Miami Herald: School School Board debates whether to reclaim money
Oct 28, 2009
The Miami Herald published this article on October 28, 2009
Broward school officials do not yet know if they will try to get more than $765,000 back after an audit said contractors overbilled for repairs.
By PATRICIA MAZZEI
The Broward School Board’s attorney said Tuesday the decision is still up in the air on whether to try to recoup $765,000 from a contractor accused of overbilling for classroom repairs after Hurricane Wilma.
Edward Marko said his office is figuring out if the district has a legal case against AshBritt, the Pompano Beach-based contractor.
“I think the board has to evaluate. . .the case and determine whether or not it is there,” he said.
Staff auditors have recommended that the district ask for the money back. Last week, the district’s audit committee — made up of outside experts who don’t work for the school system — urged the board to move more quickly to recover its money.
A controversial audit in July said that AshBritt and Texas-based C & B Services — which was not licensed to work in Florida — may have falsified some bills and engaged in fraud or collusion.
On Tuesday, AshBritt attorney Michael Moskowitz sent board members a letter saying the company plans to sue the district, arguing that AshBritt’s due-process rights were violated when it was not allowed to respond to the audit’s findings. The lawsuit, which may be filed this week, will also ask the court to order the school district to declare the audit false and defamatory, Moskowitz said.
A discussion on the audit had been on the board’s agenda but took on increased importance after last month’s arrest of suspended board member Beverly Gallagher in a federal corruption probe involving the school district’s construction program. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty.
Investigators have subpoenaed thousands of records pertaining to the audit, and federal authorities have questioned board members about Ron Book, who is registered as the lobbyist for AshBritt before the Broward County Commission but not before the School Board.
At Tuesday’s workshop, the board asked some questions but mostly listened as chief auditor Patrick Reilly and construction chief Michael Garretson aired their thoughts on the audit.
CHANGED ITS WAYS
The two agreed that the Broward school system was unprepared for the 2005 hurricane and that the district has since changed its ways.
Staffers now practice emergency scenarios, and 57 contractors have been preapproved to do work after a disaster. To avoid duplicate or missed inspections, departments report needed repairs after an emergency to a single person.
And inspected areas are identified with stickers showing who reviewed the damage and when, Garretson said.
The audit and construction chiefs butted heads, among other things, over whether the district hired C & B, as auditors contend, or whether that company worked as AshBritt’s subcontractor, as construction staff and AshBritt’s attorney say.
Board members also told auditors they want them to notify Superintendent Jim Notter when audit findings are being reported to outside agencies — like the state attorney’s office, which subpoenaed the AshBritt report.
If he gets a red flag and doesn’t respond to it, then he’s accountable to us,” Board member Bob Parks said of Notter.
In other business, the board agreed to restrict its lobbyist policy and establish some sort of penalty for lobbyists who do not disclose conflicts of interest. Exact changes are still in the works.