Former schools official: Ackerman steered contract

Former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman is now consulting from New Mexico.
Former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman is now consulting from New Mexico.
Posted: January 17, 2012

The Philadelphia School District's onetime top procurement officer says former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, despite her frequent denials, personally directed the awarding of a $7.5 million no-bid contract for surveillance cameras to a small minority firm, and sought to deflect responsibility because she had a "personal relationship" with the company's president.

John L. Byars, in a civil-rights lawsuit accusing Ackerman and several senior aides of libel and slander, says he was made the "scapegoat" for the controversy that erupted after The Inquirer disclosed in late 2010 that Ackerman had pushed aside a suburban firm in favor of IBS Communications Inc., then based in Mount Airy.

The district subsequently suspended him and then sought to fire him "for having exercised his First Amendment rights by speaking out to the FBI about this matter of public concern," according to the suit, pending in U.S. District Court.

Ackerman on Monday again denied steering the contract to IBS.

"I did not direct any staff member (including Mr. Byars) to give the $7.5 million surveillance contract to IBS," she wrote in an e-mail. "I did ask questions about the diversity of the pool of contractors.

"As to the other part of his complaint, I won't dignify it with a response."

After accepting a buyout of more than $900,000 in August, Ackerman moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she runs an educational consulting company.

Darryl Boozer, the president of IBS, now in Wyndmoor, did not respond to a phone message or fax.

Ackerman has acknowledged that she produced an IBS business card and directed that the firm get a share of a smaller emergency contract to install cameras at South Philadelphia High School.

The firm was paid $12,890 to produce schematic drawings - 12 times the amount the company that had installed the cameras said it would charge.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard declined to comment on the suit's many allegations, saying the district "does not comment on ongoing legal matters." Among the defendants is acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II.

Since The Inquirer's first report in November 2010, district officials have offered different accounts of who pushed for IBS. Shana Kemp, a former deputy chief communications officer and a defendant in the suit, initially said Byars was responsible for selecting IBS. Nunery at one point said he had made the decision.

And Michael Davis, the general counsel, issued a statement in March that he said summarized the findings of a $287,000 investigation conducted for the district by the law firm of Pepper Hamilton L.L.C. It concluded, he said, that the district's procurement office decided to use IBS, and absolved Ackerman and Nunery of wrongdoing.

In the suit, Byars says that he repeatedly told district officials, Pepper Hamilton attorneys, and the FBI, on two occasions, that Ackerman made the decision to hire IBS.

FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver declined to comment.

Byars, who is African American, further charges that he was suspended for racial reasons in late 2010 with five other administrators - all white - while the district investigated leaks about the contract.

The complaint says the district had no grounds to suspend Byars, but "wanted to avoid suspending an entire group of white persons who could claim they were victims of a race-based reverse discrimination for speaking out against improprieties associated with a contract award to a minority contractor."

Byars says he was among several administrators summoned by Ackerman to a meeting on Sept. 23, 2010, to discuss a proposal to award the camera contract to Security & Data Technologies in Newtown, Bucks County.

During that meeting, according to the lawsuit, Ackerman said the suburban firm should not get the contract based on what IBS had told her about the South Philadelphia project. She instead directed, it says, that the contract be awarded to IBS, and told Byars - who had no prior involvement with the project - to include the IBS contract in a regular procurement resolution for the School Reform Commission, which oversees the district and approves spending.

The suit maintains that Ackerman selected that type of resolution "so that the contract award to IBS would be approved without careful scrutiny or consideration."

After the SRC approved the resolution the next month, Nunery ordered Byars to work with IBS because the firm was getting "pushback" from staff. The complaint says Byars' involvement was unusual because surveillance camera projects were normally overseen by other departments.

When Ackerman and other district officials learned on Nov. 15, 2010, that The Inquirer was planning an article about the IBS contract, Ackerman, Nunery, and two former communications department staffers "devised a plan that included discrediting" Byars and "making him the scapegoat for any improprieties associated with the IBS contract," the suit says.

"The camera surveillance project was funded with money from the federal government and only approved vendors could receive these funds" for no-bid, emergency work, the suit says, adding that IBS was not on the list of approved vendors.

The next day, the suit said, Nunery began criticizing Byars' work, according to the suit. Byars, who had joined the district in 2003, said he had received no complaints until that time.

In December 2010, Byars and five other administrators were suspended with pay while the district conducted its internal inquiry. The suit's exhibits include the letter Byars received from Estelle G. Matthews - the district's former top human resources official and a defendant in the suit - informing him of his suspension and noting, "The School District has been under much scrutiny in the past few weeks."

The investigation was necessary, she wrote, "as a result of an apparent inappropriate sharing of confidential district information" related to the camera contract.

Of the six administrators suspended during the internal inquiry into leaks, four were reinstated.

On March 24, Matthews informed Byars that she would urge the SRC to fire him for operating a business website that purportedly violated the district's code of ethics.

The suit said that he had cleared the website with the district's law department and that the termination was part of "an orchestrated effort to discredit and harm Mr. Byars and to publicly tarnish his reputation."

Francis X. Dougherty, the former deputy chief business officer, was fired by the SRC in April. He filed preliminary documents in June indicating that he intends to sue for wrongful termination under the state's whistle-blower protection law.

Augustine Pescatore, a commander in the district's Office of School Safety who had been suspended and returned to work, filed preliminary documents in Common Pleas Court last month indicating he also plans to sue Ackerman and others for slander and libel.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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