No-bid deal costs DeKalb schools

State officials say they withheld the money because Pope broke state law when she awarded the contract to Merit Construction Co. in 2007 and because she failed to get state approval for the school renovation project.

The project, at Columbia High School near Decatur, is one of six that are the focus of a criminal investigation by the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office. Investigators won’t discuss the case.

Pat Pope could not be reached for comment. Her husband, Anthony “Tony” Pope, declined a request for an interview. But Pat Pope’s attorney, Manny Arora, defended her actions on the project.

“The reality is Ms. Pope’s decision allowed the Columbia High School project to be completed on time and under budget,” Arora said in a written statement. “Since its completion, Columbia High School has been touted as representing the benchmark standard for construction renovation projects.”

Pope, 50, was removed from her position in October as the school district’s chief operating officer after county authorities executed search warrants at her office and home, as well as those of Tony Pope — the couple are separated — and Lithonia builder David Moody. As the investigation continues, she has been moved to another office and given a handful of special projects.

The six school construction projects being scrutinized are valued at more than $110 million, and county authorities are investigating whether Pope broke the law by allegedly steering contracts to her husband’s architecture firm, her friend Moody’s company and another construction company, Turner Construction.

DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis alerted authorities to Pope’s actions on the Columbia High project during a taped interview with a District Attorney’s Office investigator on Nov. 26, 2008.

In the interview, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lewis suggests that Pope could have been trying to direct business to her husband.

Lewis, who has declined to talk to the AJC about the criminal case, told the investigator that Pope should have allowed construction companies a chance to compete for the multimillion-dollar contract.

But by giving it to a company that had been working on two previous phases of the project with Pope’s husband, “it means that he [Tony Pope] keeps getting paid.”

Pat Pope awarded the $8.17 million contract in September 2007 to Merit Construction Co.

A document obtained by the AJC shows that Tony Pope’s company made at least $625,000 for the additional work.

The Columbia project was the first and only time that Merit Construction has worked with Tony Pope, said Mark Schilling, vice president of Merit. Merit does not otherwise appear to be involved in the criminal investigation.

In awarding the third phase to Merit, Pope violated a state law requiring that public works construction projects must be publicly advertised, according to a letter from the state Department of Education, dated May 16, 2008.

She also violated a state DOE rule requiring that all school projects in Georgia must be approved by the DOE, said Lynn Jackson, an education department official who supervises the architects that review school projects.

Breaking the law carries no criminal penalty, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. But it did result in the loss of $907,000 in state matching funds.

Pope’s attorney, Arora, said in his statement that the rule “applies only to governmental contracts seeking state capital outlay funds. DeKalb County did not receive state funds for this [portion of the] project, therefore the state regulation does not apply.”

Jackson, however, said the state law applies to all public works projects.

It’s not clear what aspect of the Columbia project is being probed by the District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal activity. The investigators have indicated in public documents that they’re investigating a laundry list of possible crimes in the case, but did not link them to specific construction projects.

The crimes are: racketeering, mail fraud, wire fraud, theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, theft by taking, theft by deception, false writings, false swearing, subornation of false swearing and bid rigging.

J. Tom Morgan, DeKalb’s former district attorney, said there is no criminal statute in Georgia that addresses public officials giving contracts to relatives, but one federal statute does.

“The state of Georgia is probably the worst state in the country for prosecuting public corruption,” Morgan said. “It is so hard.”

Jackson said she spoke to Pope about the Columbia High situation at least twice, the last time in the summer 2008.

“I said, ‘You know you’re not going to get your state funds for that because you did not properly bid it,’ ” Jackson told the AJC.

“Yes, I know that,” Pope responded, according to Jackson.

In a letter Pope sent to one of Jackson’s architects, dated April 23, 2008, she offered her explanation for giving the contract to Merit. It simplified the project, saving time and money, Pope wrote in the letter, obtained by the AJC.

“The construction is sequential and requires a tremendous amount of coordination between the contractor and school operations,” Pope wrote. “It is complicated enough and it would be even more complicated if two contractors were on site both scheduling different subcontractors to work in the same space.”

In the letter, Pope does not address her husband’s contract.

Lewis’ interview with the District Attorney’s Office initially focused on his purchase of a county vehicle and questionable gas purchases on his county credit card.

But midway through the interview, he veered off topic to discuss Pat Pope and what he had recently learned about her.

Lewis said the school district’s internal affairs office had been investigating Pope for several weeks, after one of Pope’s employees “made lots of allegations about Ms. Pope and other things that she had seen in the office that are not right, about contracts.”

Lewis also said that internal affairs had been investigating allegations that Pope had tampered with the competitive bidding process on construction projects.

Then he quickly focused on the Columbia High situation.

“The bottom line is we know that Ms. Pope should have re-bid the third phase of the Columbia High School project,” Lewis told the investigator. “She was told to do that by our construction attorney and by Lynn Jackson, who is the director of capital outlay for the state. I’ve talked to these people. They all tell me they told Pat to do it. Lynn said that Pat is very stubborn. She does things her way.”

In the interview, Lewis said he confronted Pope about the Columbia project.

“So I called Pat the next day and said, ‘Pat, were you told to re-bid that project by Greg Morgan [the school district’s former construction attorney] or by Lynn Jackson?’ And she said no. Now I’d already talked to them, so I know that they told her to do it.”

Less than two weeks after Lewis’ interview, school system police officers and information system employees examined records from Pope’s office, and school officials began interviewing Pope’s employees.

But, three months later in February, while the investigation into Pope was under way, Superintendent Lewis chose to continue Pope’s employment and gave her a new contract making nearly $200,000 a year.

Lewis declined an interview through school district spokesman Dale Davis, but released a brief statement by e-mail.

“It is my view that, with respect to anything Ms. Pope did or did not do, there is a legal process that is under way, which will run its course,” he said. “The School District does not want to prejudge the outcome — the DA will determine whether there was misconduct or not.”

Neither Lewis nor Davis responded to an inquiry about Lewis’ decision to renew Pope’s contract.

Arora cited the contract renewal in his response to the allegations made by Lewis in his interview. “If Dr. Lewis put any credibility behind the disparaging comments he made about Ms. Pope’s work in November 2008, then Dr. Lewis would not have renewed Ms. Pope’s contract with DeKalb County,” Arora wrote.

The school district has not provided a complete financial picture of its payments to Tony Pope’s company on the Columbia project, saying that the District Attorney’s Office seized all the files related to the project and that it only had a portion of the records stored electronically.

But documents provided by the district show that Pope’s company was paid $1.43 million for his work on all three Columbia High phases.

State officials began noticing possible problems with the Columbia project in March 2008, according to DOE documents.

When state officials reviewed the project’s documents, none of them addressed how Merit Construction got the contract.

“It was at that point that I realized there was a problem,” DOE architect Gregory Snapp wrote in a summary of his review of the project.

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