Incompetence 101

The construction firm of Church and Tower, founded by the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, may as well have been branded with a scarlet letter b.

For bad, as in bad news.

Even though the firm was a financial success, the press was terrible, and its reputation suffered. In early 1999 Broward County sheriff Ken Jenne was pounding the company for delays and poor workmanship in building a $25 million jail in Pompano Beach. In Miami-Dade, Church and Tower was embroiled in a paving scandal that, even though no wrongdoing was proved against the firm, shredded its public image with allegations.

So it came as no surprise that, during this swirl of bad publicity, the School Board of Broward County rushed to fire Church and Tower in March 1999, terminating its contracts to build middle schools in Weston and Coconut Creek that were budgeted for a total of $37 million. The decision, made at a hastily called special meeting and ostensibly prompted by serious delays in construction, meant that a minimum of about $3 million in site work, architectural design, and actual construction, would be lost. Foundations and walls already built in Weston would be torn down, and a new contractor would come in and start all over again. Beyond the waste of time and money, a costly lawsuit revolving around the firing of Church and Tower was all but certain.

Missed in the highly charged, almost moblike atmosphere was the fact that there wasn't legal cause to terminate the contracts with Church and Tower. Lost in the rush to judgment was the fact that the school board's own construction manager and an outside firm agreed that the projects could have been completed on time. The delays, 120 days' worth, weren't critical, and school board staff members readily concede that some were caused by the school board itself. The decision to fire the firm was so ill-advised that the board's own Construction Overview Committee (COC), made up of respected building experts, disbanded and quit in disgust after the vote. The COC was outraged at the blatant waste of taxpayers' money. "They made that decision based on emotion and politics," says former COC chairman Tom Miller. "Good business had nothing to do with it."

Now, Church and Tower's attorney, Henry Adorno, is demanding $8.7 million from the school board, including claims of $3.9 million for work done and $4.8 million in lost profits, according to legal correspondence obtained by New Times. Adorno seems to be holding the cards. The school board's own in-house lawyer, after all, gave an on-the-record warning to the school board that firing Church and Tower was hard to justify and would invite litigation.

But Adorno also posits an intriguing reason for the quick decision; he argues that the board was moved to act by "outside, yet interested, players." The players: James Cummings, a school builder and major political contributor, and Ray de la Feuilliez, the oft-investigated, politically connected power broker who quit as school board construction chief last year to join Cummings' firm and help bring in government contracts. Both men count close friends on the school board and wield mighty influence, Cummings as a wealthy political benefactor and de la Feuilliez as a board insider with unparalleled knowledge of and access to its construction department.

Adorno argues that this potent duo convinced friends on the school board to dump Church and Tower and then award the lucrative contracts to build the schools to Cummings without competitive bids. He also claims that de la Feuilliez and school board members broke a new policy -- written in reaction to de la Feuilliez's defection -- that forbids former school board employees from lobbying the board within a year of ending their employment. The reason for the policy: The board wanted to make sure that de la Feuilliez didn't use his former position and his connections to wield undue influence on behalf of the Cummings firm.

New Times has found that three board members -- Bob Parks, Lois Wexler, and Paul Eichner -- likely were a party to breaking the policy by speaking to de la Feuilliez about Church and Tower. The conversations appear to have been part of an aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign by Cummings to convince school board members to terminate the contracts. When asked if he lobbied board members on firing Church and Tower and handing the jobs to Cummings, de la Feuilliez says, "I talk to a lot of school board members about a lot of things." He denies wrongdoing. "I don't lobby. Mr. Cummings lobbies. I give advice."

At the time he was giving that "advice," he was technically still an employee of the school board. Though de la Feuilliez says he wasn't an employee, school board records show that he was classified as a "transitional employee" through July 1, 1999, as part of the board's "Retirement Achievement Program" and was paid $14,000 and received free health and life insurance. De la Feuilliez counters that he wasn't an employee at all because he didn't physically work there. Cummings, who is on a three-week vacation in Montana, didn't return messages from New Times conveyed to him by his staff.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman