NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DALLAS — Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles is the subject of a new allegation, yet another potential policy violation.
And once again, at the core of the controversy, is public relations consultant Lisa LeMaster.
Miles is being accused of giving LeMaster an unfair competitive advantage in this summer's search for a communications consultant.
DISD sent out the Request for Proposal (RFP) on July 19. Miles was looking for a communications consulting firm to — among other things — "develop a strategic communications plan." And he wanted it done quickly, advertised and awarded in two weeks.
Only two firms chose to respond: Lisa LeMaster of the LeMaster Group, who had been providing communications services to Miles since January; and communications consultant Dora Tovar, who — once she learned of LeMaster's involvement in the bidding process — felt she never had a chance.
"Clearly it was not a transparent process, it was not an equitable one," Tovar said.
Tovar was familiar with LeMaster's past affiliation with Miles, of the allegations that she helped the superintendent craft a secret letter disparaging the Board of Trustees, and was surprised she was allowed to bid.
"When I saw the sign-in sheet, I was very surprised that she would be bidding on a project that she, in fact, would have had unfettered access to,” Tovar said. “She was possibly drafting that RFP, designing the RFP, knowing anything about that particular process and still participating."
LeMaster had already been working for Miles on a $24,500, no-bid contract since the first of the year. In June, LeMaster was paid $2,800 for "consulting on objectives for DISD's long-term Communications Plan."
Tovar finds that disturbing, because — according to the RFP — the winning consultant would "work with the Communications Department to develop the strategic communications plan".
It was a communications plan that LeMaster had just been paid to develop.
Gary Kerbow, former head of purchasing at DISD, said Miles should have recognized what appears to be a violation of local and state procurement laws.
"Anybody involved in the creation of specifications or a scope of work as part of a procurement process as a consultant is ineligible from participating in the project as a vendor,” Kerbow said. "They can't bid on something they've created the specifications for, because they've got a distinct competitive advantage."
Kerbow said another potential policy violation is found in e-mails between LeMaster and a DISD purchasing agent dated July 29, nine days beyond the deadline for potential vendors to ask questions about the RFP. LeMaster still asks the purchasing agent: "Would the successful firm be able to negotiate pricing?”
In another e-mail, LeMaster asks: ”Should that element be left blank?" Instead of citing the expired deadline, the agent responds to LeMaster, saying: "No, don't leave it blank," and compliments her on asking a "good question."
In a review of district e-mails, News 8 discovered something else troubling to Tovar — a directive from Superintendent Miles to the Purchasing Department to "keep the Communications contract under $50,000," a threshold which would keep it from being voted on by the Board of Trustees.
Tovar said she was never told she needed to keep her bid under that amount. "It would that have been nice to know in formulating my proposal, absolutely," she said.
But most upsetting to Tovar, just days after her bid was unsealed, DISD decided not to go forward with the awarding of the contract. No specific reason was given to Tovar or to News 8.
DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander declined to answer our questions about the process or any potential policy violations. Dahlander did issue this statement: "The district decided not to move forward with the RFP for Communications work in August so it is essentially a moot point."
But it's not a moot point to Tovar, who wants the Board of Trustees to look into the matter further. She said she has also filed a complaint with independent investigator Paul Coggins, who just cleared Miles of policy violations in connection with another bidding process that was detailed in a report to Trustees two weeks ago.
"Absolutely I believe it needs to be investigated," Tovar said.
While the Coggins investigation cleared Miles of procurement policy violations, it did find troubling evidence that the bid process in another contract had been manipulated.
In this case, LeMaster is not accused of any wrongdoing, but she has declined to respond to allegations that she was given an inside edge on the communications contract.
LeMaster does say she learned of the RFP at the same time as other consultants, and has assisted nearly every Dallas ISD superintendent for free over the last 20 years.