By: Andy Alcock
December 11, 2014
For the second time in less than three years, Leon County Schools construction projects are being called into question.
Florida's Auditor General has again said the school system did not always follow state law.
Gilchrist Elementary is one of several schools where construction contracts were awarded for just under $2-million.
Competitive bidding must take place for projects over that threshold.
In April, Eyewitness News asked then Board Chair Forrest VanCamp about those contracts.
"That has been a cost savings to us to do that," VanCamp said on April 30.
But according to a new preliminary report from Florida's Auditor General, that process has been far more expensive.
According to the report, the cost per square foot for those Gilchrist projects was more than $350.
The report says that figure is more than $200 a square foot over the state average or well over double that average.
The report shows projects at Kate Sullivan and Killearn Lakes Elementary Schools also far exceeded state average construction costs per square foot.
A schools spokesman says those numbers will drop to closer to the state average in the final report.
"We are still working on that," said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. "We've been working with the auditor general's office this summer, all year actually, as they've been looking through our process and procedures," she said.
But reports nearly three years apart have reached similar conclusions.
In March 2012, the auditor general wrote in part, "the district does not always get construction services by following Florida law."
Now, in December 2014, the auditor general writes, "the district does not always competitively select construction management entities in accordance with Florida law."
"The auditor general's office has been great to work with and making recommendations as to how we improve," Wills said.
The complete preliminary audit report includes 28 findings.
One of them was two Leon County bus drivers were on the road for weeks with suspended licenses.
The report states one of those drivers was working for 95 days without a license.
The other one drove 48 days with a suspended license.
The report also found the school system failed to check the licenses of four newly hired bus drivers for months as required by state law.
A statement from Leon County Schools notes the system employs close to 300 drivers.
The statement also says the school system is committed to improving how drivers licenses are checked.
Superintendent Jackie Pons has asked for draft responses to the preliminary audit be completed by Friday.
The board will also be briefed on the auditor general's report at a meeting Tuesday.
By: Andy Alcock
December 10, 2014
Gilchrist Elementary School has been at the center of controversy for months.
It's one of several schools where construction contracts were awarded for just under $ 2-million.
In a 2012 report, Florida's Auditor General questioned if it was an attempt to avoid state bidding laws.
It used to be those contracts were awarded without public input.
Now, the information is available on the internet and for comment.
At Tuesday night's Leon County School Board meeting for example, you could see information about $4.7 million of work at Gilchrist including adding classrooms.
"So, we're really trying to involve the public more, make them aware of what's out there," said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. "Anybody want to look at it, it's all on line and available," she said.
Wills says the school system is also revising its policies on awarding construction contracts with input from the auditor general.
She says a formal draft of that policy will be presented to the school board at a January workshop.
"We started researching what other school districts do, what's in statute," Wills said.
Last week, Wills says the school system sent nearly 300 boxes of documents to federal investigators looking at past school construction contracts.
Wills says after complying with that subpoena, so far, the school system has had no further feedback from federal authorities.
By: Chris Gros
November 10, 2014
Tallahassee, FL - Jacksonville Attorney Hank Coxe said Monday that his team looked through more than 1,000 documents and interviewed at least 40 different people in his preliminary report..
Coxe was retained by Leon County Schools to review allegations of how construction projects were doled out by the district and Superintendent Jackie Pons.
Coxe said he found no evidence of wrong-doing.
"We have not identified evidence that construction contracts were selected or assigned with any criminal or fraudulent intent,” said Coxe.
However, as part of his review Coxe said he couldn’t find documents explaining why contracts were rewarded. Coxe said this leaves the district vulnerable to allegations. Coxe cited an email between Superintendent Jackie Pons and former Asst. Superintendent Paul Byrd amongst those missing documents. Coxe advised the board to be more transparent and detailed in how it makes decisions.
"Having a written check-list that would show how that decision was made would obviously add strength to the decision making process and I could appreciate that," said Superintendent Pons.
Coxe then displayed a graph when discussing Pons, campaign contributions and contractors. Coxe said there was "no correlation" between campaign contributions by contractors and how Superintendent Pons rewarded projects. Coxe said that since 2006 only 9% of political donations have come from contractors.
Last month the FBI subpoenaed Leon County Schools for documents and information from a seven year period related to construction projects at 17 different schools.
Superintendent Pons was asked if he expects to testify before a grand jury.
"I hadn't heard anything on that. I think if anybody comes forward with anything I know what we've done which is as a school district is fully cooperate with everybody and give them as much information as they possibly want," said Pons.
After delivering his report Coxe declined to speak with Eyewitness News.
Attorney Marie Mattox is representing both former Leon High School principal Rocky Hanna and current Lively Technical Center principal Woody Hildebrandt.
Both Hanna and Hildebrandt have asked for whistleblower protection after concerns about how construction contracts were awarded first surfaced in May.
A so called notebook listed concerns about projects at a handful of schools.
But the federal subpoena is asking for documents for projects from 17 schools.
The subpoena covers a 7 year period from the beginning of 2007 through 2013.
"No I'm not surprised about it. I think that where there's smoke there be fire and I think that's function of the whole process to try to figure out what actually happened and I'm glad that's where we are," said Mattox.
Tallahassee's Ausley & McMillan law firm reviews construction contracts for Leon County Schools before they're sent to the board for final approval.
Jeff Wahlen, an attorney for that firm, says construction projects typically go through a several year review process at LCS before his firm ever looks at the contracts.
"The approval process begins with a five year plant survey and capital outlay budget and involves detailed planning by architects, engineers and the staff of the District’s construction department," Wahlen wrote.
"The scope of projects often changes over time as funds availability and the needs of the District change. We are not part of the technical team that decides the scope of the project, its engineering and design specifications, its guaranteed maximum price, or who the construction manager will be," the statement says.
"Once the District’s internal process determines these items, the staff of the construction department uses a standard contract based on an American Institute of Architects form to prepare a contract document for approval by the Board. At the very end of the process, our firm reviews the form of the contract document before they are sent to the Board for decision at a Board meeting," the statement concludes.
The subpoena also demands e-mails from April 2009 between Superintendent Jackie Pons and Paul Byrd.
Byrd is currently facing pending drug charges.
News Release: Leon County Schools
October 29, 2014
STATEMENT: FBI Subpoena
"Leon County Schools was served a subpoena from the FBI related to construction related documents and information. LCS will cooperate fully with this request."
FBI does not comment on pending investigations.
We will keep you updated as more information comes in.
Four Leon County Schools employees have now publicly asked for whistle blower protection.
One of those workers has also filed a lawsuit.
Patricia Nichols says it started when she was told to meet with two employees investigating rumors involving Superintendent Jackie Pons.
In addition to previously reported construction contract issues, Nichols was asked about other rumors.
Nichols told those investigators she heard the district purchased a
$30,000 boat from Bellflower Marine without proper authorization.
However owner Bennie Bellflower tells us he closed up shop in 2004 and has no recollection of selling a boat to the district or Jackie Pons.
When asked if she started a drunk driver rumor about Pons, Nichols told investigators another schools employee had been buying drinks for the superintendent at Hurricanes.
She further stated Pons was seen paying for damages to his school district car out of his own pocket so it wouldn't be on the district records.
But she couldn't say if the two incidents were related.
Nichols also told investigators top administrators were driving large district trucks as their own personal vehicles.
A few weeks after her rumors interview, Nichols says Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills told Nichols her position was being eliminated.
Wills told Nichols she could either take a transfer with a raise or a severence package.
The lawsuit claims after Nichols then filed a whistleblower claim, the offer was rescinded.
Earlier this month, Pons addressed another employee's whistleblower complaint.
"Any time you have something like this, obviously we look into it," Pons said on June 2. "We take it very seriously," he said.
A statement from the school district claims the lawsuit is misleading, contains false information and will be vigorously defended.
Sandra Davis, Rocky Hanna and Woody Hildebrandt have also asked for whistle blower protection.
A third Leon County Schools employee has asked for whistleblower protection.
Sandra Davis sent a letter dated June 4th to Superintendent Jackie Pons asking for that protection.
In the letter, Davis says she believes there have been state and federal law violations with construction contracts.
Davis says she works with the Division of Facilities, Construction and Maintenance and has been with the school system for over 20 years.
Rocky Hanna and Woody Hildebrandt previously asked Pons for whistleblower protection based on similar accusations.
A second Leon County Schools employee has asked for protection under whistleblower laws.
The former divisional director of construction and facilities sent a letter to Superintendent Jackie Pons claiming tax dollars have been misspent.
Woody Hildebrandt, who's currently Lively Tech's principal, says he first reported these matters to Pons in December, 2011 and then again in September and December, 2013.
Specifically, Hildebrandt claims competitive bidding laws on projects at several elementary schools may have been violated.
Pons says he had a meeting with Hildebrandt on Friday, the same day the letter was delivered to Pons' office.
"I thought we had a real good meeting on Friday," said Pons. "It wasn't specifically about the letter, it was about a way a work and it was a good meeting and I feel very good about that," he said.
Pons also said the letter has been forwarded to the school district's attorney for further review and the accusations will be taken seriously.
Pons says Hildebrandt gave him a notebook filled with accusations about school construction projects and other issues last December.
Hildebrandt served as construction and facilities director for two and a half years until last September.
He was removed from that post shortly after he claims he brought concerns about misspent tax dollars to Pons attention for a second time.
Former Leon High School Principal Rocky Hannah has also asked for whistleblower protection.
Updated By: Natalie Rubino
May 19, 2014 11pm
Leon County School District staff presented more than an hour's worth of information Monday night at a public workshop.
It comes after a group of concerned citizens raised questions about Superintendent Jackie Pons and the school board avoiding competitive bidding.
What the group Monday night wanted to prove was that all projects did go to bid.
"Even under two million dollars, these projects are bid out completely," Superintendent Pons said.
Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills and her team explained that the contracts go to competitive bidding through what they call Construction Managers.
"We enter into a service contract with Construction Managers and they go out and get the subcontrators to work on the projects. They do oversight, they can perform their own work, they are accountable to us," Dr. Wills said.
She says the difference between Construction Managers and competitive bidding is with competitive bidding you're locked into the lowest bid, no matter how good or bad that company's work is. But with construction managers negotiating, you're able to choose the lowest bidder for the highest quality of work.
"We can do it cheaper. I mean we can do if we put blocks instead of bricks, if we didn't have the state of the art HVHC's, if we didn't put parking lots in," Pons said.
Plans also have to go through a Capital Outlay process and then be approved by the Captial Improvement Review team.
"There's 35 or so steps and processes. So to suggest that it's not transparent is dis-ingenuine and it's just not truthful," School Board Member Dee Crumpler said.
Crumpler calls the recent criticism of Pons political revenge.
"To try to tie all of this together and suggest that there is a conspiracy on the superintendent's part is just absolutely insane and almost comical if it werent so sad," he said.
The Superintendent said he split up large projects to cost under two million dollars to speed up the process.
He also said he wanted as many local contractors as possible to get the contracts and none of the awarding had to do with campaign contributions.
Updated By: Natalie Rubino
May 19, 2014
Did the Leon County School Board follow protocol when awarding construction contracts?
Leaders say they can prove they did during a workshop happening tonight.
The workshop is scheduled to begin at 6pm at the Howell Center.
it comes after a group of concerned citizens raised questions about Superintendent Jackie Pons and the school board avoiding competitive bidding.
Just a few weeks ago, WCTV received a binder from that group of concerned citizens suggesting Pons split up projects so that they cost just under $2 million. If those projects were to be above $2 million, Florida state law would require them to go to competitive bidding.
WCTV spoke with Superintendent Pons last week, and he insists all those projects did go through a bidding process, even the ones under $2 million.
Pons says he's confident that this workshop tonight will prove that.
The workshop is not a normal school board meeting - and no decision will be made - but comments and questions are expected to be heard from concerned taxpayers.
Updated By: Natalie Rubino
May 13, 2014
The Leon County School Board met for the first time Tuesday since questions arose about superintendent Jackie Pons.
Back in April, a group of concerned citizens sent a binder to WCTV questioning if Pons broke state law by avoiding competitive bidding.
There was no discussion at the meeting about the questions raised by the group of concerned citizens but for the first time since the news broke.
Superintendent Jackie Pons spoke to me about questions raised against him.
"I'm asking patience from the community. I want to talk about this, but our school board is doing a review of this and I think once the review is complete, the whole community is going to understand what this was all about," Pons said.
Pons says that he and the board did not avoid competitive bidding and that those projects just under the 2 million dollar state threshold that would require them go to competitive bidding, still went through a bidding process.
"These projects are completely bid out. And again there's three bids. They're opened up in front of our project managers and they're reviewed. And we always go with the lowest price," Pons said.
The State Auditors office found in 2012 that the board split up multi-million dollar contracts costing under two million dollars.
Pons says that was done because going to selection would have taken six to nine months longer and the board was facing tough economic times.
"We've had one finding on this and we've made the adjustment on the policy and we will not do it again even though our intentions were good," he said.
Leon Schools District has hired two criminal attorneys, one to conduct a review of the projects and the other to defend Pons and the board in the case of this going to court.
Those attorneys are being paid for with tax payer dollars.
"You never want to do that but in an abundance of caution is was the right decision to make at this time," Pons said.
The board will hold a workshop next Monday at 6pm.
Pons says that's when the board will explain to the public how the projects were assigned to contractors.
"You never want to do that but in an abundance of caution is was the right decision to make at this time."
Updated By: Natalie Rubino
May 13, 2014, 5pm
The Leon County School board is meeting tonight for the first time since reports surfaced, questioning if the board broke state law by avoiding competitive bidding.
The meeting begins at 6 pm, and many parents and concerned citizens are expected to attend.
WCTV told you last month about a binder received from a group of concerned citizens.
The binder expressed concern on whether or not the Leon Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons and the school board awarded construction contracts to companies who contributed to members' campaigns by keeping the project costs just under $2 million.
If a project were to cost more than that, Florida state law requires it go to competitive bidding.
Now there's nothing on the meeting agenda discussing those concerns.
The County hired two criminal attorneys regarding that binder of concerns to represent Pons and the School Board with tax payers' money.
So there may be some comments from the public about that. We'll have more when the meeting gets started at 6 pm.
Leon County tax dollars are being used to protect the school system and Superintendent Jackie Pons against a possible criminal investigation.
The school system has hired a Jacksonville attorney to conduct his own criminal investigation of possible wrongdoing.
It's not the first time an attorney has been hired to investigate this matter.
Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer looked at a series of issues brought to the Leon County School system in what he calls a notebook.
One of those issues dealt with questions surrounding school construction contracts.
Several of those contracts were set for just under $2-million to local vendors to manage those projects.
At $2-million, Florida law requires competitive bidding.
"You could have a policy debate over whether that should or shouldn't be done, but you shouldn't make it the context of wrong doing or some kind of illegal action, we just didn't find anything and we tried," Meyer said.
Superintendent Jackie Pons hired Meyer with his own money to look at some issues in the notebook specifically targeting Pons.
They include Pons purchase of a townhouse and beach house from companies with ties to local contractor Steve Ghazvini.
Meyer also checked Pons purchase and resale of a lot on St. George Island from former assistant superintendent Paul Byrd who's currently facing pending drug charges.
Meyer also look at the now on hold proposal to build a gym at the Ghazvini Center with the inference Pons intended to use it for his for profit basketball camp.
"While it may be a fair innuendo, it's not a fair statement of the truth," said Meyer.
Both Meyer and the Thomas Howell Ferguson accounting firm found no criminal wrongdoing in their reviews of the material.
But the school district has hired Tallahassee criminal attorney Stephen Dobson to represent Pons and the district has hired Jacksonville attorney Hank Coxe to conduct his own criminal investigation in case charges are filed.
"I don't anticipate that happening, but you never know," said Meyer.
The notebook has been turned over to the FBI and FDLE.
But it's unclear if there's a criminal investigation taking place.
For that reason, Meyer believes the school district did the right thing to hire the criminal attorneys.
A whistleblower claims the Leon County School District is misspending taxpayer dollars.
Rocky Hanna sent a whistleblower letter to Superintendent Jackie Pons on Wednesday.
It's not the first time Hanna has been involved in controversy.
Right before the 4th of July holiday in 2012, Leon County Schools announced a major shake up.
Several principals, including Leon High's leader Rocky Hanna, were being promoted to the district office.
It prompted demonstrations and petitions to keep Hanna at Leon.
But Superintendent Jackie Pons didn't tell us why he made the moves until nearly two months later.
"And these positions were critical, they were important and I feel like we brought a strong team out to our district," Pons told us on August 24, 2012.
Fast forward nearly two years, and Hanna has filed a whistleblower complaint.
In his letter to Pons, he notes he forwarded information to the FBI about what he calls misspending of taxpayer dollars.
Specifically he points to Griffin Middle School where three projects were given to local contractors for just under $2-million to avoid competitive bidding.
"I'm sorry we're at the whistleblower stage," said Deputy Superintendent Marvin Henderson. "You know we've always been responsive as it relates to any way to improve," he said.
County records show the same contractors getting no bid awards are also major campaign donors.
An October 2013 report from School Board Chair Forrest Van Camp's campaign shows the man the board oversees, Superintendent Jackie Pons, gave $500 to Van Camp's current campaign, the maximum allowed by law.
And 19 of 40 contributors in that report identify themselves as contractors.
"I have never been asked by a vendor for any special consideration because of a contribution," said Van Camp.
But a Broward County grand jury called a similar mixture of vendor campaign donations and no bid contracts Hanna calls into question an "abomination" and noted those types of contracts were 20 to 30 percent more costly than bidded ones.
A March, 2011 Leon Schools construction staff meeting noted that grand jury report and said the district would probably have to go to bidding.
But the no bid deals continued.
"I can tell you I've looked at the Broward County report," said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills.
On Wednesday, Wills told Eyewitness News Superintendent Pons would grant an on camera interview Friday afternoon.
It was canceled Friday morning about two hours before it was scheduled.
Rocky Hanna declined comment on advice of his attorney.
For months, there's been no activity at a field behind the Ghazvini Learning Center.
The center is home to a school for troubled students and one for students who need help.
The two schools together have less than 400 students.
A four court gym was originally planned to be built there.
"When we started looking at what we could fit in for the budget and the plans might not include bleachers or bathrooms or other needs that they might need, we put it on hold," said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills.
A 2012 report noted the school district had more than $1-billion worth of construction and repair needs.
The report did not have the gym as one of the district's top priorities.
In fact, it was on a supplemental list of projects.
"The fact that it's on a supplemental list does not negate the importance of it," said Deputy Superintendent Marvin Henderson.
The Center is relatively new.
The Ghazvini family donated the land for the schools.
The center was named for the late Pepper Ghazvini in 2007.
Joe Pons, the superintendent's brother, is currently one of the principals there.
Now, about half a million dollars has already been spent on the on hold gym project.
About a quarter million dollars of that money went to Baycrest Corporation for dealing with a soil problem.
Pepper's brother Steve Ghazvini owns that company and others the school district has awarded tens of millions of dollars in constuction contracts.
Steve Ghazvini and his companies have given maximum campaign contributions under law to Jackie Pons, school board members and the largest contribution we found for the half penny sales tax campaign in 2012 $7000.
The Baycrest gym contract for the soil work was paid with half penny sales tax money.
A company Steve Ghazvini also owns sold a beach condominium to Jackie Pons.
Pons' attorney noted the deal was done at fair market value in a report Pons commissioned.
"I have never been asked by a vendor for any special consideration because of a contribution," said School Board Chair Forrest Van Camp.
When asked if there was any pay to play for district contractors Van Camp said, "There's not been that I am aware of."
A few years ago, several construction projects were done at Griffin Middle School.
Three projects were each done for just under $2-million
One of them was in July, 2010.
A second one was done with the same company the following October and then a third in April, 2011.
"That has been a cost savings to be able to do that," said Leon County Schools Board Chair Forrest Van Camp.
District leaders say while there's no bidding in selecting the company, there is a competitive, multi-faceted process to award those maximum price contracts.
The awarded management team then takes competitive bidding for the actual work.
However, under Florida law, it states contracts of $2-million and above must be competitively bid.
After looking at the Griffin deals, the Florida Auditor General's March, 2012 Report said the district didn't always get construction services by following Florida law.
"There is a process that we did follow," said Leon County School District Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. "It wasn't in our policies, but in state statute," she said.
And following the Auditor General's report, the practice continued of awarding the just under $2-million contracts.
Two were awarded at Killearn Lakes, two at Gilchrist and three at Kate Sullivan, all elementary schools.
All of those under $2-million contracts were reviewed by staff, submitted by Superintendent Jackie Pons and approved by the school board.
In a recent review of the practice, the district's own accountant noted there was no policy for it.
"We may need to have a better documentated trail on how we're making those decisions," said Van Camp. "Looking back on the decisions we've made, I feel comfortable with them," he said.
On advice of his attorney, Superintendent Jackie Pons has declined our request for an interview.
Documents from a group of "concerned citizens" have prompted a review of information about Leon County Schools and superintendent Jackie Pons.
WCTV received a binder from the group with about 85 pages of documents inside questioning if Pons broke state law by avoiding competitive bidding on 12 different construction contracts for 6 different county schools, by keeping the cost just below two million dollars.
If a project costs above that amount, Florida law requires the contract go to competitive bidding.
The FDLE confirmed to WCTV that it has also received the binder and is reviewing the material.
The Florida Department of Education has also reviewed the information and says it is not taking any further action at this time.
The school board signs off on construction projects.
One board member says she would be shocked if the information was correct.
"There's committee review and all kinds of things that happen along the way. It's fully vetted by the time it gets to the senior management of the district. It then ultimately goes to our council to review the contracts, and then reaches the board," Leon County Schools Board Member Dee Dee Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said it is concerning that the information states the contracts are priced so close to the two million dollar threshold.
"Should I have asked the staff to sign off on the rationale for keeping this under the two million dollar limit and not putting it out to a bid as follows? Yes. And should we perhaps move it off of the consent agenda for a while to make sure that we're fully vetting these things in a public venue and transparency? Perhaps. I think those are the questions that this board needs to address now," she said.
The documents also question if the contracts were awarded as political favors to Pons' campaign sponsors.
Leon County Schools issued the statement below late Tuesday afternoon.
"In December 2013, information of alleged construction and other irregularities was provided to the Superintendent by a district administrator. Over the next few months an in-depth analysis was conducted by staff, outside lawyers, and an independent accounting firm. To date, reports have been completed by attorneys Robert Sniffen and Ron Meyer and the audit firm of Thomas Howell Ferguson. No fraud, criminal activity, unethical conduct or personal gain was found. In March 2014, the district also learned that these same allegations were provided to the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All related reports have been given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and are also included with this statement. This matter is currently open and still under review."
School board president, Forrest Van Camp said all board members have received a copy of the review Leon County Schools conducted but have not yet discussed it publically in a meeting.
"I am not aware of any deliberate means to circumvent the bidding process," Van Camp said.
The State Auditor's office sent WCTV a statement saying, "We are aware of the letter dated February 26th from “Concerned Leon County School Board Employees and Citizens of Leon County” and the notebook of documents. We will give the matters addressed in the notebook of documents appropriate consideration in our financial and operational audit of the Leon County District School Board for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014. Our audit fieldwork is currently underway."