By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, OCT. 16, 2012) — Contractgate: It was, is, and — until amended — as phony as a department store Santa Claus.
For those who wish to brush up on the background of the case, refer to THE PLANET‘s Sept. 30, 2012 column and the couple following. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
* On Aug. 22, the school board entertained a motion for the city to enter into a construction contract “for the purpose of promoting vocational education for students at Taconic High School.” It sounds so wholesome, eh? The committee voted to approve, 5-1. In favor, Dan Bianchi, Kathy Yon, Dan Elias, Jim Conant, and chairman Alf Barbalunga. In opposition, Terry Kinnas. Kathy Amuso was not in attendance, taking care of a personal matter, and did not vote.
* Kinnas noted the basis of his opposition. The ad seeking sponsors for the project specified: “These projects exclude roofing” yet on the contract punch list, the first item of THS student responsibilities is “ROOFING.” The contract is amended later to exclude roofing. If Kinnas did not object, however, the “fast one” to sneak in roofing would have been included. That was the first example of the phony nature of this contract.
* Kinnas and the rest of the school board subsequently learns that the contract isn’t being awarded to any Joe or Jane Shmoe. It’s been awarded to — get this — the secretary of the school department administrative official who placed the ad. Her name is Lynn Whitney. She has just won free carpentry work courtesy of the taxpayers. The student carpenters will be employed as slave labor to build Whitney a new home!
Her boss’s name is Frank Cote. His title is assistant superintendent of schools. He heads the vocational curriculum. He makes about $100,00 a year plus benefits.
* After the fact, that is, after Kinnas files his reasonable objection based on roofing, Whitney asks the State Ethics Commission to rule on the appropriateness of her bid. On Sept. 4, she gets back a finding that lists five requirements for Whitney to qualify to receive this free work. She only meets two of them.
Not previously disclosed, the SEC quotes Sec. 19 of state laaw:
“A municipal employee may not participate in a particular matter if he or an immediate family member has a financial interest in the matter. If this project goes forward, or if the opportunity to propose a carpentry project is re-advertised, you may not do work as the Administrative Assistant for the School Department in relation to the project because you and your immediate family have a financial interest in the project. For example, as the Administrative Assistant, you should not prepare any paperwork for the Assistant Superintendent [Cote] or the carpentry instructor with regard to the project.” [THE PLANET’s italics]
There, in black and white, the SEC states the obvious: She will profit financially if she is allowed this contract. Ah, but that does not stop the GOB Machine from working. It can grind fast or slow, and to line the pockets of one of their own, it grinds exceedingly well.
The Loophole, to the Rescue
Here’s where it gets odd.
In the SEC letter, Whitney is referred to “a chapter 19(b)(1) disclosure.” This neat device allows a person to make a disclosure “with your appointing authority and explain the financial interest that you/or [sic] your immediate family members will have in the matter. Your appointing authority has discretion to make a written determination that the financial interest you have identified is not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services which [sic] the municipality may expect from you as its employee. If your appointing authority makes this written communication, you may participate in the matter. Otherwise, you may not.
Who is “the appointing authority” for and of Whitney? It’s the school committee, not the city council. This is a crucial point. If THE PLANET’s reading of the SEC letter is correct, it means that after disclosure to the school committee of her conflict of interest, the committee could make a determination, in writing, that the conflict would not “affect the integrity” of Whitney receiving all this free work — on a contract that Cote, her boss, admitted to the council was not properly advertised so as to ensure a broach exposure to the general public.
Did the school committee receive such disclosure? No. Whitney sent a disclosure to the city clerk, Linda Tyer, which Tyer’s office stamped on Sept. 21. Why did Whitney send the disclosre to Tyer and not to the school committee?
Did the school committee sign off on the exemption letter, allowed by chapter 19(b)(1) disclosure. No. Instead, the contract between Whitney and the Pittsfield Public Schools, represented by her boss, Frank Cote, got kicked over to my Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council. Why? That has never been properly explained by anyone, including Mayor Dan Bianchi, council president Kevin Sherman, or school committee chair Alf Barbalunga.
Therefore, the council’s deliberations on a matter outside their jurisdiction — a matter already redolent on its own lack of merit as to smell like the city dump on a steamy a August day — were tainted from the get-go. It is a reasonable question to ask, in light of this highly unusual procedural move: Was throwing it over to the council part of Cote-Whitney’s Plan B, in case something went wrong and the phony deal did not find smooth sailing first time through the placid waters of the school committee on Aug. 22?
Cote Admits: Ad Did Not Get Proper Exposure
At its Sept. 25, the council had previously voted to file the contract, since several councilors expressed confusion over why the measure was on their desks and not those of the school committee’s. The contract also had been amended once (and though the council did not know this, a second time). Again, you wonder: Was the production of three versions of the contract in such a short period of time a strategy meant to confuse and obfuscate, kind of the way a stage magician misdirects the audience’s attention while he palms the coin?
Cote attended the council meeting on Oct. 9 to answer questions about Contractgate. He did a good job of playing innocent … but not good enough. “I’m not a politician,” Cote told the council, as if that would put him above the taint of corruption or, at minimum, supreme incompetency. He then made a few key disclosures:
— Wait, Hurry: He mentioned the “wait-wait-wait, hurry-hurry-hurry” nature of the work. The “wait-wait-wait, hurry-hurry-hurry” is a time-honored GOB trick. It works like this: On a program you want to ram through, especially one that’s questionable and might not withstand the weight of closer scrutiny, first delay. Then, when it comes near to expiration, bring it forward, telling the “appointing authority” that if we don’t act now, we lose the opportunity. The GOB has rammed through so many disreputable deals behind the backs of Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski that we won’t bother to recall a one. Sure enough, on cue, Cote said if the council didn’t approve this, “the children” would not have work. He said the carpentry students at THS were presently being used on a project for the Office of Community Development. That work, he said, would end in November. After that, the students would be out of a job.
— ‘The Children’: Cote, playing like a GOB veteran, then dragged out the old standby, a chestnut so ripe that it would not need roasting on an open (or closed) fire. He told the council that Contractgate wasn’t $150,000 of free construction work for his secretary. Rather, he called it “a teaching moment.” Good Lord. Then came the clincher, the one used by the overfed school department every time they bleat for more money. In Cote’s own words: “It’s all about the kids.” There you have it: “the children. The children. The children.” There is no known antidote to an injection of “the children” in a town that lacks a political spine. Right then and there, we knew the Fix was not only in but also in the bag.
— The Ad: On the ad that Cote ran in the Boring Broadsheet, several interesting developments surfaced. First, Cote told the council the ad ran in the Boring Broadsheet “for a week.” This is not true, according to the information on the ad itself. On the website mypublicnotices.com, you can find the ad itself. Here’s what it says:
PUBIC NOTICE PITTSFIELD PUBLIC SCHOOLS CARPENTRY PROGRAM
Pittsfield Public Schools’ Carpentry Program is seeking a sponsor for the 2012-2013 school year. Scope of work may include; [sic] new house construction, additions to existing homes, renovations, or garages. These programs exclude roofing. Prospective applications should apply in writing to: Frank K. Cote, Assistant Superintendent of Vocation, Workforce and College Readiness Pittsfield Public Schools 269 First Street Pittsfield, MA 02102[.] No phone calls please. Deadline for applications is April 27th, 2012.
At the bottom is the notation: “appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on 4/13/2012, 4/14/2012, 4/15/2012, and 4/16/2012.” That’s a total of four days, and not a week, as Cote testified. There’s a huge difference between four days and seven days. Saying the ad ran for a week implies 43% greater exposure to the public than the ad actually received. Not one councilor mentioned that. We later learned from that the ad itself was not part of the council packet. Therefore, the council was being asked to vote on the basis of incomplete information!
Second, notice how the ad asks for “a sponsor.” The word “sponsor” implies an office, and agency, a business, and not a common, run-of-the-mill, ordinary citizen. “sponsor” would discourage many in the general public from even applying — that is, if they even saw the ad at all. That would not hamper someone as “Connected” as Whitney, however, and acting on her info info, she applied — the schools received only one other application for a “sponsor,” that being the city’s office of community development.
Third, Cote admitted he was not familiar with how such ads were previously done. The council gave him a pass on this confession of ignorance, not asking the obvious follow-up question: “Why didn’t you research the process before doing it?”
Fourth, Cote admitted the questionable nature of the ad: “Would I do it differently?” Yes, he said, adding, “Our due diligence wasn’t good enough.” No kidding, but “good enough for both the school committee (save Kinnas) and the city council (save Chris Yon, Sherman, and Jonathan Lothrop [Barry Clairmont did not participate in the discussion and did not vote, since Whitney is a client of his accounting business]).
We shall stop there, picking up on tomorrow’s PLANET where we left. That will include some amazing, jaw-dropping questioning by approving councilors as well as an equally stunning question that no one thought to ask. THE PLANET will also update you on a development in the case that could squash the deal.
In addition, we present information about a city department that gets you to head scratching. The Boring Broadsheet, with its vast newsroom staff, won’t let you know, but we sure will.
TIS STRANGE, THE MISER SHOULD HIS CARES EMPLOY TO GAIN THOSE RICHES HE CAN NEVER ENJOY. IT IS LESS STRANGE THAT THE PRODIGAL SHOULD WASTE HIS WEALTH TO PURCHASE WHAT HE WILL NEVER TASTE?
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.