No bids were taken and as it turned out, none were necessary.
During an emergency meeting five days later, the Joplin R-8 Board of Education, which had already given Huff carte blanche in making decisions concerning the recovery, officially rubber stamped the hiring of Witt Associates ... and immediately violated FEMA regulations regarding procurement of services.
Since that time, FEMA has mentioned this ill-considered move in each of its determinations on reimbursement for recovery costs.
The Turner Report obtained all denial letters from January 1, 2016 to the present through a Sunshine Law request.
The documents paint a portrait of a school board that turned over its responsibilities to an administrator who was not at all prepared for the challenge that was ahead of him.
Witt Associates was founded by former FEMA director James Lee Witt, but its promise to help the district navigate through FEMA regulations does not appear to be met, judging by the government documents.
The company appears to have contacted the district initially, with the March 2 denial of R-8's request for funding for work on East Middle School grounds, including a mention of a letter sent from Witt to Director of Building, Grounds, and Transportation Mike Johnson.
From the March 2 FEMA denial letter:
On May 26, 2011, four days after the tornado of May 22, 2011, the applicant met with Witt Associates' vice president for disaster services who submitted a proposal to Joplin Schools to provide disaster relief services. The proposal included a six-month budget for disaster recovery support services.
On May 31, 2011, Joplin Schools Board of Education members met and voted unanimously to hire Witt Associates based on a recommendation as being experienced in the disaster recovery area.
With the hiring, the board violated its own policy, which called for advertising bids on all construction projects exceeding $15,000.
No attempt appears to have been made by district officials to explain how Witt came to be hired until a response to a request for information from FEMA dated November 29, 2016, included the claim that it was necessary "under the school board's authority to quickly contract in an emergency situation without having to solicit and compare competing proposals or bids."
The district did not supply minutes, but showed an undated policy change which gave full power to C. J. Huff to make such decisions.
Unless otherwise required by law, the superintendent may waive the requirement for competitive bids or proposals when he or she has determined that there exists a threat to life, property, public health, or public safety or when immediate expenditures are necessary in order to prevent or minimize a serious disruption in services
Kathy Fields, the Region VII FEMA supervisor who rejected the district 's appeal, did not agree that the district's reasoning for its no-bid hiring of Witt.
"Witt's services are clearly not necessary to alleviate an emergency," Fields wrote.
The contract was officially signed June 1, 2011, but the FEMA documents indicate that the three million dollar plus contract agreed to on May 26 was just a drop in the bucket compared to what the Texas-based firm received in later contracts with the district that continued its employment through the end of 2016.
Fields appeared to be skeptical of an arrangement the district entered into with the Houston-Galveston Area Cooperative (HGAC) on December 16, 2011, for purchasing purposes. Though it purportedly was to avail the district of the services of many contractors, Fields indicated that it appeared to be a method of running Witt's services through HGAC to make it appear that some kind of competitive process was actually being used to continue Witt's unemployment.
Even if the HGAC contract was totally on the up and up, R-8 officials provided no documentation to back that up between December 16, 2011, and the issuance of the March 2 denial.
By February 9, 2012, following the HGAC arrangement, the district entered into a second contract with Witt, referred to as "Task Order 1," paying Witt $2,325,000 for the period from January 1, 2012, to May 31, 2013, signed by CFO Paul Barr. It was made clear that the monetary amount was "estimated."
A second $2,325,000 contract, referred to as a "modification" extended the relationship from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2016, with the amount again being "estimated."
The Board of Education voted on each of the contract extensions in closed session, actions that were questioned by FEMA and which violated FEMA regulations.
"Closed meetings to vote for contract extensions using federal funds do not support full and open compliance as provided for (in FEMA regulations)."
The district and Witt Associates ignored FEMA guidelines on consulting fees from the beginning.
Though FEMA stipulated that the maximum allowable fee for consultants would be $155 an hour, the district submitted requests for direct administrative costs ranging from $66.62 per hour to $430.71. Nothing above the $155 per hour was approved.
As late as November 2016, the district's appeals continued to justify the hiring of Witt Associates without bids, citing "Witt's reputation and proposal pricing in the context of Joplin Schools' needs. Effectively, we believed the Witt pricing to be reasonable at the time the Professional Services Agreement was signed."
How district officials determined that is not included anywhere in the documents submitted to FEMA and nowhere it is explained how C. J. Huff knew the $3 million plus price for Witt Associates was reasonable without ever taking bids or examining the services offered by other companies.
FEMA officials have found problems with nearly all of the district building projects, with the biggest concerns coming from the district's biggest project- Joplin High School. Those concerns will be revealed in an upcoming post.
(In the accompanying video, C. J. Huff explains at the October 2011 Missouri School Boards Association dinner how the R-8 Board of Education stepped out of his way and gave him complete power to make decisions regarding the tornado recovery.)