In what amounts to a gross violation of the public trust, the Broward School Board's auditor has determined that the giant environmental services firm AshBritt Inc. overbilled and, at times, double-billed the School Board $765,000 during emergency work done in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, according to a 48-page report obtained by the Pulp.
Two words come to mind: Hurricane gouging.
The School Board is going to turn over its findings to FEMA, the IRS, and other state and federal investigative agencies for further investigation.
The investigation was sparked by a column of mine that was published this past April. After Hurricane Wilma, lobbyist Ron Book (second mention today of big Ron on the Pulp, by the way) brought reps from a Texas company called C&B Services to do emergency work on schools. At the meeting, School Board construction chief Michael Garretson handed Book's firm a million-dollar deal. Just like that.
Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a hasty and stupid decision. C&B Services wasn't even licensed to do the work. So when the firm started turning in inflated invoices for work, the board couldn't pay it. That's when AshBritt, a large nationally known disaster relief firm based in Pompano Beach, stepped in. The School Board paid AshBritt about $2.1 million when all the company did was resubmit C&B's invoices. AshBritt, incidentally, is also represented by Book and had been doing extensive work with C&B at the time.
So the original million doubled -- and the auditors found that the numbers were inflated and that documents had been falsified to come up with that final payoff.
From the audit report, which was just completed:
"[T]here were clear signs of coercion and falsified documentation to facilitate the approvals and the ultimate recommendation to process payments to AshBritt, Inc. As a result, the District should seek reimbursement in the total amount of $765,608.15. Additionally, we believe that the final documents submitted for payment were falsified and inflated and that the issue should be reported to FEMA, the IRS, and other state and federal authorities for investigation."
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On top of that, the auditing office found a "possibility" that "some staff were trying to expose a potential fraud, whereas others were trying to potentially cover it up."
In other words, this has the markings of a bogus top-down deal involving Garretson, his top lieutenants, Book, and the firms involved. When I broke the original story, AshBritt owner Randy Perkins expressly denied that his company was "used as a vehicle to get C&B paid." Yet the audit found exactly the opposite, that AshBritt was indeed used expressly as such a vehicle for payment (even though it too was unlicensed to do the roofing work that was done). Worse, it found that AshBritt tacked on its own profit and extra fees to the already inflated C&B invoices in the process. I contacted Perkins about the audit report and left a message and will update this if and when he responds.
This case, if nothing else, is a stunning example of just how poorly managed the School Board's construction really is -- and how it often seems to be working in the interest of contractors and lobbyists rather than taxpayers and students. Making it particularly egregious is the fact that some 394 teachers were recently laid off due to budget concerns.
Hopefully the AshBritt debacle, which you'll hear more about when it goes before the board in August, will begin to wake up the public to just how much money is being wasted by the school district's building machine.