Florida inspector general reviews possible bid-rigging case at Department of Education

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Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief inspector general is reviewing the handling of a bid-rigging probe at the Florida Department of Education, his office said Monday.

In a reversal from the office’s previous statement, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske confirmed Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel is reviewing how the Department of Education and its inspector general handled the bid for a multimillion-dollar contract.

“She is doing her due diligence on all of the above,” said Fenske, the governor’s communications director.

Evidence shows the department tried to steer the contract to a politically connected vendor, but its inspector general did not investigate the matter.

The review, described by Fenske as a “holistic approach” to the issue, follows a request made by state Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee. Tant cited “irregularities” with the department’s procurement process following reporting by the Herald/Times.

On Monday, six Democratic members of Congress from Florida wrote to the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general asking whether she was looking into the issue because Florida had tried to use federal coronavirus relief dollars to pay for the consultants.

“If so, we request to be briefed on the Education Department’s findings and informed on any updates regarding this matter,” the letter from U.S. Representatives Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Al Lawson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Darren Soto and Frederica Wilson states.

The Herald/Times story explored how the Department of Education, led by DeSantis appointee Richard Corcoran, was handling the Jefferson County School District, which is set to resume control over its three schools after five years under the control of a private charter school company.

The department wanted to hire a company to help Jefferson school officials with the transition, using the county’s coronavirus relief dollars. Department officials had one company in mind: MGT Consulting, whose CEO is former Republican state Rep. Trey Traviesa of Tampa. Traviesa has ties to Corcoran, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Somerset Academy Jefferson County in Monticello, about 25 miles east of Tallahassee, is Florida’s first all-charter school district.
Somerset Academy Jefferson County in Monticello, about 25 miles east of Tallahassee, is Florida’s first all-charter school district.

Records and interviews show that as early as Sept. 15 last year, department officials were meeting with MGT to do the work. The department drafted a request for quotes that was based on a proposed contract with MGT and told officials in Jefferson County they were doing the work.

Then, in November, the department held a week-long procurement for 25 invited companies that resulted in MGT’s becoming the only applicant, with a nearly $2.5 million bid.

State law prohibits state agencies from awarding contracts when a company has an “unfair competitive advantage,” defined as having access to inside information not available to the public.

But the Department of Education’s inspector general never explored whether MGT had such an advantage.

Instead, the inspector general opened a different probe, after two members of Corcoran’s leadership team and a member of the State Board of Education created a company that entered a competing bid for the work, which undercut MGT’s bid by about $700,000.

Corcoran ordered an inspector general investigation into whether those three people’s bid posed a conflict of interests. The resulting inspector general report did not reach a conclusion either way.

Corcoran asked the board member, Andy Tuck, and one of the members of the leadership team, Melissa Ramsey, to resign. The third member, Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva, was cleared and is now a top candidate to lead the Miami-Dade County School District.

Records show the inspector general was aware of both MGT’s history and the state law on “unfair competitive advantages.”

The office’s report mentions that the request for quotes was based on MGT’s proposed bid, but notes that the inspectors “found no evidence that the parties ever formalized the proposed agreement.” Corcoran said he ordered a new procurement after MGT was the only company to respond.

In a Nov. 18 email to the department’s inspector general, Mike Blackburn, the department’s assistant general counsel, Jason Borntreger, wrote that Tuck, Ramsey and Oliva’s bid did not violate the state’s law on unfair competitive advantages.

The initial response to Tant’s letter was dismissed by the governor’s office, who said the investigation was concluded, “and the commissioner and DOE have been fully transparent about the investigation, its findings and the actions taken by the agency.”

“Rep. Tant’s letter is a few weeks late,” spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in an email.

After this story published, the governor’s office said Monday’s developments were “not a reversal.”

Jefferson County officials have fought back against the department’s wish to hire consultants to help with the transition, saying that the small district with fewer than 800 students is facing a dramatic funding shortfall when the charter school leaves in June.

On Monday, Jefferson School Superintendent Eydie Tricquet wrote to the department asking that the district be allowed to keep its coronavirus relief dollars and spend the money on “educational purposes.”

Last week, the Department of Education wrapped up its second procurement for consultants to help Jefferson County officials. It received three bids, none of which were from MGT.

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