First Selectman slams AFB's handling of snow removal

Snow removal costs at Trumbull’s nine schools is the subject of the latest heated war of words between First Selectman Timothy Herbst and Al Barbarotta, the president and CEO of AFB Construction Management, which acts as the town’s facilities manager and owner’s representative on the high school renovation project.

Barbarotta, who is suing the first selectman for “tortious interference” in a business deal — a lawsuit Herbst has called “frivolous” — oversaw the clearing of schools roofs during Storm Nemo and in 2011. Last Friday in a press conference, Herbst accused Barbarotta of failing to follow proper payment protocols, costing the town money by hiring contractors who Herbst said at the very least were guilty of "price-gouging,” hiring a contractor with a criminal past, and rehiring workers who presumably did $400,000 of damage to the high school roof in 2011.

“I have an obligation to let the people of Trumbull and taxpayers know what we are dealing with,” Herbst said. “In my opinion, this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Barbarotta was recently involved in an ethics complaint, filed by Internal Auditor James Henderson, which was dismissed. Barbarotta has said the complaint was a “witch hunt” and a personal attack on him by Herbst. He told the Times this week that snow removal was a part of the dismissed complaint, and he refutes Herbst’s claims.

The first selectman said he wanted the Ethics Commission to complete its investigation before he went public with some of the details of his concerns about Barbarotta’s management of snow removal.

While the town was going through removal costs, in order to qualify for FEMA reimbursement, Herbst said he began to come across what he called “troubling” information.  Looking over the numbers, the first selectman said he became concerned when he saw that clearing the roofs of the schools cost more than plowing out the town’s 225 miles of road.  The Board of Education spent $750,000 in 2011 and $163,000 in 2013 for removal of snow from school facilities for a total of $913,000 for the two years. The town spent $158,000 during Nemo and about $300,000 in 2011.

Barbarotta said clearing roofs is entirely different from clearing roads.

“You can’t get snow plows up on those roofs,” Barbarotta said “It’s all done by hand shoveling and it’s a big job, the distance these guys had to walk and having to put blue tarps up there for the snow and then haul it down. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

He also defended his decision to hire back the same contractors from 2011.

“We called everybody we could,” Barbarotta said of contractors. “The contractors we used again had the experience from the first time and we were able to cut the cost by 75%.”

The schools paid $65 an hour to clear roofs in 2011 and $55 an hour in 2013.

Herbst said it didn’t make any sense to hire back the same contractors.

“The rhetorical question I asked Mr. Barbarotta was 'if you hired contractors to do a renovation of your home and they caused $30,000 in damage, would you hire them back two years later to build an addition,'” Herbst said. “His response was it’s not the same thing.”

Barbarotta said he contacted local contractors as well but those companies were not able to provide as many workers as were needed.

Barbarotta gave the Times a copy of a letter from Bill Chiarenzelli of the Trumbull Office of Emergency Management that praised AFB's handling of snow removal at schools in 2011.

In particular, Herbst focused on snow removal costs at Frenchtown Elementary after Nemo, which cost $81,000, paid to a contractor called ERP Group Inc. He claims the numbers don’t add up and that Barbarotta hired the contractors without getting all the proper documentation in order, like I-9 forms and worker’s compensation.

At $55 an hour, during a two-day period, an invoice says that ERP employees worked 912 hours, costing $50,160. That would mean, according to Herbst, that 57 workers were up on the roof the entire time and that Frenchtown took more time to clear than some of the larger schools, Herbst said.

“I drove by Frenchtown during snow removal with Chief Kiely and it didn’t look like 57 people were up there,” Herbst said.

He also said that the roof at the school is pitched, so it would be difficult for that many people to be up there.

Barbarotta argues he was looking to keep costs as low as possible. He also said Herbst failed to show the original invoice for clearing of Frenchtown School, which was $91,000. AFB sent the Times a copy of the original invoice.

“We initially received a bill of $91,000 and I objected to that,” he said. “They wanted us to cover transportation and since we hadn’t done that with any other contractors I refused to pay that.”

Herbst said the most disturbing part of the $81,000 bill was that it was signed off on by AFB the same day that services were rendered. Herbst said in order for him, as first selectman, to write a check, it goes through several levels of checks before getting approval, so he is confused as to how Barbarotta was able to put the payment through. According to Herbst the payment approval went through without the knowledge of the Superintendent or Board of Education Business Manager.

“That’s a severe internal control problem,” Internal Auditor James Henderson said last Friday.

Herbst said the Board of Education Business Manager Sean O’Keefe has since added internal controls to prevent it from happening again.

Barbarotta argues the check did go through the proper process and all he did was sign off on the fact that he witnessed the work get done.

“AFB and Al Barbarotta are not authorized to pay anything,” Barbarotta said. “All we did was sign a bill, saying we were there and we were comfortable with what they got paid, it was the best deal we could negotiate.”

Barbarotta said he was leaving for vacation, that’s why he signed off on the invoice the same day.

“The reason I reacted so quickly is because I was going away for two weeks with my wife so I told everyone to get their purchase orders in immediately, with back-up, so we can process it while I’m away, or they would have to wait until I’m back.”

Contractor questions

Herbst said he began questioning who Barbarotta had hired for the job and so he Googled  ERP Group Inc. - the CEO is Edward R. Petrucci. In 2005, Petrucci was sentenced to two months in federal prison for failing to pay more than $1 million in taxes and from 1996 to 1999, he admitted to using corporate funds for personal expenses, including gambling debts. In 2007, Petrucci was reportedly caught during a sting at an illegal high stakes poker game.

“There are clearly some warning signs here and I take issue with why we are doing business with this person,” Herbst said. “Why are we approving payment on the same day to this person’s company?”

The town auditor echoed a similar sentiment.

“I don’t think it’s a person we want to do business with,” Henderson said.

Barbarotta argued that Herbst has also associated with convicted criminals, appearing on former Gov. John G. Rowland’s radio show. Rowland plead guilty to fraud charges in 2004, in connection with a corruption investigation.

“This is America, we try to help those types of people and he is a great contractor,” he said of Petrucci. “This is another part of Tim’s personal attack, which he will eventually pay for.”

Herbst said last Friday that he is tired of being threatened with lawsuits when he tries to hold a contractor accountable.

“The Town of Trumbull isn’t someone’s personal ATM machine,” Herbst said.

Barbarotta has said Herbst is failing to present all the facts and he plans to move forward with his lawsuit.

“He’s after me and he’s been after me for three and  half years,” Barbarotta said. “It’s a witch hunt on his part that is personal and political, and that will come out.”

For his part, Herbst said he will sit down with new Superintendent Gary Cialfi to discuss his concerns about working with AFB in the future.

AFB also works with five other municipalities.

“If I’m called for a reference by any first selectman I will say 'if you try to enforce your code of ethics expect a lawsuit,'” Herbst said.