Coweta County citizen accuses school board of bid rigging

A Coweta County citizen has sent a letter to the Coweta County School Board accusing them of bid rigging and conspiring to defraud the taxpayers.

Citizen activist Hank Ashmore threatened to sue if his claims aren’t addressed.

The letter claims the school board and school system staff designed a bid process for new artificial turf fields so only one company could win.

The letter follows a FOX 5 I-Team investigating raising questions about the recent award of contracts for three Coweta County football fields.

We've been raising questions about artificial turf bids across metro Atlanta. In Douglas and Fayette county we saw bids that critics contended only one company could realistically bid on, and taxpayers end up paying more. Earlier this year we examined Coweta County's artificial turf bid. And someone didn't like what they saw.

“It didn't take me less than half a day to find out it was bid rigging," Ashmore said.

Ashmore sent the letter following a FOX 5 I-Team investigation that raised questions about the bids to install new FieldTurf artificial fields at three Coweta County high schools.

Our investigation found there were representatives from 12 companies who showed up and signed in at the pre-bid conference.  

But after the bid specifications came out – spelling out the size, shape, and composition of the turf – most of the companies lost interest. Only two companies placed bids.  Both were bidding a FieldTurf field.

“The specs that we sent out to these companies were written based on a Field Turf product,” school board member Linda Menk said.

One of the companies that decided not to bid even complained about it in a letter to the county saying: "The specification for Coweta County High School Fields can only be met by one manufacturer of synthetic turf."

On the night of the vote, Ken Pritchard of Southern A & E, who said he wrote those bid specifications for the county, denied it was tailored for just one company. And, he said the bid allowed bids on alternative turfs – even if they don't meet the specs.

“We had a performance spec that anybody could meet," said Pritchard.

During the vote, Superintendent Dr. Steve Barker said, when you strip away the new stadium lights, track upgrades, and other expenses, the new fields cost an average of $809,918.

We compared that price to Cherokee county who bought new fields just a few weeks earlier. Cherokee had four different companies bidding.

We took out extra track work, and site work like Dr. Barker did.  That left an average cost for the actual field of $636,757.

That means Coweta taxpayers are paying more than a half million dollars ($519,483) more for their three fields. 

“We want to know why this was done the way it was done. We want to stop it from happening again,” said Ashmore’s attorney Josh McKoon.

McKoon drafted the letter, which is required by law if you plan on suing a government. He wrote he plans to file a racketeering lawsuit against the school board, calling the bid process "bid rigging" and "a conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision of the state."

“The children of this county are hurt by it. The more resources we take away from the classroom, the harder we make it for the classroom teacher, said McKoon.

But, school board attorney Nathan Lee say it differently.

“I can't see any evidence what so ever – the allegations have any merit what so ever in that letter,” Lee told the board.

The board voted to conduct an independent investigation by an outside company to examine the allegations of bid rigging. And board members and the superintendent made it clear - they were not happy with the letter.

And wanted Hank Ashmore to know it.

“You have been really ugly to me and the rest of us, accusing us of something we have not done,” said board member Sue Brown.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Barker said, “I take this letter and its content as both a professional and personal attack. Will also seek legal counsel relating to possible damage to me.”