To get a preview, just look at what’s already happening south of our state border:
Horry County Schools’ $220 million deal with a contractor to build five new schools prompted a state law enforcement investigation, the district revealed Tuesday in a statement.
The statement also reveals that communication between the CEO of First Floor Energy, the contractor selected to design the schools, and a contracted school board attorney regarding the firm’s proposal began four months before its official presentation to the board.
HCS Superintendent Rick Maxey was first contacted by a SLED agent in December 2015 about the selection of First Floor, according to the statement, after the Attorney General’s Office received a complaint shortly after the contract was finalized.
The district released emails between contracted school board attorney Keith Powell and First Floor CEO Robbie Ferris on or before Feb. 25, 2015, that were later forwarded to SLED, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The emails, also released to The Sun News Tuesday, show Ferris asking Powell multiple questions about the building projects, primarily regarding procurement options, beginning in June 2014. Powell responded to each question, showing how First Floor might be able to become the district’s sole provider on the projects.
Powell does mention in one of his emails that “the administration doesn’t know anything about this proposal having been requested.”
Ferris also states in one of his emails that he was in contact with Matt Dean, HCS facilities director at the time, about a potential proposal.[…]
Ferris and the folks behind First Floor have been aggressively lobbying the North Carolina legislature AND various local governments and school boards on this side of the border to participate in similar deals. Their pitch involves leasing back new school buildings powered by “alternative energy” (solar, etc.) to various government entities across the state. There are also pitches for the private entity to sell off the “alternative energy” harvested from the leased school buildings.
Solar goons have been busily lining legislator pockets in Raleigh to make this scheme a reality on this side of the border. Alternative energy sounds nice. But it only works if you can shake enough tax money out of government treasuries.
Speaker Timmy and his pals — closely allied with the solar goons — have been pushing hard for a school construction bond while the Senate has been pushing for a cheaper, more cost-effective pay-as-you-go program. A construction bond was what got this whole charlie-foxtrot started in South Carolina.
[…] “The facilities director (Matt Dean) does not want to run this up the change of command unless he sees it as viable,” Ferris wrote to Powell. “… That is why we were hoping that you could help us get the direction set so we could submit a ‘credible proposal’ and then work the details out after the superintendent tells Matt to go with the proposal.”
He continues, “I could be reading this wrong but I think pushing to have them retain you before Matt is ready to present the idea could kill the deal.”
Board member Neil James, who serves as facilities committee chair, said communication between a contract bidder and district staff would only occur after all bids are received. He was not aware before seeing the emails that Dean had been in contact with Ferris, he said.
Dean resigned from the position in March 2015.
The Sun News previously has filed dozens of FOIA requests related to the district’s deal with First Floor, including communications between Ferris and Powell, but the district denied that request, stating they were protected by attorney-client privilege.
The district was sent an email by an attorney in April 2017 with a link to these emails and her opinion that these exchanges were not protected by attorney-client privilege, the statement reads.
When asked why attorney-client privilege was used in the previous denial, district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said The Sun News is welcome to FOIA those emails again, which was done Tuesday morning.
The statement, signed by Maxey, James and board president Ken Richardson, notes that the communication between Powell and Ferris was unknown to district staff or board members prior to April 2017, when a review of their emails found those communications.
Board member Holly Heniford said her review of the emails didn’t find anything wrong.
“All I saw was an aggressive salesperson,” she said, referring to Ferris.
Heniford, who works in real estate, said she understands how people not in sales might assume the communication was nefarious, but she just read the emails as Ferris getting appropriate definitions to submit a proposal.
She added that she wishes Powell had told the board about the emails.
“(He) was supposed to represent the best interests of the school board,” Heniford said. “I’m not sure he was.”
James said the timing of the emails was concerning because it was before the board knew anything about First Floor Energy.
He added that, in the end, he feels the district got good schools out of the deal.
The new energy-positive schools include Ten Oaks, Myrtle Beach and Socastee middle schools, St. James Intermediate School and Socastee Elementary School.
Richardson, who became chairman in January, said he had a suspicion of the SLED investigation while he was running, but only found out for sure about a week before being sworn in.
The decision to release the emails now is based on a conversation he, Maxey and James had regarding the large number of FOIA requests they kept receiving, he said.
“I told (voters) coming in that I planned on being transparent,” Richardson said.
Richardson confirmed that the SLED investigation is ongoing, and he said all district officials are cooperating.