School Board Machine Ramps Up Propaganda Campaign

The battle between School Board auditors and the officials they watchdog hit a new level today.

The conflict revolves around an audit report that alleges hurricane cleanup firms AshBritt and C&B ripped off the School Board to the tune of $765,000. School Board construction officials, who are accused of faciliating the rip-off, have been screaming about the audit report, saying it's all wrong. School Board construction chief Michael Garretson went so far as to call it "slander."

The Sun-Sentinel, after ignoring the story for months, is now jumping all over it as well. And today, the Local section of the newspaper is dominated by the top headline: "Repairs Audit Wrong, School Officials Say." The same Sentinel story is also being run by the Miami Herald, as per the newspapers' abysmal content-sharing agreement.

The article simply broadcasts the officials' defense as it was, whether it made sense or not, whether it had any truth in it or not, whether the refutations of Garretson and his No. 2, Denis Herrmann, made any real sense or not. So it's time for a reality check to counter Garretson's bluster.  

Let's start with the obvious excuse from Garretson and Herrmann, which was that conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma were to blame. From the story:

But Denis Herrmann, the district's director of design and construction contracts, insisted the repairs were necessary and performed at a $300,000 discount. He said the district submitted paperwork manufactured after-the-fact -- not falsified -- because there was no electricity when the recovery began.

C&B's lobbyist, Ron Book, first met with Garretson and other district officials on November 2, nine days after Hurricane Wilma hit. That's when Garretson approved a $1 million purchase order with the company, even though it wasn't licensed in Florida to do the work. Repairs began the following day, November 3. According to newspaper reports at the time, all the schools had power by November 6, three days later, and all of them opened on November 7. So blaming the allegedly falsified paperwork that was filed weeks and sometimes months after the fact on a lack of power is simply ludicrous. Yet the newspaper let it stand.

And the supposed "$300,000 discount"? Well, that is never explained, so it's hard to refute. What's easy to document is that C&B initially put in invoices with inflated costs to the district. And it was School Board employees who flagged the invoices as being inflated and refused to pay them because C&B had no license in Florida to perform the work. This isn't a he-said, she-said moment; it's clearly documented by the School Board. I reported on it in January, citing original sources.

It was only then that the district turned to AshBritt, another Ron Book client, which processed the C&B invoices. Again, that is evident and easy to verify without the audit report.  

My favorite line from Garretson in the story is this one: "We never had any type of arraignment with C&B. Where is the contract with C&B? That's the question to ask."

First of all, I assume that the word "arraignment" is a typo/Freudian slip for "arrangement" that was made by the reporter. (And the mistake was repeated in the reprinted article in the Herald). But who knows? Maybe someday Garretson will get an arraignment with C&B.

But for him to say there was no arrangement with C&B is just a crazy-ass lie. The newspaper, doing the bare minimum, even mentioned the $1 million purchase order made between the district and the company.

Then Herrmann claims the auditors missed work on portables that C&B did at Flanagan High School because the auditors relied only on a building inspectors' report. The Sentinel quoted Herrmann this way: "The auditors ignored all of that and point only to the [building] inspectors report. To focus on one piece of paper, then say we should sue someone. That's irresponsible."

Say what? The audit report didn't rely on "one piece of paper." From page 20 of the report:

Our office gathered all invoices and associated back-up documentation from [the board, AshBritt, and C&B]. C&B Services invoices included daily work logs that identified all of the work they had provided during each day of the project. We reviewed and documented their services for every day, at every location, and compared documented services and portable numbers serviced...

So why are Herrmann and Garretson misleading the public in the newspapers? It's the same old, same old, really. They throw up a smokescreen to justify their waste and mismanagement of taxpayers' money with the hope that it will confuse people enough to let them skate by and keep the machine rumbling. Meanwhile, we get hosed while the contractors with the big lobbyists suck us dry for no good reason. Then it's rinse and repeat.

This time, though, I don't think it's going to work. Garretson and his boys are coming out with a report on July 17 to officially refute the audit report (rather than the bit of propaganda we saw in the newspapers today). Then on July 23, the whole thing will be hashed out by both sides in front of the School Board audit committee, which doesn't play around. Hopefully then everybody will get a taste of the truth.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman