Philly school superintendent Ackerman silences five whistleblowers

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Update on 12/15/2010:

The identities of the five suspended employees were reported today, and they are: John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services; Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II; and Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs. Two are top information technology staff members – Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, and Melanie Harris, the department head.

Original story :

A new development in the controversy regarding a $7.5 million contract that was allegedly steered to a small firm by Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, was reported today by The Philadelphia Inquirer. State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan said that the district suspended five employees, after notifying them in writing on Monday that the district was investigating the disclosure of sensitive school documents.

McGeehan said that he would ask the state’s attorney general to investigate the suspension and whether it violated the state’s whistleblower protection.

A press statement issued on Monday evening by the school district said that an outside expert had recently been hired to review its business operations.  The statement said, “Apparent inconsistencies in the distribution of prime contracts to vendors, as well as questionable practices in other areas of business and facilities operations, as reported by multiple firms hoping to do business with the school district, led to these new aggressive steps.”

Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman suspended five employees on Monday claiming that they had leaked sensitive school documents. Others say that the employees are whistleblowers, exposing improper procurement practices inside the district. (photo:The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The statement claimed that an investigation began about two weeks ago, but that it had been more complicated than expected, making it necessary to hire the expert, whose identity was not disclosed. The investigation followed closely the first published report in The Inquirer on Nov. 28 that Ackerman had abruptly pulled a $7.5 million contract for surveillance camera systems at 19 area high schools, and handed it off to a little-known firm, IBS Communications, that was not qualified by the state to handle emergency work, as provided by the contract.

At McGeehan’s request, the state’s acting secretary of education is also investigating the matter to determine if procurement rules were violated and the district officials acted improperly.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Former Philadelphia housing chief Greene in trouble again; new agency collapses

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Soon after Philadelphia Housing Authority’s executive director Carl L. Greene was fired in September for failing to disclose a string of sexual harassments claims, he promptly landed on his feet in a newly-formed entity, the Pennsylvania Association of Public Service Agencies. The so-called mission of the agency was to work with other local public service agencies and help them save money through shared resources and ideas.

As quick as you can say PAPSA, the organization is already shutting down, thanks to a combination of the fallout from Greene’s bad publicity, and a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for what it says is federal money misspent by Greene’s former employer, the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Former Philadelphia Housing Authority chief, Carl R. Greene. His newly formed non-profit entity, the Philadelphia Association of Public Service Agencies is falling apart from bad publicity associated with his recent woes at the PHA.

As PAPSA unravels under close scrutiny, critics say that the operation shows how easy it is for government agencies loosely connected through an old-boys network, to funnel taxpayer dollars into non-governmental entities that operate outside the purview of any governmental jurisdiction. In the case of PAPSA, so-called member “dues” were provided by agencies whose officials had conflicting roles in related agencies and firms, instead of directors that were independent to PAPSA.

Besides Greene, PAPSA is headed by three lawyers, two of whom are on the boards of governmental member agencies and earn big legal fees from the PHA.

One of the lawyers, John Estey, a partner at Ballard Spahr and chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, is PAPSA’s treasurer. At the DRPA, he was one three officials who approved a “dues” payment of $90,000 to PAPSA. Since 2008, Estey has billed PHA over $230,000 for legal work.

Another lawyer, Robert L. Archie, is chairman of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission and a partner at Duane Morris; he acted as PAPSA’s secretary.  The school commission had budgeted $35,000 for its membership in PAPSA although it withheld payment when the agency came under HUD scrutiny. Since 2008, Archie has billed PHA for over $275,000 in legal services.

The third lawyer is Patrick J. O’Connor, board chairman of Temple University, who served as PAPSA’s vice president. Temple did not make a dues contribution.

In addition to the financial commitment by DRPA and the school commission, PHA contributed $50,000 and the Philadelphia Parking Authority paid $25,000, although it’s now asking for its money back.

Besides the bad publicly from Greene’s sex harassment cases, PAPSA’s downfall was hastened by the discovery of $29,207 in legal fees that PHA paid to Estey’s law firm to handle start-up legal work for the agency. Those monies, according to HUD, were illegally paid, specifically violating government regulations. Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman, said that housing officials around the country avoid using federal monies as did PHA, because they all know it is prohibited.

Greene continues to be the center of attention in the government probes. The criminal investigation of PHA by HUD forensic auditors is continuing to determine if other federal monies were misspent while Greene was in charge.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Emails expose Philly school superintendent’s duplicity

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Over the last two weeks, the School District of Philadelphia  and its superintendent have been juggling a hot potato, thanks to an investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer. At the core of the story is a $7.5 million security camera contract that was inexplicably yanked from a state-approved vendor that followed a rigorous bidding process, and abruptly handed over to an acquaintance of superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

In September 2010, the school district decided to upgrade the security observation system in 19 high schools on what it considered an “emergency” basis. Sources said that district officials were rushing to install the camera systems before a report was issued by the state education department critical of security in the schools, and Philly school officials were concerned about bad publicity from the report.

Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman yanked major school district contract and awarded it to non-approved minority-owned vendor under questionable circumstances. (photo:The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Characterizing the work as an emergency, the district was able to bypass the usual bidding process normally required for major expenditures. The district began negotiations with an established contractor, Security & Data Technologies, Inc., a firm that was on the state’s approved list for emergency work. After a substantial amount of negotiations and preliminary work, SDT and the district settled on a contract price for the work–$7.5 million.

Once the contract was agreed to and  work began, Ackerman stepped in and reassigned the contract to a little known firm that was not approved by the state for such work, on the basis that SDT was owned by a white businessman and that the newly-appointed firm, IBS Communications, was owned by an African-American businessman, Darryl Boozer. Read more

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Pa. Dept. of Education launches investigation of secretive $7.5 million contract

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Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has started an investigation into the questionable actions of Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, relative to a $7.5 million contract which she pulled from an established district vendor, and handed off to tiny, non state-approved vendor.

State Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila) asked acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck to look into the transaction to determine if the district violated state procurement laws when it switched vendors. McGeehan also suggested that the action may have violated the American Recovery and Stimulus Act, which provided the funds through the federal Build America Bond program.

At issue is a major contract for surveillance cameras at 19 district high schools that were called “persistently dangerous” by school officials. Inside sources say that the district mischaracterized the work as an emergency assignment in order to bypass the bidding process as required by state law, after officials learned that a critical report was being released by the state board of education addressing poor security at the schools. School officials wanted to show that they were already addressing the problem.

In September 2010, the district hired an established vendor, Security & Data Technologies, Inc., on an emergency basis to install the cameras. After the work had already started, insiders say that when Ackerman learned that the firm handling the work was owned by white businessmen, she ordered the contract to be cancelled, and gave it to a small minority firm connected to district’s head of procurement, John L. Byars. The firm, IBS Communications Inc., leases space in a business center that is managed by Byars.

Besides side-stepping the state’s bidding requirement for major contracts, the state mandates emergency work to be performed by firms on the state’s list of approved vendors, which does not include IBS. Although IBS had not been awarded any district contracts in the past, Ackerman said that she made her decision based on her awareness that the firm was minority owned, and her possession of a business card that was given to her by the owner.

IBS had previously done a small amount of work for the district, consisting of providing schematic drawings on a completed camera surveillance project. IBS billed the district $12,980 for the work, even though the prime contractor on the job offered to do it for $1,000.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Philly school superintendent funnels multi-million dollar contract to tiny, non-qualified firm; no one’s talking

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School Superintendent Ackerman steering contracts and not explaining why

An investigative story in the Philadelphia Inquirer has turned up troubling evidence of school district contracts being doled out on a secretive basis to unqualified firms, but all parties involved are refusing to comment. At the center of the newspaper’s investigation is the recent award of a $7.5 million contract for surveillance cameras at 19 public high schools in Philadelphia.

In violation of state law, district officials decided to enter into a no-bid contract on the camera project that they deemed to be an “emergency”, although sources claim their motivation was the publicity fallout of a soon-to-be-released state report criticizing the district for persistent violence in 20 high schools. Pa. state law only permits no-bid contracts for emergency work to address serious hazards such as “fire, flood, or unexpected structural or mechanical failure.”

Security & Data Technologies, Inc., a state-approved contractor for handling work deemed to be on an emergency basis, was brought in to handle the work. After surveying the schools and discussing the scope of work, an estimate was submitted in the range of $4.5 to $6 million. After the district officials made additional work requests, the contract was fixed at $7.5 million.

As SDT was moving ahead on the site inspection phase of the work, city School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman abruptly stepped in and ordered her staff to fire the firm, and hand the work to tiny IBS Communications Inc. According to inside sources, no reason or explanation was provided by Ackerman. IBS had previously done work for the district, but the work was for preparing blueprints on another project. IBS charged $12,980 for work that another company offered to do for $1,000.

The only apparent connection IBS had with the school district is that the firm leases office space in a building that is managed by the school district’s head of procurement, John L. Byars. According to one of Ackerman’s aides, Byars is the person who approved the contract with IBC, although other sources close to the situation accuse Ackerman of the illegal hand-off.

Even though the school district claimed that the job was an emergency, thus requiring a state-approved contractor,  IBS was not on the qualification list.

All parties to the transaction refused comment on why IBS was given the lucrative contract, including officials at the school district and the two contractors involved. Sources at the school board who were staff employees, talked with the newspaper on the condition on anonymity, fearing retribution by management.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Former Pa. city manager’s theft of funds called “unethical” by state commission

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The fired city manager of affluent Philadelphia suburb Radnor Township, violated state ethic rules by paying himself bonuses without the consent or knowledge of the township board of commissioners, according to a report released today by the state ethics commission.

Longtime Radnor employee, David A. Bashore, 53, was terminated in April 2009 after it was learned that he had been awarding himself annual bonuses, in the range of $15,000 to $18,000, since he was appointed to the position of township manager in 2000. Bashore had started working for the township in 1987 and had previously been assistant township manager.

After the bonuses were discovered, subsequent investigation into the township’s finances revealed that Bashore had a long history of misusing taxpayer monies, much of it through a township credit card for undocumented and personal expenses totaling more than $177,000. Many of the charges were for basketball and football tickets, as well purchases at Pennsylvania Wine & Spirit shops.

The state ethics commission’s ruling only addressed the issue of the bonuses, and required Bashore to repay $55,331, which he promptly did.  The commission was able to take action on the previous five years, not the entire period of the unauthorized payments. The ethics commission said that he broke state law, but did not make any recommendation regarding criminal charges.

Bashore was paid an annual salary of about $132,000 and received an extensive benefits package, including medical and dental plan, life and long-term disability insurance, a company car, an SUV for personal use, and a generous retirement package.

Bashore’s contract also provided for a $175,000 housing loan, $25,000 of which was forgiven immediately and $12,500 per year thereafter. Township commissioners claimed that they were never made aware of the loan.

Radnor sued Bashore in December 2009 for over $1 million, an amount which included unauthorized bonuses to about 30 townships employees totaling over $600,000, which were intended to buy employee loyalty. The lawsuit is still pending.
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The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Philly Wants a Role in Towing Wars

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The seedy underbelly of the tow-truck business has been exposed by the Discovery Channel’s Wreck Chasers, and the city wants a piece of the action. The Philadelphia City Council is looking into taking over the dispatch job from 911 operators, and handing it over to the Parking Authority.

The proposed change has been fueled by tow truck drivers racing to the scene of an accident, and then fighting over who will get to tow the damaged vehicles. In September, one driver was run over and killed because of an argument over who would get to tow the vehicle.

The city says the current system is broken, and that 911 operators simply make calls from an approved list from the city’s Department of Licenses and Fees. Because the department is short-staffed, the job is not being done properly and the public interest is endangered.

Critics were also concerned about towers taking damaged vehicles to body shops where they might have some special relationship. Instead, the city would prefer to have the disabled vehicles towed to a Parking Authority lot.

Towers argued that if they were required to do so, consumers would have to pay for a second tow to get their cars fixed, while the city countered that most repair shops would pay for the tow in order to get the business.

The Inquirer

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