In 2006, Oakland voters passed a $435 million tax levy that would allow the district to refurbish its crumbling schools. Did you know that more than $1 million of that money has gone to a two-partner law firm, even though OUSD has its own lawyers?
In 2006-07 alone, local attorneys Bryant & Brown took in $846,900 in bond money to handle construction contracts, litigation and facilities-use plans, according to school board documents (just type the firm’s name in the search box) — plus $200,000 from the district’s general fund that was apparently furnished by an East Coast developer that was trying to negotiate a deal on a prime piece of district property.
Well, they do call themselves a “boutique law firm.”
In any case, the Oakland school district’s general counsel is investigating Bryant & Brown’s contracts and invoices, and the district has asked the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to review them as well. If the firm was, in fact, overpaid (and it’s possible that the total payments to Bryant & Brown were much larger than $1 million), the probe will look into how it happened and who was responsible.
“This is an extremely serious matter that we should not take lightly,” Noel Gallo said. “We need a full, complete investigation from the top down.” He added: “All those involved need to be terminated.”
Troy Flint, the district’s spokesman, said no personnel actions have been taken, but that the initial inquiry found “irregularities” in the firm’s invoices. And any such problems were difficult to spot because the law firm had a special arrangement with the facilities department that bypassed OUSD’s legal office (the one that’s leading this investigation).
“Legal didn’t authorize these contracts in the same manner that they authorize other contracts,” Flint said. “They were authorized through the facilities department, which was an unconventional arrangement.”
Here’s the statement the district put out tonight:
Oakland – Oct. 15, 2008 – In September 2008, OUSD’s Board of Education directed staff to conduct a comprehensive review of District operations beginning in the Facilities Department. The decision, part of a continuing effort to monitor and improve the quality of OUSD services, has revealed significant procedural deficiencies. While the review is not yet complete, our initial finding is that substantial operational and systemic problems exist in the Facilities Department.
The first phase of the assessment revealed several irregularities related to invoices submitted by a law firm performing work for the Facilities Department. The pattern of irregularities indicates the possibility of flawed protocol and insufficient vendor oversight in the Department. To ensure that the investigation into the law firm’s billing irregularities is fully transparent and that all public funds are properly accounted for, the Board directed the General Counsel’s Office to refer the matter to the Alameda County District Attorney for further investigation.
In addition, we have taken immediate steps to remedy the problems we have found thus far. These measures include closer monitoring and scrutiny of vendor invoices as well as changes to the protocol for processing vendor invoices. We are also continuing our review of protocol in the Facilities Department as concerns the processing and payment of invoices submitted by other vendors. Going forward, the District will, as per the direction of the Board, continue to examine all District operations and take corrective action as needed.
The formal investigation apparently began after a Sept. 10 board meeting, when another contract to Bryant & Brown appeared on the agenda. Gallo raised questions about it — as he did back in June 2007 — since Oakland Unified hired an in-house attorney last year just to deal with facilities issues. It was ultimately tabled, but not before board member Alice Spearman accused Gallo of racism (Bryant & Brown is a minority firm).
“We have a race problem here,” Spearman said at the meeting. “When black folks try to make some money, we have a problem with it.”
Spearman said today that she only learned about the questionable payments to Bryant & Brown after that meeting, and that she now supports a full inquiry into these contracts and others — in facilities and elsewhere in the district. “If it happened for one, they can find improprieties all kinds of ways if they look for it,” she said.
Does she take back the allegations of racism, in light of the new information? “No,” she said. “Personally, I believe nothing would have been questioned had it been another firm.”
Read the full story here.