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CONTRACTGATE: AS PHONY AS A DEPARTMENT STORE SANTA CLAUS … THE PLANET SPELLS IT OUT

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

Public Notice

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.

 

27 Responses to “CONTRACTGATE: AS PHONY AS A DEPARTMENT STORE SANTA CLAUS … THE PLANET SPELLS IT OUT”

  1. Ron Kitterman
    October 16, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    A deceptive move for sure, thanks Dan and Terry, sad day for the taxpayers for sure.

  2. FPR
    October 16, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Wow Dan,

    Very good read. I love the way you word things.

    One note. Cote makes $100,000 per year PLUS benefits?

    Is $100,000 the magic figure that Pittsfield like to throw money away?

    Plus benefits? I their possible “friends with benefits” being promised behind the scenes that no one dare mention? If so, how many “friends with benefits is $150,000 worth of slave labor worth?

    Finally what about Ms. Whitney’s salary? Also being paid by taxpayers to the tune of ??? $30,000 – 40,000 per year?
    Looks like they’ll have to raise water rates because “we have no choice” and dog license fees along with marriage license fees.

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 10:54 am #

      Plus benefits, and they are no ordinary benefits. They are Pittsfield GOB-certified benefits, worth probably another $30-35,000 a year.

  3. Dave
    October 16, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Am I crazy or are things staying the same in Pittsfield. Some of the players have changed, but it seems like it is business as usual in Pittsfield, just with a different set of beneficiaries. Some of the councillors justified their vote by saying it was good “for the children” but they wished it had been done differently because of how this contract would be perceived. It is not perception that Mrs Whitney sent the application letter to herself.
    It is not perception that Mr. Cote misrepresented the ad that was published. It is not perception that the ad and the contract did not match up. Yes, it was fixed due to Mr Kinnas, but I think a better lesson for the kids to learn would have been, make sure you do everything correctly when signing into an agreement, instead of the usual lesson taught by the city of Pittsfield that if you know the right people, anything goes.

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

      DAVE
      You are not crazy. The faces change but GOB corruption stays the same. Why is also how: Because We The People have become so disgusted and demoralized that they don’t pressure and DEMAND change.

  4. Gene
    October 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Another great story and followup Dan. Incredible that the Eagle (BB) would not cover this. Thanks for the coerage.

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

      Thanks, Gene. THE PLANET has an obligation to fill the gap left by the BB. That’s why we continue to grow and they continue to shrink.

  5. Gene
    October 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    coverage

  6. dusty
    October 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    I imagine there will be a happy contractor and happy sub contractors as well as a happy Whitney. And a happy business where the materials will be purchased. What are the odds that the names of these places will be connected to the insider crowd?

    And what are the odds that the contractor was picked before the job was approved?

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

      DUSTY
      As Ted Lewis used to sing: “Is Everybody happy?” In Pittsfield, the answer is “yes” only if you’re a GOB or one of their toadies.

  7. FPR
    October 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Its all about the children? Right?

    Good comment Dan:
    There is no known antidote to an injection of “the children”

    Jesus Christ was the son of a carpenter. I don’t think many people argue that fact. He worked as a carpenter all the way up to his 30′s before beginning his ministry. Not much is mentioned about his skills and his work but I’m sure it was adequate, probably more than adequate.

    Where did he learn his carpentry skills from? That was even before that has extension cords.

    Do you think Jesus Christ was cheated by not being able to take full advantage of Taconic High School’s slave labor program?

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

      FPR
      A thought provoking question for all of the arm-chair theologians out there.

  8. FPR
    October 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    before “they” had extension cords

    (gotta proof read before I post)

  9. Ron Kitterman
    October 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Laws c. 268A was enacted as part of “comprehensive legislation . . . [to]
    strike at corruption in public office, inequality of treatment of citizens and the use of public office for private gain.”
    but since when does Pittsfield follow the law ?

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      Since when, Ron? Since “not in the last generation.”

  10. Dave
    October 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    What is up with the Gazette website. It hasn’t been updated in quite a while. Once again. I urge Jonathon Levine to apply for part of the $500,000 that Mayor Bianchi put aside from the G.E. Fund for small businesses to hopefully put the final fork into the BB. I don’t recall the specific requirements for disbursement, but hiring Dan and a couple of other reporters, one being a web guy to keep his website current, and an upgrade to his press equipment may qualify.

    • Joe Blow
      October 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      The powers that be would never allow this to happen.

    • levitan
      October 17, 2012 at 6:10 am #

      The Gazette prefers you use the website as an archive and grab a print edition for current news. It’s a mere fifty cents and full of all the news that is fit to print.

  11. GMHeller
    October 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    Mr. Valenti,
    It is highly significant that no one in authority — not Mayor Bianchi (who did indeed vote in favor of the Cote/Whitney project when the matter came to a vote before the Pittsfield School Committee), not the Pittsfield School Committee, and not the Pittsfield City Council — has voted in favor (or even suggested) scrapping the present problematic Cote/Whitney contract and beginning anew the bid process with a properly worded Bid Notice prominently advertised for the requisite period of time in all the local print media.
    With something like this which so obviously fails to pass the smell test, a truly honest group of public servants — the Mayor, the members of the School Committee, the City Councillors — all should acknowledge that fatal errors were made in the original Bid Notice and Contract and take action to correct those deficiencies.
    And yes, our public servants should indeed begin anew on this matter For The Children!

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      GMH
      You are correct. With a deal this lousy, one would figure, all things being equal, that someone (many someones, for that matter) would step forward and stop this. In Pittsfield, though, all things are not equal. The playing field is heavily tilted in favor of the GOBs against We The People. As you say, do it “For The Children!”

      • Debbie
        October 20, 2012 at 6:33 am #

        Its only up to” We The People” to get rid of the GOB’s! This City is GROSS with corruption!…………Lets clean our sewer system out and vote everyone new in. I know for sure Kroll will not get elected again. That’s a promise. People control your ward and clean them out. I wonder what is the statute of limitations for TAX RAPE in Pittsfield?

  12. FPR
    October 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    I know the BB is normally not worth a dime but I gotta say the piece on the death of Arlo Guthrie’s wife Jackie was touching.

    May she rest in peace.

  13. jlo
    October 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Hey Dan – Jlo here – just wanted to correct your post from yesterday about the Whitney Contract Vote. While the vote was 8-3, the three “no” votes were Sherman, Yon and Lothrop (myself). Basially – it does not pass the sniff test, regardless of intent.

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      JLO
      Thanks. I shall correct it in the posting online. You are correct about the smell test.

    • Dave
      October 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

      The real Jlo would have known that the vote was 7-3 with Slippery Barry abstaining. So get over your petty feud Mr. Tyler.
      You know that Jlo was the star of American Idol.

  14. Scott
    October 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    One part to their dirty little trick was getting the children and parents all excited over the work now if it were to fall through it seems they have the attitude that they’re too good for rehab and want the new construction. It’s about the kids and experience but I can tell you an old house will teach you a lot more. It should go back out bid just for the principle of it all. And I’m not saying that because I want to apply I was joking before I’ll do my own work on my own house. Of course Bianchi signed off on it I swear this guy will not get another vote from me. Transparency yeah we see through your administration all right.

    • danvalenti
      October 16, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      “Dirty little trick.” You have a way with words, SCOTT. These are accurate and to the point.