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Grand jury investigating bid-rigging involving DeSantis’ education department

Federal authorities sent a subpoena to the Jefferson County School District in June.
 
Then-Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, left, motions back to Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School on March 15, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Then-Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, left, motions back to Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School on March 15, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 4, 2023|Updated Aug. 11, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A federal grand jury is investigating allegations of bid-rigging involving Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Department of Education, charter school operators and the control of a small North Florida school district.

Federal authorities issued a subpoena to the Jefferson County School District in June seeking communications between district officials, charter school lobbyists and former top officials in DeSantis’ education department.

It also seeks records relating to the department’s attempt to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to a politically connected company with ties to DeSantis’ former education commissioner, Richard Corcoran. The contract would have been funded by federal coronavirus relief dollars.

The subpoena, obtained by the Times/Herald in a public records request, was issued by a federal prosecutor in Gainesville. The subpoena requests the records be sent to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General in Pembroke Pines.

A spokesperson for the federal education department’s Office of Inspector General said the office does not confirm or deny investigative activity.

The federal inquiry comes a year and a half after the Times/Herald reported on the bid-rigging allegations involving Jefferson County’s school district, which became the first, and only, district to be privatized by the state.

Control of the small three-school district near Tallahassee was turned over to private charter school operator Somerset Academy Inc. in 2017. The five-year contract was scheduled to end in 2022, when the school board would resume control.

But under Corcoran’s leadership, the Department of Education decided in 2021 it would hire consultants for up to three years to help the district’s transition, and it would use $4 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars assigned to the district to pay for it.

School district officials were against the plan, arguing that its annual budget was only $8.5 million, so it couldn’t afford to spend $4 million on consultants. When the state Department of Education solicited offers to help the district, bidding was open for only a week. Only one qualified company responded: MGT Consulting, led by Trey Traviesa, a former GOP state representative from Tampa with ties to Corcoran.

Procurements are supposed to be free of favoritism. But the Times/Herald found that on Nov. 1, 2021, a week before the procurement was announced, top education officials were already meeting with Traviesa, top charter school lobbyists and Jefferson County officials about the procurement.

MGT was ultimately never hired. The Department of Education restarted the bidding after two senior department officials — former K-12 chancellor Jacob Oliva and former Vice Chancellor for Strategic Development Melissa Ramsey — and a member of the State Board of Education created their own company and filed a competing bid. Ultimately, the plan to spend the money on consultants was dropped.

Oliva is now Arkansas’ Department of Education secretary.

The Florida Department of Education’s inspector general investigated Ramsey and Oliva’s bid for potential conflicts of interest but never addressed any apparent irregularities with MGT’s bid.

The federal subpoena, dated June 12, does not mention Corcoran. But it names Oliva, Ramsey and Suzanne Pridgeon, the state Department of Education’s deputy commissioner for finance and operations.

The subpoena also requests text messages, emails and other communications between Traviesa, MGT Consulting, Jefferson County schools superintendent Eydie Tricquet, representatives of Somerset Academy Inc. and Ralph Arza, a prominent charter school lobbyist and longtime Corcoran ally. At the time that Somerset was operating the district’s schools, Arza had four relatives working for the company in Jefferson County.

The subpoena seeks records relating to the procurement, along with records of the Nov. 1 meeting and other meetings in 2021 between Arza, school district officials and Department of Education officials.

The Florida Department of Education and DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to emails sent Friday afternoon seeking comment. After the Times/Herald reported the allegations last year, the governor’s office said Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel would review how the Department of Education and its inspector general handled the bid for the multimillion-dollar contract. The state has never produced the results.

Corcoran declined to comment. He is now serving as interim president of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts school in Sarasota County that DeSantis and political appointees are trying to turn into a beacon of conservatism.

McClatchy DC reporter Michael Wilner contributed to this report.