CONTRACTGATE: AN EGREGIOUS ABUSE OF TAXPAYERS, EVEN IN A CITY FAMOUS FOR STINKEROOS … SCHOOL COMMITTEE, COUNCIL AIDED AND ABETTED A RIPOFF OF MARY JANE AND JOE KAPANSKI … LATE DEVELOPMENT IS WE THE PEOPLE’S ONLY SHOT AT JUSTICE … plus … LOTS OF POINTS AND QUESTIONS YOU HAVEN’T SEEN RAISED ANYWHERE ELSE
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, OCT. 17, 2012) — In applying for up to $150,000 in free construction work courtesy of Taconic High School vocational students, Lynn Whitney didn’t have to expend even as much as a postage stamp. Welcome to Contractgate.
“I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter, and make believe it came from me.” (Sung to the tune of “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter, and make believe it came from you.”)
Hiding in Plain Sight … Clever, Cote, Clever
The ad, cleverly done small enough to be hidden from most except the most astute readers of the Boring Broadsheet — a condition that vastly limits the qualified population, since it is a paper to be avoided or, if read, to be skimmed like a Frisbee-flat stone skipping over Berry Pond — specified “no phone calls.” Hey, the school department wouldn’t want to make it convenient. It listed a postal address for respondents. This being Pittsfield, applicants could not apply via that new-fangled, high-tech gizmo, the Internet. What will they think of next?
The ad ran for four days, from April 13 through 16, 2012, in the BB. Frank Cote, Whitney’s boss as assistant superintendent of schools and head of vocational, told the city council the ad ran for a week. (For the record, Cote’s official title is “Assistant Superintendent Vocational, Workforce, and College Readiness”. In other words, He’s Important. He’s got seven words to state his title).
Cote misstated the length that the ad ran by three days — an innocent slip? A colloquial accounting of time? A flat-out lie? You draw your own conclusions. Oh yeah, and for performance like that, you taxpayers pay the man somewhere around $100,000 a year plus amazing bennies. Whatta city!
Keep in mind, too, that the ad ran on not just any four days but on those four days. April 13 through 16 of this year fell on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The days F-Sat.Sun. are the three least read days in a newspaper. April 15 is tax day. People get might busy before and after that day. They might not read a newspaper as attentively as at other times. In Massachusetts, we have a phony state holiday on Monday so that all state workers can get a free ride off taxpayers. A holiday is a low-to-no read day. Thus, you see how the GOB ran the ad to limit public exposure. They basically took Sunday and Monday out of play, knowing that Friday and Saturday would be consumed with weekend activities and getting taxes done.
The school department had to publicly advertise for the construction work, but only in a technical sense did they do so. The “they? in this case was Frank Cote. He unilaterally placed the ad. He did not go through either the school’s business manager or city purchasing. He didn’t go through the school committee. He just ran the small ad, on his own, on days that were not like to be read. By the way, who wrote that ad? Cote? Whitney? Someone else?
If Nobody Else Responds, Can We Call it Competitive Bidding?
The ad produced two responses: one from the city’s Office of Community Development and one from Lynn Whitney, Cote’s secretary. Whitney dated her letter to Cote applying for the free slave labor as April 25, 2012. That same day, Whitney, as Cote’s secretary, initialed having received the letter. Either the post office set a world’s record in delivering her letter, or she simply typed it up and gave it to herself!
While were on it, did Whitney type up the letter on her own computer at home but her school department computer? Did she use her own printer or the taxpayer’s? Her own paper or the taxpayer’s?
Amazingly, no one on the city council during its discussion of Contractgate on Oct. 9 asked about this highly irregular and suspicious set of events.
It’s clear to any reasonable person: The school department, through Cote, produced an ad that would satisfy the technical requirements of public bidding in a way that would all but guarantee that few people in the general public would read it. In case someone from the unwashed masses did see the ad, which would have threatened the entire scheme, Cote worded it to make it look like the school department sought a corporate sponsor. It uses the term “sponsor” for the program. Whitney is the “sponsor.” An ordinary person, reading “sponsor,” would not think to apply.
The Ad Didn’t Mention Free Student Labor Worth Up to $150,000
Another crucial missing piece of the information is the fact that all that work, involving the building of a new home, would be done for free. The ad gives no mention of it. Do you think the ad would have produced more responses had it publicized free construction, with more than $100,000 on the line? Perhaps. Just perhaps.
In spite of all this, first the school board approved Contractgate, 5-1, and then the city council, 7-3. Yesterday, THE PLANET raised questions about the extremely odd nature of the item being given over to the council. This clearly was a matter for the school committee. The only problem, from Whitney’s standpoint, is that, according to the State Ethics Commission, she failed to meet three of the five conditions.
The SEC found her application for the free work improper. The SEC, though, gave Whitney an emergency escape hatch. If she could obtain a letter from “the appointing authority” approving the arrangement on the basis of a situational review, she could legally steal the free construction.
Who and what is “the appointing authority” of a school department employee? It isn’t her boss. It’s the school committee. The committee, however, was not put in the embarrassing of having to put such an OK in writing. Why?
That’s when the matter miraculously ended up in council chambers. Crazy, eh? How did that happen? Who did what? Who called whom, on whose behalf?
Even if, for the sake of argument, you allow the council’s jurisdiction over a school matter, the council did not fulfill the condition of M.G.L. chapter 19(1)(b): It did not authorize this unholy deal in writing. We couldn’t imagine Kevin Sherman, or any councilor, for that matter, putting in writing such a questionable matter? Trust us: Any letter will be used with glee in Campaign 2013.
The council took a voice voice, passed the measure 7-3, and Kevin Sherman gaveled the item closed. The council couldn’t even be bothered with a roll-call vote. As it turned out, Sherman, Chris Yon, and Jonathan Lothrop voted against the deal. Morandi, Capitanio, Connell, Krol, Simonelli, Mazzeo, and Cotton voted in favor. Barry Claimont did not participate in the discussion or vote, since Whitney is a client of his accounting firm.
Curious Remarks by Mazzeo; Did She Have to Recuse Herself from Voting?
At-large councilor Melissa Mazzeo made some of the most curious remarks during the discussion period. She basically listed some reasons why Contractgate wasn’t a good deal … and then voted for it! She had her cake and ate it, too. Dee-lish.
She excused the irregularities. Mazzeo made a lot of excuses for Cote and Whitney. She said that they did what the law required: they advertised, they got bids, they amended the contract after school committeeman Terry Kinnas pointed out the “roofing” discrepancy between the ad and the actual contract, and they sought permission from an overseeing body. What’s the big deal?
Mazzeo then repeated Cote’s plea: “It’s for the children.” She said “the kids” will be looking for a construction project come next month. Again, what’s the big deal? Here’s one for them.
Mazzeo also noted that the house would go on the tax rolls. No one sought to rebut that by saying the house goes on the tax roll regardless of who builds it. If the council (and earlier, the school committee) had done the right thing in the first place, Whitney would have been forced to do what Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski have to do when they want to build a new house (like it happens every day!) — She would have to pay for it out of her own pocket and not force taxpayers to pick up the $150,000 or so bill. The house would still go on the tax rolls. It was one of the weakest performances the at-large city councilor has ever put in on behalf of We The People. It came off more as a favor done for She The Whitney.
It’s been rumored that Mazzeo and Whitney are friends. THE PLANET has heard that from several sources, enough to make it plausible but not enough to confirm. We have a request for comment into Mazzeo asking her to explain the extent of her relationship with Whitney, if any. If the information is true, should Mazzeo have recused herself from the discussion and vote, as Clairmont did? The answer is “yes.”
Bianchi Blew It, Too
And what of Mayor Bianchi? He had dual citizenship, as it were, being a member of the school committee and, of course, being the CEO of the entire city. Despite this, the mayor voted to approve this lousy deal on Aug. 22 at the school committee meeting. Contractgate subsequently came before the council twice, on Sept. 25 and Oct. 9, both times with the mayor in the room. That gave the mayor two opportunities to step forward and act in the name of citizens. He could have halted Contractgate with one word: “Enough!”
Bianchi could have thrown the weight of his office against this deal, as well his weight from being a member of the school committee. He didn’t do that. Instead, he remained as silent as Buster Keaton in The General. That was a silent film, where voices could be “heard” only in the imagination of the filmgoers.
Bianchi could have righted a wrong, corrected the perception of insider trading, and in doing so, reassured the citizens of Pittsfield that he had their backs. He didn’t do that.
Bianchi could have been a leader. He chose not to lead.
The last two times THE PLANET contacted Bianchi for comment (by e-mail and phone) he has not responded. Coincidence? A deliberate shutout (a mayoral strategy that never works against THE PLANET … ask former mayors Reilly, Doyle, and Hathaway … they all tried it, to their ultimate electoral dismay).
Krol: He too Told Us It’s for ‘The Children’
Ward 6 councilor John Krol, like Mazzeo, told us why Contractgate wasn’t a good deal … before voting to approve. “You look at the appearance, and it’s unfortunate,” Krol pointed out. Then, however, he too mentioned “the children.” Right then and there, taxpayers got shafted by another councilor.
An Obvious Question Not Asked
Not one of the councilors thought to ask Cote this question: Do you think it’s proper for your secretary to be profiting in this manner from a contract that was kept away from the general public? No one put him on the spot or delivered the necessary heat, although Jonathan Lothrop came the closest, pointing out the reasons why this deal didn’t pass the smell test. It was the methodical Lothrop doing his thing.
The proper action, one that Kinnas advised when he spoke at the endless open mic session at the start (endless because of the orchestrated support for the city solicitor), would have been to file the matter and send it back to the school committee for re-advertising, this time making it a fair fight. The re-bid would:
* Exclude any city employee
* Be user friendly. The ad would run more than four days, and obscure days at that.
* The ad would be placed prominently and would be augmented by fliers, Facebook, and any other way to publicize strong competition.
Our Right Honorable Good Friends on the council did not do that. Why?
Chris Connell of Ward 4 swatted at a fly, which was taken as being in favor of the Whitney deal. Churchill Cotton, at large, and Tony Simonelli ,Ward 7, gushed in an overflowing manner praising the schools. Cotton is a former school accomplice. He used to be on the school committee. Simonelli has the insider’s vantage point from his many year as vice principal at THS — hardly what one would called a disinterested, conflict-free couple of votes. Paul Capitanio of Ward 3 slipped into the Land of Nod and said not a peep. Cappy voted for it, nonetheless. Ward 2’s Kevin Morandi parroted Mazzeo, his Polly to her cracker.
Other Points Need to Be Made and Other Questions Asked on Contractgate
Point: After learning that the contract Lynn Whitney originally signed with the school department did not match the language of the ad, city solicitor Kathy Degnan rewrote the contract so the contract would conform with the ad. Degnan did this after the fact, of course.
Question: Why did Degnan re-write the contract? Follow us here. As far as the application for free construction labor, Whitney could not be considered as “Lynn Whitney, secretary for Frank Cote and employee of the school department.” She was “Lynn Whitney, private citizen.” She had become, for the purposes of that application to win the contract as student “sponsor,” Mary Jane Kapanski, ordinary resident. That had to be the case for reasons the State Ethics Commission made clear. We must ask, then, why the city solicitor did work for a private citizen? Why did she rewrite the contract and at whose bequest? Whitney’s? Cote’s? How could the solicitor revise a contract for a private citizen? Why didn’t the school committee and council press for answers?
Point: Clause 16 of the contract enacted between Whitney and the school department dated Sept. 26 and signed by Whitney for herself (again, Lynn Whitney, private citizen) and interim school superintendent Gordon Noseworthy states:
“16. There will be a fifteen percent (15%) surcharge on all materials, or a mutually agreed upon flat fee of $ _____, to be paid by the owner to the program to compensate for wear and tear on tools and any incidental costs that may occur.
In the blank following the dollar sign, in the actual contract we see the figure “0.” That’s right: zero! In other words, the school department could have had Whitney pay for 15% of up to $150,000 but chose not to!
Question: Who rewrote the contract? Answer: City solicitor Degnan, who delivered packets with the revised contract to city councilors before their Sept. 25 meeting. Why would Degnan rewrite the contract and screw taxpayers out of $22,500? Did she do this on her own initiative, or was she ordered to opt out of this money, that would have gone to the schools? If she was ordered, who did the ordering? You have to ask yourself: Why on earth would the city solicitor, given the choice between making up to $22,500 for taxpayers or making $0 — zero dollars — select nada, nothing, zilch? No one asked.
Point: John Krol hosts a morning radio show broadcast from the vocational department of Taconic High School.
Question: Should he have recused himself from the discussion and the voting because of that?
It Ain’t Over Until … You Know the Rest, Yogi
THE PLANET has gotten wind of a couple of initiatives that call into question several aspects of Contractgate before separate “proper authorities.” We don’t have details. We don’t have confirmation. Suffice it to say from what we do know, however, that Whitney might do well to check out construction costs, the way any other private citizen would have to do (citizens who don’t know GOBs in High Places, naturally).
We can say no more on these late developments, except to report to Mary Jane and Joe that there is still a ray of hope.
They Call It Palookaville
Finally, when one goes through the contract between the schools and Whitney, we learn a couple more interesting things:
1. Excluding price of the land, the project is valued at $250,000. Using a common construction estimate, about 60% of that would be building costs, or $150,000.
2. Clause 22 reads this way: “The City reserves the right to waive any of the OWner’s obligations and/or requirements listed in this Agreement. Any such waiver to be binding shall be in writing, and will be attached and incorporated into this Agreement.” Say, what? Why would the city agree to this? The clause essentially gives a school administrator the power to free Whitney of ALL costs and obligations, including cost of materials, supplies, furnishing electricity, trash removal, storage, and other stipulations placed upon her by the contract, all without citizen oversight. Un Bee Leave A Bull.
Some people like to say that Pittsfield is no different from any other city in terms of corruption. THE PLANET tells them they are wrong: This open, blatant ethical stinkeroo would not get by most anywhere else.
They call it Palookaville.
On Thursday, we present some interesting (and maybe some will find it shocking) news about a prominent city department. The head of that department has not responded to at least three PLANET requests for comment on the specifics we have dug up.
The specifics are embarrassing to the department, which, apparently, would rather you, Mary Jane and Joe, not know about any of it. We also have several requests in to a person who represents workers of this department. This person requested that we phone for a talk. We deferred. We want the response, if there is one, in writing. If we fail to hear from the department by 9 a.m. Thursday, THE PLANET, as we have informed the department, shall run the information on the assumption that it is all true.
Tomorrow, more tales of the unexpected.
WHAT SUBJUGATION IS MORE ABSOLUTE THAN THE ONE IN WHICH THE ENSLAVED NOT ONLY DO NOT REALIZE THEIR SERVITUDE BUT ACTUALLY HAVE BEEN TOLD, AND BELIEVE, THAT THEY ARE FREE?
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.