It is fortunate that Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen ordered a review of spending in the district's operations departments. Otherwise, a bid-rigging scheme allegedly operated for three years by two school district employees might still be picking the pockets of taxpayers. Four men have been arrested and charged with racketeering, but still unanswered is an important question: Why did it take so long to discover, investigate and shut down this scam?
Alan L. Smith and Paul Jensen worked together as planners in the district maintenance department. Paul Jensen's son, Heath Jensen, operated a private business he called Jensen Lawn Care and also did subcontracting work for a friend, Robert Sciarra, owner of Sciarra Lawn Care.
School district investigators say that Alan Smith and Paul Jensen manipulated the district's bid process to award 147 contracts — many for just spreading mulch on school playgrounds — to Sciarra starting in January 2006 for a total cost to the taxpayers of $842,188. That's double the price other contractors say they would charge.
Investigators allege that Sciarra gave half the money he received from the school district to his friend Heath Jensen, who then allegedly funneled half that amount back to his father, district employee Paul Jensen. According to an affidavit by district investigators, Paul Jensen collected more than $212,000 during the three years the scheme operated. Investigators found no evidence of checks written to Smith, but they still are investigating other potential avenues of compensation.
The Pinellas County School District has rules about hiring contractors. For any contract worth $6,000 to $25,000, the district must get three quotes and give the job to the lowest bidder. The district must advertise for sealed bids for jobs over $25,000. Jobs that are similar are supposed to be aggregated.
But investigators say Smith and Paul Jensen didn't follow the rules. Playground mulching contracts that should have been aggregated instead were awarded by school so they didn't reach the threshold requiring public advertisement. When bids were necessary, investigators say Smith recruited two local companies to submit sham high bids so Sciarra would be the low bidder. Those two companies allegedly got contracts for demolition work on school campuses.
The scheme was uncovered after officials carrying out superintendent Janssen's December 2008 directive found a suspicious number of contracts awarded to Sciarra. Smith and Paul Jensen quit their jobs in recent weeks and Tuesday were charged along with Heath Jensen and Sciarra.
Janssen has more work to do. She needs to find out why there wasn't better oversight and auditing of Smith and Jensen's spending and determine whether there are similar gaps in other departments. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went to waste while nobody was looking.