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Simple research uncovers disturbing facts about the Hernando Beach dredge

Sometimes you have to wonder whether the people in our county offices know about Google.

On Wednesday, for example, my co-worker, Barbara Behrendt, discovered after a few mouse clicks that the all-but-anointed newest candidate to do most of the work on the Hernando Beach dredge had been booted from a nearly identical job in North Carolina.

I, meanwhile, was getting a glowing report on the whole team of dredge contractors from Hernando public works director Susan Goebel. They had solid references, she said, and she was in the process of verifying them.

Wonderful, except that the day before — not having completed her verifying nor, apparently, much independent research — Goebel told the County Commission it needed to hire this new team, now.

Commissioners put that decision off until today, and Commissioner David Russell has since received assurances that the state will extend the deadline for the grant that is paying for most of the dredge.

Thank goodness. Because here are more facts about some of the members of the dredge team — all from easily accessible sources.

The general contractor is BCPeabody, which is mostly just the former state leadership of the Army Corps of Engineers, transplanted to an office in the posh Avila subdivision near Tampa.

The founder is Col. Robert Carpenter, who, you may remember, oversaw a corps wetlands permitting operation that was called "a huge scam'' by one critic and "a make-believe program'' by another.

These weren't minnow-worshipping environmental activists, by the way, but longtime corps veterans. The Times wrote a huge story about it a few years ago. Google Carpenter's name and "wetlands'' and it comes up on the second page of results. Add the word "scam'' to your search and it's the very first entry.

Even before Carpenter left in 2007, he announced he'd been hired by an emergency services company bearing the name of John G. "Gary'' Grubbs, who four years earlier had filed for bankruptcy protection. (Grubbs' hauling company, by the way, is also part of the dredge team.)

Court records show he had stiffed suppliers and subcontractors all over the state. Some of them were a little miffed because even though Grubbs was ignoring their invoices, he'd acquired a helicopter, airplane, race cars, speedboats and a fleet of new pickup trucks.

Hernando County was one of his creditors, having been shorted nearly $500,000 in back taxes, which it recovered only after spending $91,000 in lawyers' fees. This isn't just old news. Another Grubbs company, Sun West Acquisition, currently owes Pasco County $98,261 in unpaid taxes from 2008 and 2009.

Sun West is the company behind the SunWest Harbourtowne development in Hudson, for which Carpenter serves as project manager. This information is on the SunWest website, which I hope Goebel checked out before reading the first reference BCPeabody submitted to the county: It's from Sun West Acquisition.

Critics said Carpenter was hired to lead that project because of his unbeatable contacts with regulatory agencies. Yes, he has experience organizing big construction jobs, but all the other real work for the dredge project is taken care of by other companies. So, politics would be a big part of Carpenter's job. And in case his local connections weren't good enough, BCPeabody brought in former Hernando Commissioner John Richardson. He also has a history you can look up if you have a smart phone and a couple of minutes.

Hopefully, you won't have to bother. With the extension, the county should be able to avoid rushing into another ill-advised contract its staff wasn't able, or didn't want, to thoroughly review.

Really, I suspect that's closer to the truth.

After all, one of the people trying to find a new dredge contractor is Lisa Hammond, whose $55-per-hour job is itself the result of an unadvertised county contract. And by her own admission, she showed a strange lack of curiosity before signing on with an institution crucial to her background — the unaccredited, now-defunct university that awarded her a doctorate degree.

"As much as I love research,'' she told me last week, "I never bothered to Google it.''

Simple research uncovers disturbing facts about the Hernando Beach dredge 10/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:35pm]
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