Thursday, June 19, 2008

Suspicious Omission

As my regular readers are already familiar, I have spent a lot of time discussing the Recovery School District and the future of public schools in New Orleans. My research often extends beyond the online world in this regard to include some original reporting.

I originally became concerned as a result of the lack of oversight of Superintendent Paul Vallas' spending habits, a risk I saw as too great to ignore, given his mixed track record in Philadelphia.

As I learned more about how the RSD was operating, I became increasingly curious about the ten year master plan currently in the works. It is absolutely clear to me that this facilities master plan represents the most important and far-reaching initiative for which the RSD is responsible. I grew worried about the implications of the facilities master plan. Would the RSD be contracting the capacity of the school district in a way that reduces the ability of viable neighborhoods to rebound?

When it was clear that the firm hired by the RSD to develop the master plan, Parsons, was the same which had also come under investigation for fraud in Iraq, I felt certain that further research was necessary. When it was brought to my attention that Steven Bingler, the president of Concordia, the local firm partnering with Parsons, was also the brother-in-law of the CEO of of the influential New Schools for New Orleans, I became even more convinced that an inquiry was in order.

I began making public records requests of the RSD at the beginning of March. Formal requests are legally required to be honored within 5 business days but as evidenced by multiple Times-Picayune lawsuits filed against the city, requests often go unfulfilled. The first request I made from the RSD was the master plan request for proposal. I received it very quickly. Next, I began asking for some of the deliverables required of the RFP, including the demographic projection data informing the process and the preliminary engineering reports evaluating each school. I also asked for the proposal put forth by the winning firm, Parsons/Concordia.

Fourteen days later I had heard nothing and began hounding. Fourteen days beyond that, I received some of the information I had requested and was told that my requests vis-a-vis the Parsons proposal were vague.

I agreed to resubmit a clearer request and did so that day, April 11th. I expanded my inquiry this time, asking to see not only the proposal submitted by the winning firm Parsons/Concordia but the contract the RSD eventually signed with them as well as all other bids that were ultimately passed over. I was in Philadelphia at the time and was quickly assurred by RSD officials that the information I requested had been set aside and would be available for my viewing upon my return. When on May 7th, I attempted to arrange an appointment to see the records I had requested, things became extremely frustrating.

I was told that the documents would be mailed to New Orleans from Baton Rouge. Six days later I was told that my New Orleans contact had received an incomplete fax and that completed documents would be hand delivered. On May 15th, I was told that the documents I'd requested would be overnighted from Baton Rouge. On May 19th, I was told that no package had been received and that RSD lawyers were working on attaining the documents I'd requested. I asked for an explanation more than once over the next several days and was finally assurred on May 28th by an RSD lawyer that my request was being worked on in earnest. I was also told that it was unclear whether or not original documents could legally leave the Baton Rouge office but that duplicates may already be available in New Orleans. This frustrated me because I had just been stalled out for weeks with promises of packages that were never sent and never needed to be because the materials were already available. After expressing my anger, I relented after being provided a short term timeline within which my request would be completely honored.

Finally, on June 13th, I was faxed the contract signed with Parsons/Concordia and assured that the proposal documents were available on Poland Ave for my viewing pleasure.

I went to see them on Tuesday, June 17th.

A receptionist came out with six binders representing the six bid proposals and was told I could not leave the premises with them. Thus, I sat there in the reception room balancing these six binders on my lap.

I kind of felt stupid looking at these things. I'm just not qualified to evaluate which firm had the best proposal or even what kinds of master planning methodologies were preferable.

But I'm not stupid. I know what a table of contents is and I know how to use it.

I also know how to count.

One thing I decided to look at was the "price proposal" page for each of the bids. This seemed like a logical place to start my uninformed, cursory evaluation of the binders in my lap.

Thus, I dutifully turned to those pages in each of the proposals and noted the number.

The last one I looked at was the prosal submitted by Parsons/Concordia. It said in the table of contents that I would find their estimate on page 120.

There was no page 120. It had been removed or omitted.

It was the only proposal that did not include this information.

That struck me as extremely suspicious.

I just sent an email to various RSD officials that have routinely been forwarded my requests over the course of this process requesting immediate clarification. I will update you if I hear from anyone.

I feel obliged to publish my experiences with this situation immediately. I can't admit to being an expert on the legal ramifcations of this, if there are any. I do not feel qualified to make any concrete allegations or attempt any explanation.

That the release of the master plan has been delayed until August as a result of Mr. Pastorek's rejection of an initial draft underscores the need for immediate transparency and clarification.

UPDATE:

I am in discussions with the RSD and I am hopeful that the case of the missing page can be resolved. I will keep you posted.

UPDATE II:

I have just received a scanned copy of the missing page. In the fax I'd received last week, the RSD included the Parsons+Concordia price proposal with the detailed pricing information redacted, per their request regarding trade secrets. However, there was no way to authenticate that this was taken from the proposal because of missing a page number and an indistinguishable template. The rationale I received for why the page was removed from the original copy was that it was impossible to redact without defacement.

7 comments:

oyster said...

Wow. "Suspicious" to say the least. I actually found this detailed account of your frustrations riveting.

Well done.

And press on!

Anonymous said...

http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=99703

RS 44:35


§35. Enforcement

A. Any person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a record under the provisions of this Chapter, either by a final determination of the custodian or by the passage of five days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays, from the date of his request without receiving a final determination in writing by the custodian, may institute proceedings for the issuance of a writ of mandamus, injunctive or declaratory relief, together with attorney's fees, costs and damages as provided for by this Section, in the district court for the parish in which the office of the custodian is located.

B. In any suit filed under Subsection A above, the court has jurisdiction to enjoin the custodian from withholding records or to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the production of any records improperly withheld from the person seeking disclosure. The court shall determine the matter de novo and the burden is on the custodian to sustain his action. The court may view the documents in controversy in camera before reaching a decision. Any noncompliance with the order of the court may be punished as contempt of court.

C. Any suit brought in any court of original jurisdiction to enforce the provisions of this Chapter shall be tried by preference and in a summary manner. Any appellate courts to which the suit is brought shall place it on its preferential docket and shall hear it without delay, rendering a decision as soon as practicable.

D. If a person seeking the right to inspect or to receive a copy of a public record prevails in such suit, he shall be awarded reasonable attorney's fees and other costs of litigation. If such person prevails in part, the court may in its discretion award him reasonable attorney's fees or an appropriate portion thereof.

E.(1) If the court finds that the custodian arbitrarily or capriciously withheld the requested record or unreasonably or arbitrarily failed to respond to the request as required by R.S. 44:32, it may award the requester any actual damages proven by him to have resulted from the actions of the custodian except as hereinafter provided. In addition, if the court finds that the custodian unreasonably or arbitrarily failed to respond to the request as required by R.S. 44:32 it may award the requester civil penalties not to exceed one hundred dollars per day, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays for each such day of such failure to give notification.

(2) The custodian shall be personally liable for the payment of any such damages, and shall be liable in solido with the public body for the payment of the requester's attorney fees and other costs of litigation, except where the custodian has withheld or denied production of the requested record or records on advice of the legal counsel representing the public body in which the office of such custodian is located, and in the event the custodian retains private legal counsel for his defense or for bringing suit against the requester in connection with the request for records, the court may award attorney fees to the custodian.

F. An award for attorney fees in any suit brought under the provisions of this Chapter shall not exceed the amounts approved by the attorney general for the employment of outside counsel.


http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=99714

RS 44:37

§37. Penalties for violation by custodians of records

Any person having custody or control of a public record, who violates any of the provisions of this Chapter, or any person not having such custody or control who by any conspiracy, understanding or cooperation with any other person hinders or attempts to hinder the inspection of any public records declared by this Chapter to be subject to inspection, shall upon first conviction be fined not less than one hundred dollars, and not more than one thousand dollars, or shall be imprisoned for not less than one month, nor more than six months. Upon any subsequent conviction he shall be fined not less than two hundred fifty dollars, and not more than two thousand dollars, or imprisoned for not less than two months, nor more than six months, or both.

Karen said...

maybe the dog ate it?

LatinTeacher said...

Keep after 'em!

Anonymous said...

I can only send you my words of encouragement to keep on keepin' on in your gumshoe efforts. I agree with oyster that this post is "riveting".

Anonymous said...

Did you read in this morning's paper that Pastorek and the leges managed to pass (yesterday) a provision that exempted contracts of $250,000 or below from participating in the bidding process? Esentially, the State Dept. of Ed has now has tons of leeway in awarding no-bid contracts.

E said...

Reading it now. Thanks for the tip, anon.