SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL | by Scott Travis | July 20, 2020
A former Broward Schools custodial and grounds supervisor has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, while a subcontractor doing business for the district pleaded guilty to witness tampering, following FBI investigations into the school district’s troubled maintenance department.
Federal authorities charged Richard Ellis, 50, with four counts of bribery and four counts of extortion in December. As part of a July 13 plea deal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the extortion charges.
Alan Johnson, 53, a painting subcontractor for Pence Sealcoating, made $6,189 in payments to Ellis, while secretly assisting the FBI. Johnson pleaded guilty July 10 to witness tampering in a separate case involving the school district.
Each face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, according to their plea deals. Ellis is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 22, Johnson on Oct. 6.
Pence, who has received about $10 million in district business in the past seven years, had a contract to handle the repairs of traffic signs, paint striping, asphalt sealcoating, and work on driveways and athletic facilities.
Ellis, reached Monday, declined to comment.
“Richard Ellis is a really good and honest person who led his guard down and consequently used poor judgment at the urging of what he thought was a friend and colleague,” his lawyer Michael Dutko said, referring to Johnson.
Dutko said Johnson approached Ellis about wanting more work and offered the bribes.
“Richard had no money problems. He had no debt to speak of. He lived within his means. He thought he was assisting a friend who was having financial problems with getting more work,” Dutko said.
Johnson’s lawyer, Richard Della Fera, disputes Dutko’s version of events, saying that Ellis approached his client to request the payments.
“Ellis had gotten demoted or didn’t get a promotion but still had a hand in doling out work,” Della Fera said. “He said if you want to continue this work, I need $500 for every order.”
Della Fera said Johnson “accepts responsibility for his own conduct and hopes that’s taken into account when he’s up for sentencing in October.”
The office of Kathy Koch, chief communications officer for Broward schools, acknowledged a request for comment Monday morning but didn’t provide one. Pence Sealcoating had no comment, according to Della Fera, who represents the company in addition to Johnson, their subcontractor.
The FBI started investigating the school district in 2017, after an internal audit concluded Broward schools grossly overpaid for asphalt services. At the time, Pence was the only vendor for that kind of work.
On Nov. 17, 2017, an unnamed subcontractor of Johnson’s, who handled painting work on district play courts, was contacted by the FBI and that subcontractor alerted Johnson, according to court files.
“That same day [Johnson] gave to the subcontractor two sets of invoices — the accurate invoices that the subcontractor had submitted to the defendant’s employer, and a set of false invoices that defendant had submitted to the Broward County auditor,” according to court documents submitted by U.S. Attorney Ariana Orshan.
The changes included the types of materials used, the cost of materials for the projects and discounts. The subcontractor turned both invoices over to the FBI.
Ellis was unaware of the FBI investigation in August 2018 when he started accepting kickbacks from Johnson, prosecutors said. Hoping for leniency on his own case, Johnson agreed to wear a secret recording device while making cash payments to Ellis.
Ellis “agreed to ensure a steady flow of work” for Pence, in exchange for cash payments, the indictment alleges. The payments were based on a percentage of the value of the invoices, the report said.
Johnson met with Ellis four times between September and December 2018, the indictment said.
It’s unclear whether the FBI is still investigating the Pence contract or any others. The district hasn’t paid Pence since Ellis’s December arrest, district records show.
The guilty pleas come amid growing concerns over how the district handles maintenance and construction.
Last fall, a scathing review by the Council of Great City Schools found exorbitantly high costs for groundskeeping in Broward schools, particularly when performed by outside contractors. The review found Broward spent $6,189 per acre for this work, compared with an average in Florida of $694 per acre and a national average of $1,353.
Broward School Board members said in January issues in the department had reached a crisis level. Many work orders are delayed for years. The district created a new executive director position to oversee the department, filling it in May with maintenance veteran Mark Dorsett.
A bond approved by voters in 2014 to renovate aging schools has also been a disaster. A June update lists only nine out of 233 projects completed. Projected costs are projected to increase by at least $436 million.
A previous version of this story misspelled Richard Della Fera’s name.