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Four charged with racketeering over Pinellas school playground mulch bids

Two former Pinellas school district employees were charged with racketeering Tuesday in connection with an alleged bid-rigging scheme involving playground mulch.

Alan L. Smith, 48, of New Port Richey and Paul Jensen, 51, of St. Petersburg were co-workers in the district maintenance department until Jensen resigned in December and Smith in January, both in lieu of being fired.

Also charged with racketeering: Jensen's son, Heath Jensen, 26, of St. Petersburg, and Robert Sciarra, 25, of Largo.

According to court records, Smith and Paul Jensen steered $842,188 worth of contracts between January 2006 and March 2009 to a company called Sciarra Lawn Care, owned by Robert Sciarra.

Many of the contracts were for installing borders and spreading mulch on refurbished playgrounds. And many of them were worth more than $6,000 each, and so by district policy needed to get competitive bids from at least three companies.

But according to district records, Smith admitted he solicited bids from other companies solely for appearance and "had no intention of awarding the contract to anyone other than Sciarra Lawn Care."

In 46 cases where Smith awarded the contract, one of the competing bids came from a company called Jensen Lawn Care, which is owned by Heath Jensen. But his company was in turn paid for each job awarded to Sciarra Lawn Care.

Court records say Robert Sciarra and Heath Jensen are close friends.

A district investigation found Smith asked two other companies to purposely submit higher bids so Sciarra Lawn Care's bid would be the lowest.

Smith and the Jensens were still in jail Tuesday night. Their attorney, Roger Futerman, said it's too early to comment.

Sciarra was released on $50,000 bond. He could not be reached for comment.

Smith told district investigators in December that he directed the projects to Sciarra because the company consistently did high-quality work, according to a transcript of the interview. He also said he was directed by higher-ups to make sure every playground is the same so "the principals aren't bickering with each other."

Asked by an investigator if he thought the arrangement looked unusual, Smith said yes.

"But me with my direction, my responsibility and with what I had at stake, I was not going to mess around with choosing different companies," he said.

In his Jan. 2 resignation letter, Smith said he was never given specific training to handle bid projects and said his job description — as a shop planner — did not include "performing the duties of a construction manager of multimillion-dollar projects."

Smith also asked why it took so long for district officials to point out he was doing something wrong.

"The prevalent attitude of the maintenance department for years has been 'just get the job done,' " he wrote. "Why were there no allegations made against me" until two years of work were finished.

Jim Robinson, the School Board attorney, said district officials found issues with the mulching contracts after superintendent Julie Janssen ordered in December 2008 that district operations be scrutinized for efficiency and effectiveness.

"She wanted to make sure we weren't paying more than we should be for goods and services," he said.

That broader review is ongoing, he said.

Smith and Paul Jensen were reassigned to custodial work in March 2009 while the investigation was ongoing.

Since then, another company that has submitted bids on pending jobs has offered to do the same work for one-third to one-half the cost paid to Sciarra Lawn Care, court records say.

Robinson said there is no evidence Smith was "directed to do anything irregular."

Asked if the district should have found the irregularities sooner, he said. "I don't know, but that's precisely why Dr. Janssen ordered that this (broader) investigation occur."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Four charged with racketeering over Pinellas school playground mulch bids 02/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 8:51am]
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