Last week, newspaper headlines abounded about a lawsuit alleging that the Broward County Courthouse is so full of dangerous mold that it needs to be shut down.
One of the companies named in the lawsuit is Texas-based C&B Services, which did cleanup work at the courthouse in the wake of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Attorney Skip Campbell, the former legislator who filed the suit, alleges that C&B's attempt to dry water-damaged rooms was shoddy and contributed to the alleged mold problem.
It turns out that C&B, which is short for Crochet & Borel, was very busy in Broward during the weeks after Wilma. And the real drama for the company came not at the courthouse but at the Broward County School Board building across the street, where C&B received a million dollars for roofing work it never should have done.
A couple of weeks after the devastating storm hit, School Board records reveal, Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson authorized the work after a meeting with C&B representatives and their well-known lobbyist.
The rushed nature of the award — there were no bids and no contract — might be forgiven because of the destruction wrought by Wilma. The problem was that C&B was neither prequalified as a contractor for the board nor licensed or insured to do any roofing work in Florida.
In other words, the entire job fell outside the law. But that didn't stop C&B from trying to charge the district at least twice for the services, according to board records.
Some might call that gouging. The School Board, which has a long history of corruption in its construction department, calls it business as usual.
"I've never seen it this bad," one official in the School Board construction department told me when I asked about the C&B case. "The construction department has become a shell game, if you ask me. It's not what you do around here; it's who you know. And that's the only reason they went with C&B, because somebody knew somebody."
C&B's "somebody" was big-time lobbyist Ron Book, who is definitely a good man to have on your side when you're looking to snare some taxpayers' money. Perhaps the most influential lobbyist in South Florida, Book represented the company in the meeting with Garretson, construction contracts director Denis Hermann, and project manager Joe DeLillo.
It was a rotten deal from the beginning, but when a School Board auditor took the case to the public corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office, it was never investigated.
The trail of records, however, indicates that millions of dollars may have been misspent. It also reveals a pattern of poor management by Garretson, who kowtows to powerful lobbyists and builders and at times shows little concern for laws and regulations. When challenged, he typically reacts with arrogance and bully tactics that only serve to obstruct the truth.
Not exactly the kind of boss you want running the district's construction department, which has a bloated budget of $3 billion.
School Board records indicate that Garretson's million-dollar meeting with Book occurred on November 8, 2005. Not a bad afternoon's work for Book, a large contributor to School Board members' campaigns. The lobbyist's fee in this instance isn't known, and Book didn't return calls for comment.
When C&B began submitting invoices to the board, the district's cost estimator, Thomas Myers, discovered not only that the company wasn't prequalified but also that it had no contract or state license for the roofing work. On top of that, he determined that the company was charging twice the normal rate for its work.
"I'm quite surprised at this," Myers wrote to School Board project manager Wayne Thrasher on January 19, 2006. "How can [C&B] be assigned work anyplace?"
Soon, School Board auditor Dave Rhodes, a district watchdog who has been discovering bad business practices at the School Board for years, caught wind of the mess. Rhodes began questioning officials in emails that I obtained from the School Board.
Because the C&B deal was neither proper nor legal, invoices submitted by C&B weren't paid. "We have held all payments until we can clear the license issue," senior project manager Jack Cooper wrote to Rhodes and Garretson.
Of course, that issue couldn't be "cleared" — C&B simply had no license. At that same time, though, another story was emerging from Garretson and his lieutenants: C&B was actually working for the board as a subcontractor for AshBritt, a large and well-known disaster-recovery firm based in Pompano Beach.
AshBritt, which is also represented by Ron Book, had been authorized by the School Board to do $3.1 million worth of work in December 2005, about six weeks after Garretson authorized C&B to do its million dollars' worth of work. C&B would be paid by AshBritt, Hermann informed Rhodes.
"When did AshBritt execute a contract with [the School Board] and why did C&B Services directly invoice [the School Board]?" Rhodes asked Hermann in an email. "I think I am missing something here, please clarify."
"I can't explain C&B's actions," Hermann emailed back.
On top of the obvious discrepancies, AshBritt also didn't have a contract, wasn't prequalified to do business with the School Board, and, incredibly, wasn't licensed to do roofing work either.
AshBritt CEO Randy Perkins admits that his company didn't have a license for roofing, but he says that during disasters like Wilma, things sometimes don't go strictly by the book. And, he said, his firm has worked with C&B all over the country.
"If you have roofs leaking, the process is expedited to get these types of services performed," says Perkins. "We were contacted by the School Board, and we performed services to back up that $3.1 million invoice. There may have been some license issues. But in the end of the day, we had to provide our professional qualifications to get the payment processed, and we satisfied the School Board."
Perkins acknowledged that C&B was paid out of that $3.1 million.
"Was AshBritt used as a vehicle to get C&B paid? Absolutely, unequivocally not," Perkins told me. "Any work that C&B did was negotiated with us through C&B. If there are any suggestions that C&B entered into work with the School Board and then it was determined, 'Uh-oh we can't pay them,' and that it was easier to run it through AshBritt, that did not happen."
That, however, is precisely how it appears to have happened from the board's trail of emails. I asked Perkins if he felt Book used undue influence in procuring the million dollars in work for C&B.
"Absolutely not," Perkins said. "I consider Ron Book one of my closest friends, as well as my government relations person. I don't agree with that at all."
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the work of both C&B and AshBritt, but Garretson wasn't about to answer them. When Rhodes continued to ask questions about the C&B deal, the deputy superintendent lashed out at him in an email.
"Mr. Rhodes, you have your facts scrambled," Garretson wrote in an email on March 7, 2006. "How many times must I insist that you communicate through my office... This is a common practice among professionals presumably even auditors."
Garretson also sent his email to Rhodes' boss, Pat Reilly. After the dig about Rhodes' having his facts scrambled, Garretson addressed Reilly. "Pat I thought we had an understanding about communication," Garretson wrote. "I am constantly finding out that my staff are doing work or providing copies for the 'auditors'... Please emphasize to your staff that there are acceptable behaviors and rules of conduct that are expected of auditing professionals."
Those are interesting words from Garretson, whose department has a history of grossly unprofessional practices, including allowing an unqualified and unlicensed management official to oversee operations and numerous instances of projects going forward without proper permits and licensing.
The deputy superintendent had particular reason to be prickly about this issue, though. He not only attended the meeting with Book but also personally authorized C&B's unlawful work.
If ever a manager and a department needed an investigation, it's the School Board's construction department. But State Attorney Michael Satz apparently wants no part of it. Satz spokesman Ron Ishoy wouldn't address the Rhodes complaint directly but indicated that investigators are keeping an eye on the school district.
Rhodes, faced with apparent stonewalling from Garretson, met with Satz's corruption chief, Tim Donnelly, in September 2006, according to School Board records, and supplied Donnelly with the paper trail for an investigation.
The State Attorney's Office never responded. And Garretson and his $3 billion department was left alone. Just the way he likes it.