Note: This article was written by ROBIN READER (612) and was originally published on her website Broken Arrow Forum on March 18, 2011, and reappears here on this blog with her permission.
The new additions in the board members’ exhibit list – the Windstream records and email regarding gifts – are indications that Sisney may have been engaging in the improper, unethical, and possibly illegal actions he accused others of.
Sisney accused school employees and board members of carrying on a secret relationship with Air Assurance to steal money from the District. He presented the public with a picture of corruption using his lawsuits and press interviews, for the purpose of intimidating the board members into renewing his contract, and to gain sympathy with the public and make it look like he was being targeted out of retaliation.
In Sisney’s version of events, school employees Gary Gerber, Bill Miller, and Linda Brown bypassed the bidding process for HVAC work, awarding AA all of the HVAC work. Sisney says these school employees knowingly allowed AA to overcharge, bill for work not done, and do unnecessary work. The employees then falsified invoices, hid overcharges in blanket purchase orders, and approved illegal payments. Sisney tried to fire Gerber, Miller, and Brown for these reasons in April 2008.
But Sherri Combs’ audit inadvertently gives away the real story behind the HVAC bidding. The conclusions drawn in the report are completely at odds with the evidence presented.
Emails quoted in the report show that in April 2006, Gary Gerber and Linda Brown, with Bill Miller’s help, created a new process to facilitate HVAC bidding, complete with a quote format. This quote format contained information about all the HVAC units. Gerber’s purpose, stated in his email to Linda Brown, was to allow vendors to bid accurately, and enable apples-to-apples comparisons of quotes. In April 2006, Gerber and Brown informed Mark Bilby, Director of Purchasing, of the work they were doing. Gerber directed Brown to get Bilby’s input on how best to get companies to consider the District’s existing HVAC units and buildings when figuring their quotes. On April 19, Brown sent Bilby a draft and asked him to review. All of these emails are quoted in Combs’ audit.
In May 2006, Gerber sent an email to Bilby stating that he “had Linda Brown profile the bid process so they would have better procedures to keep the bid process open to vendors.” Combs states that Gerber forwarded the documents he had created to Bilby.
The audit report uses this communication with Bilby to point out the obvious fact that Gerber and Brown were aware that bidding needed to be done. It ignores the equally obvious revelation that they discussed the need for bidding with the director of purchasing – so clearly Bilby was aware of not only the need, but also their efforts to fulfill the requirements. How can this be interpreted as an attempt to avoid bidding procedures?
The report also tries to make Gerber’s quote format out to be a “fake quote”, which he planned to keep handy so he could fool Sisney into thinking bidding was being done properly, in case Sisney asked. But the emails clearly describe the quote format as a template for vendors to fill in. This was communicated to Bilby, and the quote format itself was emailed to him.
The report tries to characterize the “Confidential” in some of the emails as an attempt by Gerber to keep his work on the “fake quote” a secret from Sisney. But as the emails show, Gerber directed Brown to communicate their work on the quote process to Bilby, the director of purchasing, who of course reported to Sisney. Why would they have asked the director of purchasing to keep their attempt at fraud a secret from the superintendent? It doesn’t make sense. The “Confidential” request was clearly meant, as Brown stated, to avoid having the quote format circulated before getting the superintendent’s or board’s approval. Yet the report claims that Gerber emailed Bilby the fake quote and asked him to keep it a secret unless Sisney asked for it. Huh?
Obviously, Gerber never tried to keep secrets from Bilby; if he had really made a fake quote to fool Sisney, Bilby was fully informed, and was even asked to review it! Yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that informing Bilby of the plan to improve the bid process, asking for his input, and sending him the finished document was Gerber’s sneaky way of keeping Bilby in the dark.
Mark Bilby sent an email to Sisney asking that all processes involving purchasing go through him, not through operations. The audit implies that this happened after Gerber prepared the quote format, though the date of this email is not given. So we don’t know from the audit report if Bilby ever communicated to Sisney Gerber’s attempt to get bidding done. Either Bilby or Sisney (or both) decided NOT to use Gerber’s quote process and format, and no bidding was requested in 2006.
Combs’ report shows that, contrary to Sisney’s accusations, Dr. Gerber never tried to cover up the lack of bidding; in fact, it was Gerber who brought it up to the Director of Purchasing and proactively created a process by which bids could be compared accurately.
The idea that Sisney was surprised by the lack of formal bidding and the use of AA for all HVAC work is just as ridiculous as the conclusions in Combs’ audit.. Sisney knew that AA was doing all the District’s HVAC work, knew about the blanket purchase orders all along, and knew that there was never anything illegal about them. Yet in his lawsuit, he pretends that he “discovered” the “wrongful” use of blanket purchase orders.
In April 2008, Sisney tried to fire the 3 employees who had worked on developing the quote format, accusing them of illegally and secretly awarding all the work to Air Assurance. Knowing the real history of who tried to get bidding done (and who knew about it), it seems pretty clear that Sisney was the one who was trying to cover something up.
I don’t believe it was really Sherri Combs who came up with the conclusions in her report; I think they were suggested to her (possibly even written for her). There is no way an objective auditor could have interpreted the emails as evidence of Gerber being sneaky. How did her report make it through reviews and into exit interviews? Did anyone in the auditor’s office read it? If they read it, they probably saw what they expected to see, based on the news that was spoon-fed to the media by Sisney and his supporters.
No evidence of the conspiracy with Air Assurance has yet surfaced. Sisney claimed in his February 23, 2011 filing that he had not yet begun discovery in his lawsuit, almost 2 1/2 years after he filed it. What happened to the “information I’ve found, the documents I’ve collected, and the conversations I’ve had” that indicated “criminal activities…since at least the 1990’s” and “a massive cover-up scheme”, as he claimed in January 2009? Combs’ audit is full of conclusions that support Sisney’s accusations, but the conclusions themselves are not supported by any evidence she provided.
Update 7/29/2011 – How did Sherri Combs’ report make it through reviews and into exit interviews? Now we know, from Combs’ deposition. Her direct supervisor, Ricky Branch, controlled her work on the audit. It was Branch who decided not to interview key people accused by Sisney. Branch met with Sisney’s supporters and accepted documents and testimony from them. Branch edited the report after Combs had done her work. Branch knowingly included hearsay and false accusations, and knowingly omitted crucial information. The Jones audit thoroughly debunked his work, yet Branch is still in his position at the State Auditor’s office. What was Branch’s motivation for falsifying the audit, and what is Jones’ justification for keeping someone who would do that?