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New complaint against Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes prompts investigation

By Marlene Sokol
Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes is accused in an anonymous complaint of influencing a decision to close the district's planning and construction department to protect friends and campaign donors. Valdes insists the claims are false and says political rivals frequently target her. [Times files]

TAMPA — Already the subject of multiple complaints that she says are politically motivated, Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes has been named in a new one, this time involving the closing of the district’s planning and construction department.

The Florida Department of Education is directing the school district to investigate an anonymous complaint that suggests Valdes influenced administrators to dissolve the district department last year so its staff could not address problems with construction work performed by her friends and campaign donors. If the district doesn’t investigate and report back in 30 days, state officials said in letter they will conduct their own inquiry.

The district said it closed its construction office and laid off six employees to save an estimated $750,000 a year. The complaint notes this action was not among recommendations of the district’s efficiency consultant.

Eliminating the department, the complaint says, makes the district vulnerable to fraud as it embarks on more than $110 million in new construction. District spokesman Grayson Kamm said the district can outsource whatever professional services it needs without carrying those employees full time.

The complaint seeks to connect the 2016 action to delays in a project at Sulphur Springs Elementary School, which needed a new wing as the school added middle school grades.

Jonathan Graham, whose Horus construction firm has done work for the district for decades, was a partner in that job, Kamm confirmed.

Graham and other construction and engineering professionals donated more than $3,000 to Valdes’ 2016 re-election campaign. Graham’s contribution was $650 in food.

Graham is also the brother of Eric Graham, head of the district’s office of supplier diversity. Minority purchasing and contracting has long been a key interest of Valdes.

And the planning department staff, by the complaint-writer’s description, "were known to aggressively enforce the terms of the construction contracts with negative financial consequences to the contractors."

Kamm said the problems at Sulphur Springs amounted to "normal construction delays" and the school was ready for the sixth grade when classes began. A second floor took longer than expected, he said. But that didn’t matter because, for other reasons, the school slowed its expansion.

More important, Kamm said, the board — including Valdes — were not told that the planning and construction department would close until after the fact.

"I can say it was a smart management decision," he said. "I can say it was done properly. And it was not done as a favor to anyone."

Valdes, responding in an email, said her focus has always been on what is best for children. "That is what motivates me every day," she said. "This complaint, which is anonymous, is completely false."

The planning department matter is one of several that have led to recent allegations against the 52-year-old Valdes. Political rivals frequently target her, she said, and "even after all the things I have been accused of doing, there has never been a finding of wrongdoing on my part."

Among the issues:

• Former Valdes campaign opponent Bill Person, citing research by the Whistleblower website, has a pending state complaint about Valdes’ role in the purchase of nearly $2 million in student laptops from United Data Technologies. That company’s chief executive contributed $1,000 to Valdes’s campaign.

While another company won the competitive bid, Valdes asked for that purchase to be pulled from a School Board agenda. In her letter at the time, she said the chosen company was based out of state, the product was new and the district needed to honor its supplier diversity commitments.

District officials said nothing untoward occurred but acknowledged the purchase should never have been put up for bid because United Data was an exclusive supplier and ultimately gave them a better price.

• Person’s wife, teacher Laurie Rodriguez, complained in 2016 to the state Commission on Ethics about an unpaid $800 bill for Valdes’ grandson at Leto High School’s child care center. The district explained that schools sometimes find resources in the community to assist parents in need, and such an effort was under way at the time.

• Rodriguez also accused Valdes of pressuring the district to give a teaching-level position to Susan Migueltorena, a friend of Valdes who did not have the required college degree. That situation is also detailed in a pending lawsuit by Stephanie Woodford, the human resources chief who was fired in April. Woodford refers to Migueltorena as Valdes’ "campaign manager."

The district, in a response to Rodriguez’s complaint about Migueltorena, said her hiring was an oversight that was investigated and corrected. Woodford alleges Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez took steps to "cover up" its actions, and there never was an investigation. The district said it will vigorously defend against the lawsuit.

Woodford is not the only fired cabinet member who blames Valdes for her misfortune.

• T.G. Taylor, fired a year ago as communications chief, said Valdes told him to "make this go away" when a television reporter requested documents about her travel expenses. When he couldn’t, he said he was fired.

Eakins at first said he fired Taylor to "make a transition" in the district’s communications program. Later, district officials released a warning letter they had given Taylor months earlier, concerning his interactions with supervisors and coworkers.