Consultant questions school board chairman’s role in building of Horry County schools

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Horry County Schools paid a consultant $40,000 for advice it ultimately ignored while choosing a contractor to build five new schools. The consultant now speaks openly about the school board chairman’s role in selecting that builder.

A selection committee, which included board members for the first time, picked First Floor Energy Positive, which submitted the most expensive and over-budget plan, to build all five schools.

School board chairman Joe Defeo was not on the committee.

“You don’t want the selection committee to be influenced, which is the biggest reason I was not on the selection committee. Why the superintendent was not. You don’t want undue influence, you want them to make their own decision,” claims Defeo.

Sign-in sheets for selection committee meetings show Defeo attended some of the meetings, which were closed to the public.

Louis Batson, a consultant hired to review the proposals from three competing companies, also attended some of the meetings.He told News13 he would get calls from Defeo during the selection process.

“I thought that was strange for [Defeo] to want to talk to someone or talk to me when he had specifically said he wasn’t going to be part of the selection process,” Batson said. “It certainly has the potential to taint the process.”

News13 found invoices showing Defeo on calls with the consultant and attorneys. The selection committee appears to be left out of the calls, the records show.

Defeo admits to phone calls with the consultant. “It wasn’t many but I did,” he says.

Defeo said he talked to the consultant after hearing complaints from people on the selection committee who wanted to allow companies to build all five schools.

“And he immediately objected to it,” Defeo recalled. “And I said this isn’t for you to object, this is what the board wants. The board runs the things, not you. Not me. Not the attorneys. It was that type of conversation.”

Batson told News13 a different story. “There’s no doubt in mind he wanted First Floor to be the firm selected for this,” he said.

The consultant claims Defeo would talk about the proposals from each company but not by name.

Batson suggests Defeo would identify the projects by specific characteristics and would explain why ideas other than First Floor’s didn’t make sense. Batson says he soon heard some of the same complaints from some board members on the selection committee.

“I think it’s unrealistic to not expect a board that works together to not talk. But the discussions were strikingly similar as to why we shouldn’t consider this or not consider that,” Batson said.

Responses of board members on the committee followed a theme: they voted on the facts and Joe Defeo didn’t influence their decision.

Defeo says concerns about the project had been discussed publicly. “You gotta remember something, we had a two year discussion about these buildings. Everyone didn’t get educated in the selection committee,” he said.

The consultant issued his final analysis of proposals from the three companies in October 2015. He gave the lowest rating to First Floor. A week later, the selection committee did the opposite of what he recommended and gave all five schools to First Floor.

“In time you begin to feel if what you’re doing even makes any difference. Is the process so compromised that it’s impossible to prepare objective information, have it disseminated among the interested parties, and then reviewed with an open mind,” Batson said.

Defeo claims the consultant recommended a company and wasn’t supposed to do that. He also alleges the consultant missed problems with other proposals that would’ve cost the district millions of dollars.

“And he’s talking about me tainting the-cause I was going to taint the process. Well he tainted the process,” Defeo said. “The selection committee is supposed to be left alone. I was told this from day one. Leave them alone, within reason of course, they have questions to ask and all that, let them make their own decision. Don’t influence their decision and then [Batson] went ahead and tried to influence their decision. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Defeo said he believes the consultant was biased and said Batson previously worked with one of the companies that didn’t get the job.

The consultant admitted to News13 he worked with one of the companies in the past, but he said that happens when you’ve been in his business for 35 years. “[Defeo’s] attempts to question my integrity are ludicrous, with no basis in fact.”