Records link Horry County school board chairman to ‘edits’ of school construction documents

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – More than an hour into an interview about Horry County’s over-budget construction of five new schools, News13 asked school board chairman Joe Defeo whether he would’ve done anything differently with the project. He and other school board members have faced questions about it since 2015 when they ignored a consultant’s advice and gave all of the schools to First Floor Energy Positive, which submitted the most expensive proposal.

“I might’ve considered being more involved with the process,” Defeo answered. “On the other hand, looking back, this is what people are accusing me of when there really is no evidence that I was overly involved in the process, other than people saying that I was. But there isn’t any proof that I was. I let the process play out.”

Since the interview and after a request by News13, the school district released attorney billing records related to the school construction project. They give a new paper trail to Defeo’s “letting the process play out” and mention Defeo’s “demands”, “edits”, and a list of phone calls and emails. They also led to another example of Horry County’s school board withholding documents that may give context to the limited public records that have been released.

The raw data

The billing records, which justify the attorneys’ hourly charges to the district, suggest Joe Defeo talked to the attorneys more often than all of the board members combined. The records include vague descriptions of the interactions like responding to text messages, sending emails, joining phone conferences, and attending meetings.

Three board members who played an official role in selecting the builder of its five new schools account for 13% of billing records related to board members. Defeo, who didn’t serve on the committee that picked the builder, accounted for 83% of the 110 records between June 2014 and August 2015. Defeo has described himself as a point person for board member concerns, which he says he took to the attorneys.

The records list 59 phone conferences between Defeo and attorneys. Most of those conferences appear to not include any other board members or district staff; the records for the calls only mention Defeo and one or more of the attorneys. The charges also mention emails, a text message, and other meetings.

Some of the interactions described in the records may be duplicated, especially those involving phone conferences with multiple attorneys, because each attorney submitted their own charges for their work.

Defeo’s edits

Whenever Joe Defeo defends the board’s decision to allow First Floor Energy Positive to build the district’s five new schools, he often claims it’s the only company that delivered what the district asked for. The billing records suggest Defeo edited some of the documents that set the project guidelines.

Defeo’s communications with the attorneys increased in January 2015 as they wrote a “request for qualifications,” or RFQ. The document would help describe what the district wanted in its new schools and the standards a firm would have to meet if it wanted to build the schools.

A billing note from January 7, 2015, said “Review Defeo RFQ edits.” Defeo tells News13 he doesn’t remember what his edits were. “Everybody was putting their opinions into the RFQ, including myself and board members through me,” Defeo said. The records show one instance of unnamed “board members” sharing comments with the attorneys, apparently without going through Defeo. District staff, which includes people trained and experience with school construction, also had input.

A note from April 2015 said “emails and conferences and research regarding Board Chair RFQ review.” The records don’t say why the attorneys were researching and talking about Defeo’s review or what they found.

The records also show Defeo sharing comments with the attorneys about the RFP, or request for proposals, which set more requirements for the project.

Defeo’s involvement with the requirements raises new questions about why the district didn’t set energy requirements that would’ve allowed the district to eliminate energy bills for its new schools and possibly collect money. The builder, Robbie Ferris, who first pitched energy-positive schools at a sales presentation to the school board, initially described a scenario where the district would get a check, presumably from a utility company, every month instead of a utility bill.

Horry County’s new schools will have a utility bill, budget records show, and in March 2017, Joe Defeo blamed the RFP, which billing records suggest he helped shape. The document only required the schools to generate one watt of energy more than the school uses, but the schools would’ve needed to produce much more energy to eliminate utility bills.

“I wanted the RFP to say the schools would produce anywhere from 30 to 50 percent more power,” Defeo told News13 in March. But after the billing records came out, Defeo acknowledged he didn’t ask for those levels of energy production. “In retrospect, maybe I should have,” Defeo said. “However, there’s a point in time when you let the selection committee make their decisions.”

The selection committee

The billing records show Joe Defeo had attorneys researching the law in March 2015 as he asked questions about the selection committee, which would be formed to pick the builder for the five new schools. It’s unclear why the attorneys were researching and Defeo says he doesn’t remember the context of the conversations except that everyone was going “through a major learning process” because the district was using a different building process.

Horry County Schools ended up with a selection committee unlike any it had before. It included board members for the first time.

Under the previous workflow, district staff brought a plan for new schools to the school board after getting public input and board members’ involvement would be mostly limited to a vote at the end of the process , according to Defeo. “That’s a very manipulative process and that’s the manipulation that I feel that this board went out to stop,” Defeo told News13 in March. In an apparent dig at ex-superintendent Dr. Cindy Elsberry, whose sudden ‘resignation’ was never explained, Defeo said “that’s why we have a new superintendent, perhaps.” Her severance package cost taxpayers about $428,000.

Elsberry didn’t grant an interview to News13, but she wrote in an email, “No board member ever mentioned dissatisfaction with the process with the exception of Mr. DeFeo. He expressed in public that the board should make the decisions regarding construction and that the public should not be involved.” Elsberry didn’t reply when asked whether the school building program played a role in her resignation as Defeo’s comment suggested. The superintendent of Horry County Schools is hired and can be fired by the school board.

The next superintendent, Rick Maxey, agreed to appoint five board members to the committee, in addition to five district staffers, Defeo said. “It was a simple request to the superintendent that the board members be involved in the selection committee. He, according to our code, appointed them and he agreed and they were appointed. The current board is not a rubber stamp,” explained Defeo.

In an email to the superintendent obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Defeo recommended himself for appointment to the selection committee. However, the attorneys told him he couldn’t be on the committee, Defeo confirmed to News13 in March, possibly giving insight to some of his conversations with the attorneys. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

Defeo told News13 he recommended board member Ray Winters in his place, at the request of the superintendent. The statement appears to contradict a story he told in March 2017 to Liz Callaway, a radio host of Hot Talk 99.5, when she asked him “are you getting some benefit from First Floor architects?” One day earlier, News13 aired a story featuring a consultant who worked on the school construction project. The consultant, whose credibility has been attacked by Defeo, said there was “no doubt” Defeo wanted First Floor to get the job and he cited “strange” interactions with Defeo.

Defeo told the host he wasn’t getting any kickbacks or other benefit. He used, among other things, the selection committee, to defend himself. “Here’s the problem with that [allegation]. I didn’t choose the selection committee members. I wasn’t at the meetings,” Defeo said.

Defeo acknowledged in the same interview that he did attend some of the selection committee meetings. Ray Winters ended up on the selection committee after Defeo’s recommendation.

Defeo’s “demands” and the meetings about Defeo

In late August 2015, attorneys began to have meetings to discuss Joe Defeo, apparently without Joe Defeo. One meeting involved a phone call between the attorneys and district staff.

One day before that phone call, the attorneys noted conference calls for “Defeo demands regarding RFP.”

“I never used the word demand,” Defeo said. “I didn’t demand anything. However, I did insist that the contract who wins the award to build any of these buildings must guarantee that the energy positive aspect of the building must work.”

The issue of performance guarantees appears to have already been resolved when the attorneys note Defeo’s “demands” because no other addenda were issued. The billing records don’t provide more context as to what he demanded or why district staff and attorneys had meetings to discuss him.

Withholding records

News13 asked the school district for documents described in the billing records nearly two months ago in the interest of providing more context for this article. However, district spokesperson Teal Britton said they haven’t been released due to attorney-client privilege.

While Joe Defeo acknowledges the school board is the client, an attorney hired by the school board is expected to review our requests related to this story and others.

If you have a tip or document related to Horry County’s construction of five new schools, email rwebb@wbtw.com.