CLEARWATER – A racketeering trial started Tuesday for the first of four suspects in a Pinellas schools bid-rigging scandal that cost taxpayers as much as half a million dollars.
Prosecutors say Alan Smith subverted the school system’s purchasing system when he steered dozens of mulching contracts for playground renovations to one vendor.
“He did this for the sole purpose … of awarding every single mulch job to Robert H. Sciarra lawn care,” assistant state attorney Greg Groger said during opening statements.
Defense lawyer Roger Futerman didn’t dispute the prosecutor’s contention that Smith arranged phony bids to make sure Sciarra won playground mulching contracts for at least 46 elementary schools.
But Futerman said it was done with good intentions.
“The playgrounds were completed safely, consistently and under budget,” he told the jury. “Alan took some shortcuts because he was overwhelmed, because of the speed of the operation, and because he wanted the job done right.”
Whatever his motive, there’s no paper trail showing Smith enriched himself, as there is with the other three defendants arrested in the racketeering case, Futerman said.
“Alan never got one dime. Zero.”
Smith faces up to 30 years in prison if he’s convicted of charges including racketeering.
During most of the three years the bid rigging took place, starting in January 2006, Smith was the shop planner or project manager for a multimillion dollar playground renovation involving every elementary school in Pinellas County, prosecutors said.
Dan Smith, former director of maintenance with the school district, told jurors he first became suspicious when he bumped into a co-worker of Smith’s, Paul Jensen, at a gas station.
Smith noticed Jensen was driving a truck that would be hard to afford on his maintenance department salary.
“It seemed like a very, very expensive piece of equipment,” Smith testified Tuesday.
When Jensen’s son, Heath, a private landscaper, rolled up in another pricey truck, Smith started investigating contracts handled by the elder Jensen.
By the time school investigators and internal auditors wrapped up their inquiry months later, they had uncovered 147 contracts for mulching and other work awarded to Sciarra by Jensen or Smith.
What’s more, investigators said, Heath Jensen submitted 46 bids he knew he would lose on projects won by Sciarra. Another bidder submitted phony bids, too, later telling investigators he did so at Alan Smith’s direction.
At the time, both the Jensens and contractor Sciarra jointly owned equipment together.
The losing bidder didn’t get any money from the deal, prosecutor said, but Sciarra agreed to submit phony bids on school demolition contracts he won.
Sciarra did not do demolition work.
Investigators say Sciarra’s winning bids for mulching and other small jobs exceeded $860,000, but each always fell below the $25,000 limit that would have triggered publicly advertised sealed bids.
Banking records show Sciarra gave $400,000, about half what he earned from the school contracts, to Heath Jensen, often the same day he received money from the school district, prosecutors said.
Heath Jensen, in turn, wrote checks for half that amount, about $200,000, to his father, prosecutors said.
None of the proceeds from the school mulching contracts could be traced to Alan Smith, but prosecutors say he’s the one who made the scheme possible.
“Alan Smith deliberately awarded contracts in a manner that didn’t just influence the competitive bidding process,” Groger said, “but completely evaded it and undermined it altogether.”
The other three defendants face trial together in the spring. Smith’s case is starting now because he refused to waive his right to a speedy trial.
Futerman said Smith will testify during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
“Was it corrupt as the state’s alleging,” Futerman asked the jury. “Or was it what he felt was the right thing to do?”
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