[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida - September 6, 2011 -
City of Tallahassee Release:
The City of Tallahassee has formally notified the Department of Commerce that it is returning grant funds awarded Tallahassee as part of the federal Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP). On August 19, 2010, the City was awarded a $1.6 million grant by the U.S. Department of Commerce to help bridge the digital divide by providing broadband technology to underserved citizens. Requirements within the grant stipulated that two-thirds of the goals identified in Tallahassee's grant application be completed by July 2012, with all requirements completed by July 2013.
The action followed a request from Mayor John Marks to City Manager Anita Favors Thompson to consider returning the grant funds given that it appeared unlikely that the City could meet all of the deadlines associated with the grant.
"Even under the best of circumstances, our partners faced very ambitious milestones to meet the grant requirements. With the economic downturn, however, we now face an insurmountable burden upon our ability to meet the timelines," said Marks.
Marks' office initiated the grant application in 2009, with the approval of the City Commission. When questions were raised regarding the Mayor's participation in the initial vote to accept the grant, Marks initiated a review by the Florida Ethics Commission.
"The challenge is that we have intentionally not taken any action in moving forward with this grant until such time as we hear back from the Ethics Commission, but there is no time certain for when the report will come back," said Marks. "We have an outstanding reputation of administering grants that meet all requirements, and we don't want to impact that relationship." Accordingly, Marks recommended the City return the grant award and request that officials formally close the grant. To date, no grant funds have been released to the City, and thus the process is merely being formally closed in terms of the grant award to Tallahassee.
Key components of the original grant award to the City included providing broadband services to citizens underserved by technology, and expand programs at the Apalachee Ridge Technology Learning Center. Both Mayor Marks and City Manager Anita Favors Thompson indicated the City will continue efforts to bridge the digital divide as stated in the original BTOP grant application, and will explore other options to do so.
"The City is committed to improving broadband access for Tallahassee's underserved communities and we will continue to make that a key objective for the future," said Marks.
[UPDATE] 5-3 12:45 PM --
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks has stepped down from the Alliance for Digital Equality board. He says that the move was in the best interest of everyone involved, and for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.
[UPDATE] 4-15 1:20 PM --
The federal grant that prompted a possible voting conflict for Tallahassee Mayor John Marks is turned over to the U.S. Office of Inspector General.
The Office of Inspector General is tasked with monitoring programs and operations at the Department of Commerce and detecting and deterring waste, fraud and abuse.
Marks voted for Alliance for Digital Equality to acquire a contract for city services that would be paid through a federal grant.
The issue is that the mayor serves on the board at ADE and has been paid tens of thousands of dollars over the past three years for doing so.
[UPDATE] 4-4 10:47 PM --
Question and Answer Session on the BTOP Grant Application by the City of Tallahassee:
1) Why was ADE named in the City’s BTOP grant application?
BTOP encouraged applicants to apply for funding in collaboration with other partners who brought “a variety of strengths and expertise to a project”.
The BTOP Second Round Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) required complete applications to be submitted by the deadline. A “complete” Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) application had to include a number of required elements, including “i. Governance and key partnerships”. The City was required to submit a “fully completed application” to be eligible for consideration, which included identifying their partners and roles in the projects.
NTIA allows for noncompetitive sub-awards for BTOP discretionary funds.
2) Can grant applicants (such as the City of Tallahassee) submit applications for noncompetitive awards?
Yes. Per the NTIA website, NTIA’s suggested justifications for noncompetitive awards include:
"Urgency and compelling nature of the project due to compressed statutory and programmatic deadlines applicable to BTOP funding”
The City of Tallahassee was awarded funding under BTOP Round 2. The Federal Register Notice of Funding Availability was published on Friday, January 22, 2010. The deadline for submitting grant applications was February 16, 2010 to March 15, 2010 – only 52 days. Given the short notice, the City needed to identify its partners quickly. Those partners included the Apalachee Ridge Technology Learning Center, Alliance for Digital Equality, Go Beyond Foundation, and Florida State University College of Communication and Information. The “key partnerships” had to be included in the application as required by the NOFA.
“the sub-award organization… is uniquely positioned and the only organization known to possess the capability to perform the work”
ADE had proven track record and previously successful programs in other communities, which was recognized by the NTIA in making the grant award. Their accomplishments were specifically cited in the NTIA grant award announcement released in August 2010.
In addition, Go Beyond and Apalachee Ridge were also named as partners in this grant because the City had worked with them in the past and both demonstrated positive, measurable results.
3) Did the federal government know that the City was proposing this partnership as part of its grant application?
In communication with NTIA, the City of Tallahassee described both ADE and Go Beyond as partners, saying “The City will implement the Alliance for Digital Equality and Go Beyond programs as a part of the proposed project. They are the City’s program delivery partners.” The grant application, supplemental information and additional data provided to NTIA satisfied their requirements as the BTOP grant was awarded to the City, which specifically cited the City’s partners. NTIA specifically cited ADE’s LWOW “successful initiatives in Clayton County, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Houston, Texas: as a key component of the project.
[UPDATE] 4-4 6:57pm by Lanetra Bennett
Area residents are now questioning if the Tallahassee mayor's self-admitted "mistake" in voting in relation to a company who pays him, is the only conflict of interest in the whole ordeal.
"I think he made a mistake." Said, Tallahassee resident Thomas Waters.
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks has admitted that.
But, many residents still wonder how Marks could mistakenly vote with the city commission in September 2010 to use the services of "Alliance for Digital Equality" when he was a paid advisor for the Atlanta-based company.
During a second vote in December 2010, Marks recused himself from voting on a contract for A.D.E. to bring broadband services to Tallahassee.
Waters said, "I think they should be very careful because they represent the taxpayers and there should be no conflict of interest."
WCTV's partner, TallahasseeReports.com, released information on federal standards that say "No employee, officer or grantee shall participate in selection, or in the award or administration of a contract supported by Federal funds if a conflict of interest would be involved."
Residents say the fact that City Manager Anita Favors Thompson's husband--Larry Thompson-- is associated with the Go Beyond Foundation also fits in that category.
Go Beyond applied for funding in partnership with the city and A.D.E., and Thompson works with Go Beyond's partner 50 Large.
Tallahassee resident Jennie Richards said, "Even if they might not be doing anything on purpose, they need to know the rules and be honest about it upfront when they first find out. If not, it's going to make you suspicious of them."
Thompson says he is proud to be the city manager's husband, but, there is not a conflict of interest because he is not paid by the organization or the city.
He says if Go Beyond got the grant, no money would go to him. He says the funding would go directly to help 50 Large, which teaches students technology skills and how to refurbish computers.
He says his partnership with 50 Large existed before this grant and he will continue to work with the organization in efforts to help students in the community achieve.
Residents also question why A.D.E. was chosen without the services being put out for a bid.
City Commissioner Andrew Gillum says this particular federal grant did not require there to be a bid.
He says commissioners were only required to put together a proposal that would allow them to compete successfully for the federal funding; and he says that's exactly what they did.
He says the federal government agreed because the city's proposal was submitted and accepted, and they were eligible for a $1.6 million grant.
Gillum says the commission chose A.D.E. and Go Beyond Foundation because they have proven to be strong partners in the community.
[UPDATE] 4-4 12:30pm --
Last week Mayor Marks admitted that he made a mistake voting for a vendor he was being paid by without disclosing any of the specifics. The appropriate federal, state, and local officials will sort this out in due time.
However, one question that has not yet been answered is why was the project not put out for a competitive bid?
After Mayor Marks signed the federal grant award on September 16, 2010, he was obligated to follow federal rules on procurement. More specifically, the City of Tallahassee was obligated to abide by this language:
Grantees (City of Tallahassee in this case) ….. will maintain a written code of standards of conduct governing the performance of their employees engaged in the award and administration of contracts. No employee, officer or agent of the grantee ….. shall participate in selection, or in the award or administration of a contract supported by Federal funds if a conflict of interest, real or apparent, would be involved. Such a conflict would arise when:
(i) The employee, officer or agent,
(ii) Any member of his immediate family,
(iii) His or her partner, or
(iv) An organization which employs, or is about to employ, any of the above, has a financial or other interest in the firm selected for award.
Read more at TallahasseeReports.
WCTV will have much more on the report later today.
An update to a story we first brought to you earlier this week.
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks has officially requested an ethics review into his vote on a grant for a company that was also paying him as an advisor.
The mayor is requesting that the commission review the case and inform him of anything he needs to do as a result of the ethics investigation.
Marks emailed a copy of the letter to city commissioners
ATTACHED is a copy of Mayor Marks letter.
Updated 3-30-11 6:38pm by Lanetra Bennett
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks speaks out about allegations of corruption surrounding a federal grant.
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks released a statement saying that publisher Steve Stewart's facts in a report about corruption in city government is incorrect.
"After my review, I stand by the story completely." Said, Stewart.
Tax documents show that Atlanta-based Alliance for Digital Equality has paid Marks more than $66,000 since 2007 for serving on their board.
In December 2010, Marks recused himself from voting on a $700,000 contract for A.D.E. to bring broadband services to the under-served areas of Tallahassee.
But, Marks had already previously voted with the city commission to accept the federal grant.
Marks said, "Let me make this clear. I made a mistake. I should've abstained from the city commission vote on September 15th. The mistake was because I was serving as an adviser, only as an adviser, not on the board of directors."
When asked during a press conference Wednesday if he disclosed that he was a paid adviser for A.D.E., Marks said: "That's my recollection. If I didn't, then I should have."
In Marks' written statement, he says, "I just hope that in Mr. Stewart's zeal to reverse the will of the voters in the last election, he hasn't jeopardized this grant."
In the August 2010 Primary Election, Stewart conceded to Mayor Marks.
Stewart says that his report has nothing to do with the election. He said, "I'm doing nothing more than what I was doing before I ran for mayor. When I ran for mayor, I put tallahasseereports.com on a hiatus. After the mayoral campaign, I have picked tallahasseereports.com back up, and I will continue to expose issues that are important to the community."
Mayor Marks pointed out in Wednesday afternoon's press conference that the federal government has not given one dime regarding this broadband grant.
Marks says he's asked the ethics commission to review this issue in an effort to move forward.
Marks says the payments have stopped, but, says he is still on the board because he believes in the company's objective.
Updated 3-29-11 6:11pm by Jennifer Milton
In March of 2010, the Mayor's office was awarded more than a million dollars in federal grant money to bring broadband services to the under-served areas of Tallahassee.
Tallahassee City Commissioner approved a deal with Atlanta based Alliance for Digital Equality that would pay the organization to provide those services.
The problem is, according to these tax documents, Mayor John Marks is one of their board members and they've paid him more than 60 grand since 2007.
And A-D-E representatives say Marks is still on the board.
A-D-E, the vendor directly financially linked to the mayor, says they never went through a bidding process to compete with other interested groups...but was included in the grant application.
Later, at a September 15th City Commission meeting, Commissioners Ziffer, Gillum and Lightsey, joined Mayor Marks in approving a partnership with A-D-E to establish a program at Apalachee Ridge Technology Center in Tallahassee.
And because the deal includes federal money...our partner "Tallahassee Reports", says the FBI is now sifting through the documents in the case. We contacted the FBI, who says they can NEVER confirm or deny if they've opened an investigation in any case.
In December, the board voted on the the contract amount of more than 700 thousand dollars...but the vendors name was changed to Partners for Digital Equality. We contacted the company to find out their relationship with ADE....and were told they are two separate entities and Mayor Marks in not a board member for PDE. However, the organizations have the same spokesperson, their websites are very similar and the same receptionist answers the phone for both organizations.
City Spokesperson Michelle Bono tells me they are reviewing the information.
I also reached out to Commissioners Ziffer and Gillum.
Ziffer says he was not aware that the mayor was a board member for ADE or that the organization was paying the mayor.
We have not yet been able to reach Gillum for his response.
Statement from Mayor John Marks:
"The Alliance for Digital Equality is a national program that provides Internet access to under-served communities. For years I have been dedicated to this cause, and I worked hard to bring this opportunity to bridge the digital divide in Tallahassee.
Unfortunately, Mr. Stewart is incorrect with his facts. I am not a director of this organization; I serve in an advisory capacity.
There’s been no intent to do any wrong. There were two votes taken in relation to this project – I recused myself when I was advised to do so because I didn’t want to do anything improper. Additionally, I announced that I was an adviser to ADE.
If I didn’t go far enough and I’ve made a mistake, someone more credible than Steve Stewart will let me know.
I just hope that in Mr. Stewart’s zeal to reverse the will of the voters in the last election, he hasn’t jeopardized this grant."
UPDATE 3-29-2011 5:20 pm
WCTV has attached documents. To see more tax documents associated with this story, follow the link below under "Related Links."
[UPDATE] Tallahassee, Florida -- March 29, 2011 -- Noon --
The FBI microscope is zeroing in on Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and three city commissioners. Nearly $2,000,000 in federal funding may have been corruptly put to use in the capital city.
FBI investigators sift through paperwork to determine if a few city officials are responsible for unlawfully using federal dollars.
Last September 2010, commissioners Ziffer, Lightsey, and Gillum joined forces with Mayor John Marks to use 1.6 million dollars from a federal grant to expand broadband in the area, but there are two major problems with that agreement.
Two of the participating Agencies, Alliance for Digital Equality and the Go Beyond Foundation, were chosen without a bidding process and one is directly financially linked to Mayor Marks.
Marks has served on the board for ADE since 2007 and has been paid in total more than $60,000 dollars.
When the city of Tallahassee applied for the grant in 2010, the proposal listed ADE and Go Beyond as part of the application and never opened it up for other agencies to bid.
Now that the city has been approved, the money is being used by those agencies and technically they didn't get the job fairly.
Now the FBI has obtained copies of all the documents and will determine if the city fraudulently received the federal money since they violated the guidelines.
Stay with WCTV for more on this story.
Tallahassee, Florida -- March 29, 2011 --
On September 15, 2010, Commissioners Ziffer, Lightsey, and Gillum joined forces with Mayor John Marks to approve the city’s participation in a $1.6 million federal grant with partners that included the Alliance for Digital Equality (ADE) and The Go Beyond Foundation.
The federal grant won by the city of Tallahassee was part of a program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with the goal to expand access to broadband services in the United States. The federal government provided $4.7 billion to NTIA to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to increase broadband access and adoption; provide broadband training and support to schools, libraries, health care providers, and other organizations; improve broadband access to public safety agencies; and stimulate demand for broadband.
After talking to sources, it has been determined that several documents have been turned over to the FBI because of concern about the relationship between Mayor John Marks and the vendors included in the grant application.
Read more at TallahasseeReports.
WCTV will have more on the report later today.