and School Safety director reviewed the notebook and the charges against Pons and others and found no criminal wrongdoing.

The district also hired attorney Robert Sniffen and the accounting firms Thomas Howell Ferguson and Law, Redd, Crona & Munroe to further review the allegations. Neither entity found evidence of wrongdoing, although they too noted the district’s faulty record keeping.

Pons also hired Tallahassee attorney Ron Myer to look into Pons’ own ethical dealings.

The Coxe report is not yet final. And, and federal probe is ongoing, with requests for documents of projects going back to 2007. The reason the federal government is involved is that many of the building ventures were paid for with federal funding. The district is also waiting on results from its most recent state audit.

“We feel confident that in the end whoever looks at this in the end will come to the same conclusions as the other five entities have come to,” Pons said. “There wasn’t anything fraudulent with it.”

Four Leon County school officials have requested whistle-blower protections-- Former Leon High School Principal Rocky Hanna, Lively Technical Center Principal Woody Hildebrandt, school facilities employee and Sandra Davis and district worker Patricia Nichols.

--

Original Post: A long-awaited internal review of Leon County school construction projects is coming out this evening.

A Jacksonville attorney hired by the Leon County School Board is presenting his findings on several school building projects done between 2010 and 2014. The report follows allegations by an anonymous group that Superintendent Jackie Pons steered school construction jobs to political donors.  Pons has denied wrongdoing. The projects in question came in just under the $2 million mark—the threshold needed to trigger a competitive bidding process.

The Leon County School Board hired its own lawyer to look into the allegations, and that’s the report the group is hearing this evening. A district spokesman says neither he nor the board have seen the report.

Two whistle-blowers have come forward for their involvement in the allegations and have hired lawyers. So has Superintendent Pons. The FBI is investigating the matter because the projects were funded through federal dollars.

Follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn