|Wild Art: Ken "Jailbird" Jenne and "Freeloadin' Freddy" Lippman back in the day.|
At a time of budget shortfalls and employee layoffs, School Board construction chief Tom Lindner took it upon himself to try to do a $100,000 favor -- with taxpayers' money, of course -- for a politically connected local contractor.
And that was just part of an overall boondoggle in which about $1 million in taxpayers' money went down the drain.
It began with an unnecessary contract approved by the School Board to build classroom additions. The contract went to James A. Cummings Inc., a top school builder in the county. Cummings has been a generous contributor to board members' campaigns and has hired former board construction officials to work at his firm, including former construction chief Ray De La Feuilliez after he was blasted in a prior state grand jury report.
After the project began, an internal audit found that the district paid Cummings $100,000 for undocumented work that was never authorized in the contract or approved by the board. The auditors, citing School Board regulations, recommended that the district recoup the money from the contractor.
But Lindner, in a letter to Cummings last October, unilaterally decided that he wouldn't make the contractor pay the money back after all. Lindner wrote that he had determined (by himself) that "the payments were appropriate under the contract" and that he didn't "intend to pursue the overpayment issue."
Isn't that special?
Inside, see what happened next (hint: Lindner got a taste of crow).
After Lindner decided, without consulting the board, to cut Cummings the break, auditor Pat Reilly released another audit report last month on March 24 recommending again that the board collect the money, only this time the amount was amended down to about $75,000.
When pushed again, Lindner admitted that, in contradiction to what he wrote in his Cummings letter, the payments weren't allowed under the contract and had gone without proper documentation. "Accordingly we will pursue repayment by whatever means necessary," he wrote in his department's official response to the audit.
Lindner wrote that he believed that "ethically," the board had a mandate to pay Cummings since the work was requested by School Board staff and completed by Cummings.
Either way, rules were flagrantly violated and a favorite contractor got money that wasn't intended in the contract. I would suggest to Mr. Lindner that "ethically," his interest should lie in protecting taxpayers rather than contractors.
And remember that this is the guy who is touted by the board as someone who can turn the corrupt school district around. In this case, it appears to be business as usual.
But here's the ugly kicker: It wasn't just the $100,000 that the board paid Cummings that was wasted. About $1 million was spent on the project, which was ultimately abandoned without ever being completed.
Why? Because the School Board ran into financial problems, and the classrooms were never needed anyway. It was just another example of the lobbyist- and contractor-driven building boom authorized by the derelict School Board that helped make the contractors rich and the school district very, very poor.
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