In Tuesday’s column, we presented a disturbing picture of influence peddling, and the withholding of public information by officials within the Lake County School Board and the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. in regards to a private dinner last October with Lake County School Board members, staff, and contractors doing business with the Lake County School District. The story now continues.
A source who attended the private party claims the representative of a large contracting company, who does business with the school district and county, stood up and made a toast to Lake County School District staff congratulating them on how easy it is to do business in Lake County. Another contractor at the table then seconded the toast. That toast exposed the real purpose of the party. This was no mere social event; rather, it was all business, with the intent to influence school district staff and School Board members.
A huge indicator of this intention is the invitation extended to School Board Member Bill Mathias. Mathias had just been elected to the School Board and had not yet taken office when he was invited to the party. We believe it was to expose him to the financial influence of these big named companies. Clearly, he would not have been invited had he lost the election.
Information developed, which shows School Board Member Jim Miller viewed this private party as an opportunity to solicit money from these big contracting companies to fund a campaign to have the one-cent sales tax re-implemented. When we asked Miller about the issue, he said, “No, but I have thought that they would be prime suspects to help fund a campaign, as they were 12 years ago. I haven’t yet been able to meet with Debbie about having a campaign.” When we pressed the issue, Miller stated, “If I brought it up (I don’t think I did), it is because my mind is always working and the idea popped into my head. I did not ask anyone for money that night. I haven’t asked anyone for money for the penny yet. We don’t even know if we are going to make a run at it yet. The SB and BCC aren’t exactly in lock step. Since then, I have talked of soliciting the guy from CPPI as he gives $25,000 to the foundation golf tourney every year.”
Miller’s comments that these out-of-town companies were the source of money when the one-cent sales tax was passed in 2002 could suggest the reason why they have been awarded so many contracts by the school district and county. Has the awarding of contracts by the county and school district been done through a staff process of “wink-wink” for the money they donated to get this one-cent sales tax passed?
We suggested to Miller that the entire dinner and circumstances with CPPI had a bad odor. He responded, “This last election Rosanne got $500.00 from the CPPI guy and he already had her votes. My guess is that $500 was more against me because I wanted to pull the plug on building Eustis Heights Elementary. The majority of our board basically follows staff’s recommendations. I spent two years beating my head against that wall.”
The public records in the Lake County Supervisor of Elections Office confirms a $500.00 donation to Rosanne Brandeburg’s campaign on October 20, 2012 from the John Carlson Trust (Carlson is a principal officer of CPPI). That was approximately two weeks after the private dinner party. It appears at least one other contributor to her campaign (maybe more) was also at the dinner party.
Miller also said, “I agree CPPI may get more than their share, but my guess is that is because staff prefers and recommends them. Debbie is working at changing this. Parker, having two of his underlings voting on the committee gives him a formidable voting block.” That statement is very disturbing. It suggests there is a role of money and influence inside the school district. It confirms what we have been saying for a long time, the selection process in Lake County for vendors and contractors is biased, if not corrupt.
The Veil of Secrecy
There may have been others at the private party financially and politically linked to the school district but a veil of secrecy surrounds the names of those in attendance. The toast at the private dinner, along with the attendees and their relationships to the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. appear to be very troubling at best. The foundation is a quasi government 501(c)(3) corporation, which raises money for the direct benefit of Lake County Schools and resides in an office provided by the school district. The foundation reports its finances to the Lake County School Board and must submit an audited Financial Statement to the Board. Carman Cullen-Batt is the Foundation’s Executive Director and maintains a Lake County School District email address.
However, when we made a public records request to the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. for a list of contractors attending the private party and list of donors to the foundation, we were told they are a “private” foundation and are not, therefore, subject to the Florida Government-in-Sunshine Law. The foundation used both their lawyer and accountant to beat back our attempts in transparency, citing IRS protections. We believe this is an attempt to shield vendors who do business with the school district and donate monies directly to the foundation on behalf of the district.
We appealed to Lake County Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Moxley to force the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. to disclose the list of attendees at the party and the list of donors to the foundation, but she said, “this was not a Lake County School Board record” essentially hiding behind the foundation. Even though the foundation must report its finances to the district and the foundation is housed on district property, Superintendent Moxley claimed she was powerless.
In 2012, The Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. received $183,519.00 in direct financial support from the Lake County School District. According to the foundation’s financial 2012 year end audit, the group had $1,049,125.00 in revenues with assets of $3,703,928.00.
Here is the unbelievable part. All of this money is funneled through the foundation and given back to the school district from anonymous donors who are protected by (or “the”) foundation, which is now subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law. The School Board is given a non-detailed audit, which means they have no idea what is going on with the donors or the money.
Is this another reason why out-of-town contractors and other vendors are securing school district contracts because they are giving to the foundation? Does donating to the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc. equate to access and priority consideration when doing business with the Lake County School District?
The Superintendent, School Board, and taxpayers of Lake County should demand that the name and donation amount of all donors, which do business directly or indirectly with the school district, be disclosed in the yearly audit. The State Attorney’s Office has already advised the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc.’s attorney that the group is now subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law. It is time they put down their IRS shield when it comes to a conflict of interest.
This entire scenario also indicates the people of Lake County were scammed by the one-cent sales tax initiative. Now might be the time to defund government and put that penny back in our pockets instead of the pockets of out-of-county vendors and contractors!
We support the goals of the Educational Foundation of Lake County, Inc., and their quest for private donations, but there must be transparency. In our view, any company or person affiliated or related to a company doing business with the Lake County School District who donates to the Foundation should be disclosed.
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