logo

Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Florida News

Feds close spigot on $30 million broadband stimulus grant. 15 north central Florida counties waiting for money to flow again

On August 19, 2009, the newly formed North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) applied to the Federal Government for a $30 million grant, funded by Federal Stimulus money. The grant application, hastily put together by Government Services Group (GSG) and Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson (NGN) of Tallahassee, if successful, would be used to build a wireless internet network, which would serve some of the poorest and most educationally challenged households in Florida, passing 154,000 households and almost 27,000 businesses.

More NFBA
stories are here

On February 12, 2010, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce awarded the $30 mil grant to the NFBA, a group which was hastily created by the North Florida Economic Development Partnership (NFEDP) in 17 days. Last month, the Feds closed the spigot on the Federal dollars until the NFBA and GSG answered some questions.

The NFEDP, under the direction of FSU's Jeff Hendry, paid GSG approximately $30,000 to write the grant.

The NFEDP received a no bid consultant contract, now apparently worth $140,000 a year, from the NFBA, paid of course with stimulus money.

GSG was established in 1996 with a board of directors consisting of three of the principals of the law firm of Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson, Misters Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson, and Robert Sheets. In 2004, Robert Sheets became the sole owner of GSG. NGN has billed the NFBA for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

GSG appears to have billed the NFBA over $1,000,000 so far.

To this day, GSG, NGN and a firm we will soon learn about, Meridian Community Services Group, a firm in which GSG's Robert Sheets has an unknown investment, and its sudden break-away firm of Capital Solutions, both grant compliance firms, are all located conveniently and apparently not by chance at 1500 Mahan Drive in Tallahassee.

The NTIA and the OIG, the Office of the Inspector General, are investigating. Some folks in the project call it fact finding. In fact, due to the serious nature of the investigation and the claims, there are a number of people who have been granted whistle blower status and are cooperating fully with the Federal Government.

Last month, the Feds closed the spigot on the Federal dollars until the NFBA and GSG answered some questions.

The Grant

The grant award, which when the in-kind contributions are factored in, actually comes to $39.4 million of other people's money.

To GSG's, NGN's, and NFEDP's credit, this was the only Broadband grant awarded in Florida in round one.

GSG

GSG's field of expertise is water and waste water management. Before applying for the Broadband Grant, GSG had absolutely zero experience in any kind of Broadband, unless one counts hooking up a laptop to a wi-fi hotspot, a fact readily admitted by GSG's owner, Mr. Sheets.

After the Operations Committee meeting on September 8th, a gracious Robert Sheets, who is beginning to look a little worse for wear, spent a few minutes with the Observer.

THE OBSERVER:  You never did broadband before this, did you?
MR. SHEETS:  No. But we have managed infrastructure. I put in the broadband expertise which was Pat and Denise, and Al and Donnie, and Jason -- just like we did in water and sewer. I couldn't repair a pipe if I had to.

Grant Writing is not a free pass from procurement laws

Grant writing is a skill and to some a profession. There are firms that specialize in grant writing. Grant writing firms generally work for a fixed fee or a percentage of the grant if it is awarded. Some firms have grant writers on staff.

GSG, with help from NGN, wrote the grant that was awarded to the NFBA.

The NFBA, the membership which appears to have been arranged by the NFEDP's Jeff Hendry, initially included 12 counties and 7 cities. It now includes 15 counties and 8 cities. Each member appoints one member to the Governing Board of the NFBA.

The NFBA's Governing Board has as its individual members, county commissioners, IT experts, a city manager, economic development folks and others.

One must always keep in mind that state of Florida has no way to investigate public corruption, an investigatory act that is discouraged at the highest state levels. However, year after year, Florida leads the nation in Federal indictments of public officials.

To date, in a trail that is difficult to follow, GSG has billed the NFBA somewhere around a million dollars for its services as the Project Manager.

The Observer asked Mr. Sheets about that and why his job (GSG's project management) did not go out for proposals.

THE OBSERVER:  When you got hired to be (Mr. Sheets finished the sentence)
MR. SHEETS:  The Project Manager
THE OBSERVER:         Did that go out for proposals?
MR. SHEETS:   No. Because we were the team brought in by the NFEDP to try to put together this governmental entity that had no money. In fact we paid for this for seven months out of my pocket, because the authority had no money. It had no money to buy its own insurance. To pay for its own advertising. Who paid for that? I did. I took a risk.

This appears to run counter to procurement laws all over. Even in Florida writing a grant does not mean an automatic end run around a competitive procurment process.

Grant Compliance – Capitol Solutions

Capitol Solutions is a firm owned by Lisa Blair. Ms. Blair appears to be knowledgeable in matters regarding grant compliance. On May 28, 2010, at 4:06 pm, Ms. Blair formed the limited liability corporation, called Capitol Solutions.

On May 28th at 5 pm, the proposals for Grant Compliance were due in the offices of the NFBA, located at 1500 Mahan Drive. Coincidentally, this is also the location of GSG, NGN and Meridian Community Services Group, a well established grant compliance company owned by Ms. Blair.

It has been acknowledged by GSG, that Ms. Blair supplied language for the RFP for grant compliance.

It is not clear, why at the twelfth hour, less than one hour before the application was due that Ms. Blair felt it necessary to submit a proposal for a grant under a company with a different name from Meridian.

Ms. Blair's grant proposal leaves out any mention of Meridian, even though every employee mentioned in the Capital Solutions application works for Meridian. Meridian is the same office as Capitol Solutions, uses the same desks and the same phones. The only distinction seems to be that Capitol Solutions has its own fax and phone number.

GSG's Sheets participated in the meeting where the applicants were ranked. It is not clear if he filled out a ranking sheet, however the rather rough minutes of the meeting read:  "R [Robert Sheets] don't want to influence - but scored capital solutions 1 and KPMG no. 2."

Capitol Solutions was awarded the contract, which has flat fee value of $150,000 a year.

During your reporter's conversation with Mr. Sheets, the question of him signing his own checks came up. Capitol Solutions, the grant compliance company, was mentioned in that conversation.

THE OBSERVER:         I heard that Bob Sheets was signing his own checks. Is that true?
MR. SHEETS:   Yeah -- but after eight other people looked at them. Our invoices are reviewed by three other companies.
THE OBSERVER:     So when you sign a pay voucher for yourself, a whole bunch of people have reviewed them; they are not associated with you at all?
MR. SHEETS:   Absolutely.
THE OBSERVER:         Who are they associated with?
MR. SHEETS:   You have Capitol Solutions. You have Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson (NGN). They are totally separate firms.
THE OBSERVER:         Capitol Solutions -- somebody said you own Capitol solutions?
MR. SHEETS:   Not a nickel.
THE OBSERVER:         Meridian?
MR. SHEETS:   Not a nickel.
THE OBSERVER:         Meridian?
MR. SHEETS:   I own shares in Meridian.
THE OBSERVER:         But they use Meridian's office. Please -- everything that Meridian has -- they are not separate and apart from Capital Solutions.
MR. SHEETS:         They are. They have their own phone number. She has two companies. I have one company.

Epilogue

The NTIA and the OIG, the Office of the Inspector General, are investigating. Some folks in the project call it fact finding. In fact, due to the serious nature of the investigation and the claims, there are a number of people who have been granted whistle blower status and are cooperating fully with the Federal Government.

While a lot of people are against the stimulus funds, this project is worthwhile and hopefully will enhance the opportunity of the poor folks in the rural counties of North Central Florida, putting them easily and economically in touch with the rest of the world.

The rural child living down the end of the dirt road, unable to afford and unable to hook up to the internet, if this project is successful may have the same chance as Jeff Hendry's daughters to dream impossible dreams.

If there is corruption and influence peddling in this project the Federal Government should root it out with all the power at hand and send a message for all to see that this will not be tolerated.

Tomorrow or Wednesday morning:  Part II 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.
 
 

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.