Board members say auditor's report contains half-truths, inaccuracies
A report by the town’s internal auditor, criticizing the Board of Education’s financial practices and alleging potential conflicts of interest, was vetted and questioned by Board of Education members Monday night, with the majority of members and school employees asserting that it contained inaccuracies and half-truths and that the auditor overstepped his bounds in his recommendations.
The special meeting of the Board of Education was held in the Long Hill Administration Building and lasted about two hours. The report, submitted as a draft by auditor James Henderson and titled “School Facilities Snow Removal and Trumbull High School Building Construction Renovation,” was reportedly the basis for an ethics complaint Henderson filed that was later dismissed by the Ethics Commission. The report focuses heavily on the town’s facilities manager, Al Barbarotta of AFB Management, who also serves as owner’s representative on the Trumbull High School renovation. But the report also cites Board of Education chair Stephen Wright, retired Superintendent Ralph Iassogna, plant manager Steve Kennedy, and Trumbull High Building Committee chair James Nugent. Iassogna and others mentioned in the report attended the meeting. Henderson told the board he was unavailable to meet to discuss the report until November, a date after the election.
The report includes seven findings, including that AFB mishandled snow removal in 2013 by not seeking a bid waiver to clear roofs and that Barbarotta attempted to influence the Board of Education to hear a presentation on Conveo Energy, a company in which he holds a management position. It also cites that Barbarotta, Trumbull school officials and Conveo attempted to “circumvent” the public bid process to award Conveo work outside of the normal bid procurement process. Henderson claimed that Conveo was given information on school facilities that gave it an unfair advantage and that AFB should not serve as both facilities manager and owner’s representative on the high school renovation. Henderson also gave recommendations to remedy what he sees as potential issues and problems.
Chairman Wright, who is not running for re-election Nov. 5, took issue with several parts of Henderson’s report.
“When people write reports based on a lack of evidence or authority, I find it troubling and distracting us from the task at hand,” Wright said.
The special meeting got off to a slow start, as a town attorney who was going to advise the board on legal matters related to the report had to excuse herself after receiving a letter from the town, citing a potential conflict of interest, since her firm also represents the town. The letter arrived late Monday, Wright said, not long before the meeting. Board member Tom Kelly said the town should have given the board and counsel ample notice so taxpayer money wouldn’t have been wasted in paying the attorney for her services.
Before discussion began, Vice Chair Deborah Herbst recused herself from the meeting, saying she felt it would be inappropriate to participate because of pending litigation involving a family member and Barbarotta. Barbarotta has filed a lawsuit against her son, First Selectman Timothy Herbst.
Board members discussed a few of the seven findings, agreeing that some were out of their purview.
Board of Education members took issue with Henderson’s analysis that in a July 17, 2012, meeting, Barbarotta attempted to give a presentation on his energy company without identifying that he was, in fact, a principal in the company. Henderson cites meeting minutes.
Board members Kelly and Lisa Labella said they both listened to the tape from the same meeting and noted that Barbarotta clearly called Conveo “our” company and that Superintendent Iassogna stopped him from giving the presentation. Also, a pamphlet he gave out on Conveo clearly identified him as part of the company, Iassogna said.
“If I could get a tape of that meeting in 12 hours, what kind of level of diligence did he do,” Kelly said of the auditor. “That disturbs me and speaks to the credibility of this entire report.”
Wright agreed that he didn’t understand why an auditor would not look to get the best evidence for a report, and had decided to use meeting minutes, rather than tapes.
The report also cites a meeting plant engineer Steve Kennedy and school officials had with Conveo to discuss potential energy savings. Kennedy took issue with a description of one of the meetings in Henderson’s report, calling it inaccurate.
The report asserts that Conveo and Barbarotta were given an unfair advantage by being given information on town buildings that other companies would not get. Kennedy responded to the claims Monday night, saying that no special treatment was involved and any vendor would get the same information. Kennedy argued it is extremely common to talk with vendors and Henderson himself had once inquired about similar information, on behalf of an energy company.
“I was shocked he would put this in here, knowing he did the same thing,” Kennedy said.
Henderson’s report said the meetings with school officials, held without knowledge of other board members, made it appear that Conveo working on an energy program for Trumbull schools was a “foregone conclusion.” Wright disputed that claim, saying the meeting was informal and had the district decided to move forward with Conveo, it would have gone to the full board and out for a public bid, as is the district’s usual process.
“We are talking best practices and we are being critiqued on our practices, which I happen to think are a little better than those on the south wing,” Wright said.
Iassogna also defended himself against claims that he did not communicate to the Board of Education that Conveo was Barbarotta’s company, arguing it was on the pamphlet and anytime it was mentioned he referred to it as Barbarotta’s company.
“Mr. Henderson says I didn’t tell the board, that I hid it,” Iassogna said of the Conveo/Barbarotta connection. “It’s maligning me.”
Henderson’s report also claims that Barbarotta improperly handled emergency snow removal at the schools in 2011 and 2013. In 2013, AFB signed off on an invoice of $81,000 for snow removal that did not get a bid waiver from the first selectman, as required for items over $10,000. The report also cites that the bill was approved on the same day, without going through proper channels, showing that the contractor, ERP Group, received special treatment from AFB.
“I take full responsibility in regard to any bid waiver,” Iassogna said. “There was no bid waiver, but that’s not the entire answer. In my conversation with the first selectman, I believed the waiver was inherent. My charge was to do whatever was necessary to get schools open safely and as soon as possible.”
Iassogna also said claims that the payment was cleared the same day are “erroneous and misleading.”
“It took nine days for them to get payment,” Iassogna said.
Business Manager Sean O’Keefe agreed, saying AFB signed off on the payment, then it went to the plant manager for review and was finally forwarded to the business office. O’Keefe, however, said he now reviews every invoice over $10,000 just to ensure no issues or questions arise.
“I am constantly looking for ways to enhance the process,” O’Keefe said.
Iassogna said the district learned from those storms and he is sure that approving payment without a bid waiver will never happen again.
Wright noted that Trumbull was the envy of the region in 2013, since it was able to open two to three days earlier than other schools.
The report asserts that the district’s plant operations need a clear chain of command, as Barbarotta was allowed to decide what contractors to hire and where resources should be deployed during storm response at the schools.
“That is totally untrue,” Iassogna said of checks and balances in the Plant Operations Department of the school.
Iassogna argued that Kennedy oversees the plant management and is evaluated by the superintendent, while AFB, as facilities manager, is evaluated by the Board of Education, receiving an annual salary with an automatic pay raise, which Barbarotta has declined the last three or four years.
As for Barbarotta not serving as both facilities manager and owner’s representative, Wright said he knew plenty of people in the town who serve dual roles. Building Committee Chair James Nugent also said they had no plans to fire Barbarotta.
Wright asked that any reference to “unethical” actions be taken out of the report, since the Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint.
“It’s out of his jurisdiction and he is stepping on the toes of the Ethics Commission,” he said.
Several school officials also took issue with Henderson’s assertion in his report that he met with Iassogna, Wright, Barbarotta, and business manager Sean O’Keefe to discuss issues related to the report. All agreed they met once briefly and did not discuss in any detail matters in the report.
O’Keefe said he was “shocked” to see mention of a meeting in the report, and Wright agreed, saying at no time did he talk to Henderson in any detail on any topics related in the report.
Board members agreed to draft a letter to Henderson regarding their concerns in the report and said they would be willing to send him questions in advance of him attending a meeting.
As this was the last Board of Education meeting before the election, Wright commended his fellow board members on accomplishments over the last several years, since his first term. He cited full-day kindergarten and a “remarkable school system.” He said the board has always looked for “common ground rather than scorched earth” and the report was a wrench in that work. He argued the board has strict financial controls in place, some of which have been recognized by the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayer Organizations, for transparency.
“To be distracted by half-truths, innuendoes and slurs does not make it easy to do the job,” Wright said. “We should at least be consulted and get a fair say in a report like this.”