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Audit under way on Hernando Beach Channel dredge project

BROOKSVILLE — An audit is now under way into the processes Hernando County used in the hiring of a key figure in the Hernando Beach Channel dredge project who was later fired amid controversy.

Peggie Caskie, the audit services director for Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, met with County Administrator David Hamilton and other officials this week, the St. Petersburg Times has learned.

Caskie is investigating the hiring of Greg Jarque and his Gritz Development and Construction firm to oversee the project. The process is being examined because Jarque's criminal history, financial obligations to the county and construction credentials were not fully explored before Hamilton recommended that the County Commission approve a contract with him.

Nicolai said there is nothing to be said about Caskie's report until it is released, which is expected next month.

Hamilton said he has faith in Caskie's abilities as an auditor and would likely put her recommendations into place, as he has done before when she examined other aspects of county operations.

Some of the issues raised by the Jarque situation will be among several dredge-related topics the County Commission will take up at its Tuesday meeting.

Chief among those is formally ending Jarque's contract to provide construction management services for the dredging project.

When officials learned that Jarque had pleaded guilty to an attempted arson charge in New York 15 years ago, they took a harder look at his background. They soon discovered that he did not have, as he had claimed, a general contractor's license. Instead, he was a licensed building contractor, which limits the kinds of projects he can do.

That general contractor qualification was an important selling point for Commissioner Dave Russell, the third commissioner to vote to hire Jarque, whom Hamilton fired April 15.

Since then, Jarque has appealed to the commissioners in a letter seeking a second chance on the project.

A representative of another local firm — Richard Matassa, managing director for A Civil Design Group — has offered to assemble a team to provide oversight on the long-troubled project. His letter is included in the commission's agenda for Tuesday, but county staffers are recommending that no action be taken on the offer yet.

In a memo to the board, Transportation Services Director Susan Goebel describes how she proposes to manage the project using the expertise of county employees.

The oversight includes tracking the schedule, verifying work performed and its value, inspections, permit compliance and coordinating between the engineer of record, the contractor's concerns and the needs of the county.

Goebel notes that, beyond the actual dredging in the channel, the process of dewatering the dredged materials "is similar to the operation of wastewater treatment,'' an area in which the county staff is experienced.

She proposes a construction management team that includes herself, Al Toler as acting dredge compliance coordinator, Ricky Leach as acting dredge field representative and Al Domenico as acting dredge inspector.

Also on Tuesday's agenda is a memo to Hamilton from the county's chief procurement officer, Matt Perry, explaining what the county does to investigate businesses it is considering hiring.

In talking with purchasing officials in several other communities, Perry noted that none did more than Hernando did to check out potential hires.

The county doesn't do criminal background investigations on individuals, but relies on state agencies that license businesses, corporations, consultants, engineers, architects and contractors to verify information. In some of those cases, criminal background checks are done.

"It would be very costly for us to do criminal background checks,'' Perry wrote. "The Florida Department of Law Enforcement charges $24 per report for criminal activity and that report is only for the state of Florida.''

In a memo to Perry, contract compliance officer Kathleen Buffum noted that county staffers reviewed the Gritz website, the state's Division of Corporations, the Florida Suspended Vendor List, the Florida Convicted Vendor List, the Federal Excluded Parties List and the state's licensing portal when investigating the firm.

Hamilton said those memos have been provided to Caskie for her audit.

He has gotten special heat for recommending Jarque because he knew Jarque from the work he did at no cost to oversee the construction of the Arc Nature Coast training center and hurricane shelter.

Hamilton heard from his wife, Linda Hamilton, who has worked to raise funds for Arc, that Jarque completed the project before its deadline and under budget.

Ordinarily, contracts as costly as the one Jarque was approved for, which was $152,500, are competitively bid or proposals are requested. But in the case of the dredge project, which is under a strict deadline, the County Commission waived normal purchasing rules to keep from losing $6 million in state funds.

Also on Tuesday's agenda for information purposes only is a letter the county received last week from Orion Dredging Services LLC, the original dredging company that the county ruled had breached its contract. Orion has sued the county and Hernando is seeking millions of dollars in repayment through Orion's bonding company for the firm's failure to complete the dredge work.

Orion president J. Michael Pearson accuses the County Commission of wasting $2.1 million by hiring BCPeabody to accomplish the dredge for $8.5 million compared to the amount Orion was charging of $6.3 million "to perform the identical scope of work.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Audit under way on Hernando Beach Channel dredge project 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 7:47pm]

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