Kevin Ryman, a prominent Zephyrhills building contractor and an appointed Pasco County planning commissioner, carried on an intimate relationship with the former purchasing director for the Pasco County School District and was suspected of colluding with another contractor to win a $1.5 million school roofing job in 2017, according to public documents.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office investigated the allegations for eight months and determined it had probable cause to arrest Ryman, according to an investigative report. The Statewide Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges, however, citing the simultaneous civil lawsuits facing Ryman, the report said. The suits are from Ryman’s former business partners, one of whom surfaced the bid-rigging allegation last year.
Likewise, the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney’s Office said it would not charge former school purchasing director Nicole Westmoreland. There was probable cause to pursue a bribery case, the Sheriff’s Office report said, because of evidence that Westmoreland received gifts from Ryman after working with him to create a pool of five companies — including Ryman’s — to bid on district roofing jobs.
“This was my personal life. This was years ago,’’ Westmoreland told the Tampa Bay Times. “There were no criminal charges. Nothing was found.’’
Ryman declined comment. But Wednesday morning, after the Times published an account of the investigation, Ryman resigned from the Planning Commission at the request of Pasco County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley.
The report and school district records showed that Westmoreland lied to her superiors and that she and other employees accepted golf outings paid for by Ryman. One employee took four tickets to a Tampa Bay Lighting hockey game provided by Ryman, whose company has been a school district vendor since 2015, the report said.
Westmoreland also created the perception of favoritism by meeting with Ryman in his office, instead of at the school district headquarters, said Ray Gadd, deputy school superintendent.
"That’s not our protocol. It gives the appearance of impropriety. That’s unheard of,'' said Gadd.
In the aftermath, Westmoreland resigned, another employee was reprimanded and the school district is planning to change the way it does business with roofing contractors.
"It was worse than we thought,'' Gadd said about the investigator’s findings.
Ryman, 61, and Westmoreland, 41, are married to other people, but cell phone and bank records indicated they were at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens in September 2015, according to the investigative report. Jason Morphet, Ryman’s former business partner, told the detective he saw Ryman and Westmoreland together at an Orlando trade show in June 2017. Separately, another witness, Bobby Hilton, the brother of Ryman’s wife, provided the investigator with photographs of Ryman and Westmoreland together in a central Pasco parking area, returning from what Hilton said was a November 2016 trip to Vero Beach. Hilton, also the husband of Vanessa Hilton, the school district’s chief academic officer, declined comment when contacted by the Times.
On two occasions, in 2015 and again in 2017, the school district received anonymous complaints on an ethics hotline about the Ryman-Westmoreland entanglement. Both times, Westmoreland denied the affair and called it ‘’a complete fabrication,’’ according to school district documents. An internal auditor found no evidence of favoritism toward Ryman.
Westmoreland again denied a personal relationship with Ryman in a December interview with a Sheriff’s Office investigator, but changed her story in May during a second interview. She admitted to the affair, according to the report, but said she did not provide Ryman with preferential treatment in project bidding. The investigative report stated a similar conclusion.
“Nicole’s statements were inconsistent. However, there is no indication at this time that Nicole shared information from the competitive bid process,’’ the report states.
In December, at about the same time school officials learned of the law enforcement investigation, the district transferred Westmoreland to a position outside the purchasing department amid concerns she was working fewer hours than her contract required, according to district records. She resigned without notice on Aug. 13, shortly after the Sheriff’s Office ended its corruption probe and notified the school district of the results. Westmoreland told the Times that she resigned for another opportunity and to spend more time with her 8-year-old son.
Also, the school district reprimanded a Westmoreland subordinate, Deborah Mateo, a buyer in the purchasing department. Mateo accepted the hockey tickets from Ryman, the report said.
In early August, before the investigative report became public, Pasco County commissioners reappointed Ryman to a two-year term on the county Planning Commission, where he has served since 2009. The Planning Commission issues non-binding recommendations to the elected county commissioners on zoning and land-use issues, but has the authority to issue rulings on requests for variances and so-called special exceptions.
Last week, County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley called Ryman a long-time friend, but was non-committal when asked if Ryman should remain a member of the Pasco Planning Commission. Wednesday morning, however, he said he asked for and received Ryman’s resignation.
“It’s just not pretty,'' said Oakley. "I’m not saying he’s guilty, but you can’t be sitting up there making judgments on other people’s developments and such with something like that out there. It’s the perception.''
Part of the investigation centered upon Ryman’s activities in advance of bidding to replace the J.W. Mitchell High School roof in Trinity in April 2017.
Morphet, 42, of Darby, was Ryman’s partner in Ryman Commercial Roofing at the time. He told the investigator that Ryman exchanged bid numbers with a competitor, Collis Roofing, a day before submitting a sealed bid to the district. The School Board awarded the contract in May 2017.
“... You have illegally bid and excepted (sic) a $1.5 million dollar contract in my company’s name from a government entity. What are we doing about this???” Morphet wrote in a June 3, 2017, email chain to Ryman.
Another witness, Ryman Commercial Roofing employee Jennifer Greene, told the detective she completed the company’s bid packet for the Mitchell project when Ryman came to the office and went into another room with his employees to discuss the bid. She said Ryman “had an unknown person on speakerphone in the room, and Kevin said, ‘You give me your number, I’ll give you mine.’‘’
Ryman Commercial Roofing submitted the winning bid of just less than $1.5 million, beating out three competitors, including Collis’ bid of $1.587 million.
Wallace Fulton of Collis Roofing later told the investigator that Ryman did call him the day before the bids were due, but said Ryman wanted to hire Collis as a subcontractor if the company did not bid. He said he didn’t recall Ryman quoting a price to him.
Morphet raised the bid-rigging allegation in a May 2018 lawsuit against Ryman and the roofing company, saying Ryman filed an amended corporate record with the state on June 12, 2017, removing Morphet as company vice president “in order to execute an allegedly illegal contract with Pasco County School Board without Morphet knowing about it,’’ the lawsuit stated.
The suit does not detail the allegation, but said Ryman conspired ''to secure work from the Pasco County School Board in violation of procurement laws.’’
Ryman denied the allegations, according to court records, and filed a counterclaim. It stated, among other things, that he fired his partner in April 2018 after Morphet opened a competing company, Nations Roofing Construction and Mechanical, and absconded with property that belonged to Ryman Commercial Roofing. Efforts to reach Morphet for comment were unsuccessful. A cell phone number listed for Morphet in the investigative report did not appear to be functioning. Voicemail messages left at Nations Roofing Construction were not returned.
The suit is one of five pending in Pasco Circuit Court involving claims and counterclaims among Morphet, Ryman, his wife, Tammy, and another former business associate, Drew Worthmann.
The suits dispute ownership and management of Ryman Commercial Roofing, Ryman Mechanical Inc., Ryman Gutters LLC, Mr. Investment Properties and WRM Cattle Co. Among the points of contention are the circumstances under which Ryman withdrew $136,000 from a line of credit at Centennial Bank that had been issued to Ryman Mechanical, a company in which Worthmann, Morphet and Ryman shared equal ownership, according to court records.
Morphet and Worthmann had their own legal entanglement in Walton County last year when the Walton County Sheriff’s Office said it arrested Morphet and another man in November in a home invasion armed robbery. The victim said the pair, armed with an ax and knife, forced their way into his rental home, threatened and hit him and stole his wallet and keys to a business vehicle.
Court documents identified the victim as Worthmann. Prosecutors declined to prosecute the case in June after a witness provided an account that did not corroborate Worthmann’s story. The men were in Walton County doing relief work after Hurricane Michael.
“That was disappointing,’’ Worthmann said about the charges being dropped.
The Pasco sheriff’s investigation also looked at Westmoreland’s actions regarding Ryman. Westmoreland initially told the investigator that she met with Ryman in his office approximately four years ago to speak about the purchasing process and how to improve it.
The meeting came after School Board member Allen Altman emailed Westmoreland on Dec. 22, 2014, asking her to contact Ryman for feedback and “what he could do to improve his presentation and strengthen his chances.’’ Documents showed the meeting was scheduled for Feb. 23, 2015, in Ryman’s office.
Other vendors didn’t get the same treatment, according to the investigative report. Contractors seeking similar feedback from Westmoreland didn’t get a meeting, but instead “only received an email response containing the bid tabulation for the bid in question,’’ the report stated.
Mateo offered investigators a different explanation for meeting Ryman. She said she and Westmoreland went to Ryman’s office to “collect information on the best way to do a qualifier.’’ By pre-qualifying particular vendors, a governmental entity creates a short list of potential bidders and does not have to review the qualifications of bidding companies on each project.
In this case, the district eventually narrowed a list of 16 vendors to five qualified firms, including Ryman Commercial Roofing. Mateo said they did not speak to any other roofing companies, and she didn’t know why Ryman was selected to discuss the process.
Other employees said it is standard procedure for contractors to come to the school district office if they need to speak with purchasing department representatives, not vice versa, records show.
Another employee told the investigator he “is not aware of any reason why people from purchasing would need to visit the office of a contractor and does not recall a time when anyone from purchasing was sent to meet with contractors about the bid process.’’
In her second interview in May, Westmoreland said it was her idea to develop the pre-qualified bid group and that she did not create it to benefit Ryman. She said she did not tell Ryman the true reason for the meeting was to establish a pre-qualified list of roofing contractors.
Yet, the detective’s review of her emails showed that Ryman advised Westmoreland to speak to the Sarasota School District about the qualifying process and even sent her the name of the employee to contact there.
Consulting with Ryman on the pre-qualified roofing group and then selecting him as one of the five vendors appears to run afoul of the state law prohibiting contractors from acting as a consultant creating a project and then bidding on the same project, the report said.
In the meantime, Westmoreland and Mateo went on a local golf outing with Ryman, the report said, and Mateo accepted the hockey tickets valued at $280. The report does not indicate the value of the trips that Westmoreland is suspected of taking with Ryman, nor who paid for them.
Gadd, the deputy school superintendent, said the district requested and received a review of its purchasing department procedures from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. He said the district likely will do away with its short list of roofing vendors.
''I don’t like (it.) My intentions are there will be no pre-qualified roofers anymore,'' Gadd said.