Investigative report clears Coweta County School Board of bid-rigging allegations

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An outside investigation prepared for the Coweta County School board found no wrongdoing by the board or school system employees during a multi-million dollar bid process to install three new synthetic turf fields in local schools.

The yearlong outside investigation by attorneys Bob Wilson and Keri Ware was highly critical of one school board member, Linda Menk, who questioned the bid process.

But, the FOX 5 I-Team found the report contains a mistake that leads Menk to call the findings “flawed.” 

The Coweta County School board voted to conduct the investigation after a local citizen activist accused them of bid rigging. 

Attorney Josh McKoon drafted a letter to the school board on behalf of citizen activist Hank Ashmore, writing Ashmore planned to file a racketeering lawsuit against the school board. The letter called the bid process "bid rigging" and "a conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision of the state."

“I take this letter and its content as both a professional and personal attack,” School Superintendent Dr. Steve Barker said at the time. 

The school board fought back and voted to hire an outside law firm to investigate. The board hired former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson and his law partner Keri Ware. 

The Wilson/Ware report found no evidence of bid rigging or fraud and pointed out that attorney McKoon and his client Hank Ashmore "provided nothing" in the way of evidence and both "refused to speak" to Wilson or Ware.

The findings were no surprise to the only school board member who criticized the bid, Linda Menk.

“I expected it. Absolutely,” said Menk.

An earlier I-Team investigation found the county used specifications for the kind of turf they wanted that closely matched one company's product: Field Turf.

The Wilson/Ware report agreed, finding the specifications in the request for proposals or RFP  "was very similar" to the Field turf product."

Fife Whiteside is school board member Linda Menk's attorney.

“The report makes it clear, the RFP (Request For Proposal)was designed to pick up the Field Turf project,” said Whiteside.

However, the Wilson/Ware report found no problem with this similarity because the bid proposals allowed for "alternative or substitute" turf products and because "cost" was such a vital piece of the bid scoring process, any company that bid with a low price had a chance to win.

“Who wrote Wilson's paychecks? Wilson's paycheck were signed by the superintendent,” said Whiteside.

In the end, only two companies bid. Both offered a Field turf product. 

The Wilson/Ware report harshly criticized Linda Menk, who asked the board to delay the original vote, and questioned the cost of the project. The report accused Menk of gathering information from a Field Turf competitor, trying to derail the bid, and passing it along to Hank Ashmore before he wrote his accusatory letter. The report concluded Menk had a "personal agenda to create a scandal." 

“That's her constitutionally protected speech. She has the right to talk to Ashmore. He has the right to do what he does,” said Whiteside.

Menk says she knew the report would blame her. She said she sat for six hours’ worth of interviews, and turned over thousands of pages of research. Still, Wilson/Ware argued she was uncooperative and failed to turn over some 60 emails from her personal email account.

“I gave them everything they asked for and then some,” said Menk.

Menk earlier complained the county paid more than it should have for those fields. 

The Wilson/Ware report disagreed.  The report concluded that on average Coweta County paid ($828,083) per field for its three new fields. Comparable, the report argued, to nearby Cherokee County - who paid on average ($823,991) per field for its five new fields.    

But, is the report right? 

The Wilson/Ware report wanted to compare the costs of just the fields without any extra expenses.

So, for Coweta County, the Wilson/Ware report didn't include extra costs like track and field construction, lights and sound systems.

But for Cherokee County the report did include those extra costs, making Cherokee's price tag look similar to Coweta County.

But is it? We obtained a  breakdown from the Cherokee County contractor who did the actual work. 

It shows without those extra costs the Cherokee County fields cost on average only $636,605 per field.

Which means Coweta taxpayers paid on average $187,386 more per field.

“The report is flawed. Obviously, I don't like it,” said Menk.

“She was right. What we said all along, we thought the focus of the report wasn't trying to figure out if the contract process was irregular, it was about trying to figure out if we could blame Linda for the controversy.  That validates the supposition, doesn't it?” asked Whiteside.

We sent our findings to Bob Wilson and Keri Ware to see if they could explain how they came up with the Cherokee County price.   We have not heard back from them.

So far, the report cost Coweta taxpayers $114,742.