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Leon Schools District Hires Criminal Attorneys | The Good Ol’ Boy Dealings Of Jackie Pons!

Leon Schools District Hires Criminal Attorneys

By: Andy AlcockEmail | WCTV.Tv

Leon County tax dollars are being used to protect the school system and Superintendent Jackie Pons against a possible criminal investigation.

The school system has hired a Jacksonville attorney to conduct his own criminal investigation of possible wrongdoing.

It’s not the first time an attorney has been hired to investigate this matter.

Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer looked at a series of issues brought to the Leon County School system in what he calls a notebook.

One of those issues dealt with questions surrounding school construction contracts.

Several of those contracts were set for just under $2-million to local vendors to manage those projects.

At $2-million, Florida law requires competitive bidding.

“You could have a policy debate over whether that should or shouldn’t be done, but you shouldn’t make it the context of wrong doing or some kind of illegal action, we just didn’t find anything and we tried,” Meyer said.

Superintendent Jackie Pons hired Meyer with his own money to look at some issues in the notebook specifically targeting Pons.

They include Pons purchase of a townhouse and beach house from companies with ties to local contractor Steve Ghazvini.

Meyer also checked Pons purchase and resale of a lot on St. George Island from former assistant superintendent Paul Byrd who’s currently facing pending drug charges.

Meyer also look at the now on hold proposal to build a gym at the Ghazvini Center with the inference Pons intended to use it for his for profit basketball camp.

“While it may be a fair innuendo, it’s not a fair statement of the truth,” said Meyer.

Both Meyer and the Thomas Howell Ferguson accounting firm found no criminal wrongdoing in their reviews of the material.

But the school district has hired Tallahassee criminal attorney Stephen Dobson to represent Pons and the district has hired Jacksonville attorney Hank Coxe to conduct his own criminal investigation in case charges are filed.

“I don’t anticipate that happening, but you never know,” said Meyer.

The notebook has been turned over to the FBI and FDLE.

But it’s unclear if there’s a criminal investigation taking place.

For that reason, Meyer believes the school district did the right thing to hire the criminal attorneys.

A whistleblower claims the Leon County School District is misspending taxpayer dollars.

Rocky Hanna sent a whistleblower letter to Superintendent Jackie Pons on Wednesday.

It’s not the first time Hanna has been involved in controversy.

Right before the 4th of July holiday in 2012, Leon County Schools announced a major shake up.

Several principals, including Leon High’s leader Rocky Hanna, were being promoted to the district office.

It prompted demonstrations and petitions to keep Hanna at Leon.

But Superintendent Jackie Pons didn’t tell us why he made the moves until nearly two months later.

“And these positions were critical, they were important and I feel like we brought a strong team out to our district,” Pons told us on August 24, 2012.

Fast forward nearly two years, and Hanna has filed a whistleblower complaint.

In his letter to Pons, he notes he forwarded information to the FBI about what he calls misspending of taxpayer dollars.

Specifically he points to Griffin Middle School where three projects were given to local contractors for just under $2-million to avoid competitive bidding.

“I’m sorry we’re at the whistleblower stage,” said Deputy Superintendent Marvin Henderson. “You know we’ve always been responsive as it relates to any way to improve,” he said.

County records show the same contractors getting no bid awards are also major campaign donors.

An October 2013 report from School Board Chair Forrest Van Camp’s campaign shows the man the board oversees, Superintendent Jackie Pons, gave $500 to Van Camp’s current campaign, the maximum allowed by law.

And 19 of 40 contributors in that report identify themselves as contractors.

“I have never been asked by a vendor for any special consideration because of a contribution,” said Van Camp.

But a Broward County grand jury called a similar mixture of vendor campaign donations and no bid contracts Hanna calls into question an “abomination” and noted those types of contracts were 20 to 30 percent more costly than bidded ones.

A March, 2011 Leon Schools construction staff meeting noted that grand jury report and said the district would probably have to go to bidding.

But the no bid deals continued.

“I can tell you I’ve looked at the Broward County report,” said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills.

On Wednesday, Wills told Eyewitness News Superintendent Pons would grant an on camera interview Friday afternoon.

It was canceled Friday morning about two hours before it was scheduled.

Rocky Hanna declined comment on advice of his attorney.

For months, there’s been no activity at a field behind the Ghazvini Learning Center.

The center is home to a school for troubled students and one for students who need help.

The two schools together have less than 400 students.

A four court gym was originally planned to be built there.

“When we started looking at what we could fit in for the budget and the plans might not include bleachers or bathrooms or other needs that they might need, we put it on hold,” said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills.

A 2012 report noted the school district had more than $1-billion worth of construction and repair needs.

The report did not have the gym as one of the district’s top priorities.

In fact, it was on a supplemental list of projects.

“The fact that it’s on a supplemental list does not negate the importance of it,” said Deputy Superintendent Marvin Henderson.

The Center is relatively new.

The Ghazvini family donated the land for the schools.

The center was named for the late Pepper Ghazvini in 2007.

Joe Pons, the superintendent’s brother, is currently one of the principals there.

Now, about half a million dollars has already been spent on the on hold gym project.

About a quarter million dollars of that money went to Baycrest Corporation for dealing with a soil problem.

Pepper’s brother Steve Ghazvini owns that company and others the school district has awarded tens of millions of dollars in constuction contracts.

Steve Ghazvini and his companies have given maximum campaign contributions under law to Jackie Pons, school board members and the largest contribution we found for the half penny sales tax campaign in 2012 $7000.

The Baycrest gym contract for the soil work was paid with half penny sales tax money.

A company Steve Ghazvini also owns sold a beach condominium to Jackie Pons.

Pons’ attorney noted the deal was done at fair market value in a report Pons commissioned.

“I have never been asked by a vendor for any special consideration because of a contribution,” said School Board Chair Forrest Van Camp.

When asked if there was any pay to play for district contractors Van Camp said, “There’s not been that I am aware of.”

A few years ago, several construction projects were done at Griffin Middle School.

Three projects were each done for just under $2-million
One of them was in July, 2010.

A second one was done with the same company the following October and then a third in April, 2011.

“That has been a cost savings to be able to do that,” said Leon County Schools Board Chair Forrest Van Camp.

District leaders say while there’s no bidding in selecting the company, there is a competitive, multi-faceted process to award those maximum price contracts.

The awarded management team then takes competitive bidding for the actual work.

However, under Florida law, it states contracts of $2-million and above must be competitively bid.

After looking at the Griffin deals, the Florida Auditor General’s March, 2012 Report said the district didn’t always get construction services by following Florida law.

“There is a process that we did follow,” said Leon County School District Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. “It wasn’t in our policies, but in state statute,” she said.

And following the Auditor General’s report, the practice continued of awarding the just under $2-million contracts.

Two were awarded at Killearn Lakes, two at Gilchrist and three at Kate Sullivan, all elementary schools.

All of those under $2-million contracts were reviewed by staff, submitted by Superintendent Jackie Pons and approved by the school board.

In a recent review of the practice, the district’s own accountant noted there was no policy for it.

“We may need to have a better documentated trail on how we’re making those decisions,” said Van Camp. “Looking back on the decisions we’ve made, I feel comfortable with them,” he said.

On advice of his attorney, Superintendent Jackie Pons has declined our request for an interview.

Documents from a group of “concerned citizens” have prompted a review of information about Leon County Schools and superintendent Jackie Pons.

WCTV received a binder from the group with about 85 pages of documents inside questioning if Pons broke state law by avoiding competitive bidding on 12 different construction contracts for 6 different county schools, by keeping the cost just below two million dollars.

If a project costs above that amount, Florida law requires the contract go to competitive bidding.

The FDLE confirmed to WCTV that it has also received the binder and is reviewing the material.

The Florida Department of Education has also reviewed the information and says it is not taking any further action at this time.

The school board signs off on construction projects.

One board member says she would be shocked if the information was correct.

“There’s committee review and all kinds of things that happen along the way. It’s fully vetted by the time it gets to the senior management of the district. It then ultimately goes to our council to review the contracts, and then reaches the board,” Leon County Schools Board Member Dee Dee Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said it is concerning that the information states the contracts are priced so close to the two million dollar threshold.

“Should I have asked the staff to sign off on the rationale for keeping this under the two million dollar limit and not putting it out to a bid as follows? Yes. And should we perhaps move it off of the consent agenda for a while to make sure that we’re fully vetting these things in a public venue and transparency? Perhaps. I think those are the questions that this board needs to address now,” she said.

The documents also question if the contracts were awarded as political favors to Pons’ campaign sponsors.

Leon County Schools issued the statement below late Tuesday afternoon.

“In December 2013, information of alleged construction and other irregularities was provided to the Superintendent by a district administrator. Over the next few months an in-depth analysis was conducted by staff, outside lawyers, and an independent accounting firm. To date, reports have been completed by attorneys Robert Sniffen and Ron Meyer and the audit firm of Thomas Howell Ferguson. No fraud, criminal activity, unethical conduct or personal gain was found. In March 2014, the district also learned that these same allegations were provided to the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All related reports have been given to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and are also included with this statement. This matter is currently open and still under review.”

School board president, Forrest Van Camp said all board members have received a copy of the review Leon County Schools conducted but have not yet discussed it publically in a meeting.

“I am not aware of any deliberate means to circumvent the bidding process,” Van Camp said.

The State Auditor’s office sent WCTV a statement saying, “We are aware of the letter dated February 26th from “Concerned Leon County School Board Employees and Citizens of Leon County” and the notebook of documents. We will give the matters addressed in the notebook of documents appropriate consideration in our financial and operational audit of the Leon County District School Board for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014. Our audit fieldwork is currently underway.”

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