Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

Florida News

The North Florida Broadband Authority
Its world was about to change

NFBA Chairman Stephen Fulford on the phone with the Feds. The news was not good.

The NFBA (North Florida Broadband Authority), which for the last year and a half has been floating on a sea of Federal Stimulus money, had the spigot turned off in July as the Federal Government investigated various charges of fraud and waste. Taking no responsibility and blaming the Federal Government, Bradford County, Rapid Systems and just about anybody else that they could at every opportunity they had, the NFBA was anticipating once again having millions flowing into its coffers. After Chairman Stephen Fulford announced at the beginning of the meeting that he was told the Feds would be releasing the money that afternoon and they would be calling with the good news at around three o'clock, the NFBA gave themselves a hand. The NFBA's world was about to change.

Sub contractor – concerns about money – "Are you real?"

Julie Brown - She just wanted to get paid.

About ten minutes into the meeting Julie Brown, a subcontractor on the project, addressed, the Board, "I'm primarily here over concerns for money. We are a subcontractor of Rapid Systems and the NFBA. Our contract reads that we will be paid within seven days. We have invoices starting back in July that still have not been paid. I am here to see if you are a real entity. Rumors have swirled around this project since the beginning but we ignored them, but they've gotten really bad the last week.

Ms. Brown continued:  Have you received funding already? Did you have the money in place when you started us working on these projects back in July? We've been asked to site walk 23 more sites. We are glad to have the work. We are concerned about getting deeper into this project without receiving some payment... We are looking at invoices that are turning 60 days old. Was there money in place and why isn't it flowing? We're not the only ones not getting paid if our phone calls are correct.

Chairman Fulford: There was money in place in July. The money was not frozen until August 13th. We have had no ability to pay funds since August 13. As of three o'clock today, hopefully, the money will be back on and everyone should be able to get paid tomorrow.

Ms Brown:  Great, so we can expect to be paid soon and feel happy about going on and doing some more work, right?

Mr. Fulford:  Yup.

GSG's Project Manager, Pat Lien, attempted to clear up the dates:  Actually, it was July 13th that our request for funds was denied.

The Board's Attorney, NGN's Heather Encinosa cleared it up some more: It wasn't frozen.

Then, Mr. Lien offered Ms. Brown some more clarification:  It wasn't formally frozen. We were put on a different status on July 13th... Ultimately, they put us on a suspension of the grant funds.

Link: The Department Of Commerce letter to the NFBA is here. It speaks for itself. (Emphasis added)

Ms. Brown inquired: So what you are telling me is you haven't received funds since July 13th? Our first invoice was July 20th.

She continued, "I wish someone would have told us what was going on."

Chairman Fulford, "I'm sorry."

A bit more to the frozen funds story

According to emails which occurred before the NFBA funds were frozen, the Feds offered to pay all of the invoices submitted for payment except for those from seven vendors. One of those vendors was General Manager Robert Sheets' company – GSG; the other, Capitol Solutions – the Grant Compliance company.

Rather than accept the deal, Chairman Fulford elected not to receive any money and the funds were frozen.

Link: You can see those e mails No Deal 1 and No Deal 2. (Emphasis added - adjust the popup to fit your view)

It appears that if this were not the case, Ms. Brown and many others would have been paid.

At a meeting subsequent to this, the NFBA members supported Mr. Fulford's actions. Bradford County did not.

The Feds

It's been a tough year for GSG and its owner, Robert Sheets.

The meeting rolled along. GSG's Robert Sheets, always well spoken, gave his take of the events with the Feds. He said in part:  At the end of the day they provided us with tremendous guidance in the overall direction. They wanted to have comfort and certainty in that we were moving forward.

Walter McKenzie of White Springs added: I think we are probably being called on to do some extra work that will not increase the efficiency or the accountability of our organization, but it will satisfy the requirements of what the folks in Washington want to have.

Mr. McKenzie thanked GSG's and the NFBA's Program Manager Pat Lien for all he had done.

Mr. Lien said, "Thank you very much. Especially in the financial controls, this is absolutely not just a sledgehammer, but a howitzer taking care of a mosquito."

Everybody continued to thank everybody and Tommy Langford of Gilchrist County said, "This really boosted my faith in what we got goin here."

At just before 3 o'clock, Mr. Lien said Krystal Strickland of GSG and the NFBA's Assistant CFO had a draw request of $7.6 mil already submitted to pay the vendors and it would be released as soon as the Federal Funds were released.

Sometime after that, the new Operations Committee Chairman, Pat O'Neil left, smiling and patting everyone on the back as he headed toward the exit.

Three o'clock came and went, the monthly NFBA meeting continued and there was no phone call from the Feds.

After a presentation by Jacobs Engineering's Mark Bonner, some general business and a report by the NFEDP's Jeff Hendry, there was no more business, it was after 4 pm.

At 4:07 pm, with the meeting's business completed, Mr. Fulford adjourned the meeting. The three o'clock phone call from the Feds still had not arrived

The Chairman's phone rings – finally – 4:30 pm

The Chairman on the balcony. The conversation was not going well.

At 4:30 pm Chairman Fulford's cell phone rang. The conversation was not put on speaker phone and the call almost went unnoticed by the folks still in the room.

After about five minutes, the time it would have taken for the Feds to tell him the funds were released, Mr. Fulford's head began to droop and he used his hands to hold up it up.

He began slouching over and as his eyes welled up with tears he could be heard saying, "I don't know where to begin -- I don't know what the allegations are."

That was the last thing anybody could hear and a few minutes later, phone in hand, Mr. Fulford headed out the door to the balcony.

About 20 minutes later Mr. Fulford returned to the meeting room. He was not looking well.

Someone asked, "Is it good news or bad news?"

Barely able to get the words out, Mr. Fulford said, "They'll be no money today."

Your reporter asked, "Is that a joke?" His answer was "no."

The Observer, "When will the money come?"

Mr. Fulford, "The second at the earliest. They did not release the funds."

The Observer, "Did they give a reason?"

Mr. Fulford, "I'll have an emergency meeting next week, so that I can explain it to the whole Board."

The Observer, "So you know what the reasons are now?"

Mr. Fulford, "Yes. They gave some more items that they'd like – related to corrective actions."

The Observer, "All the stuff that was there today, that's OK?"

Mr. Fulford, "Right."

The Federal government is looking for corrective actions and withholding $7.6 million. 

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.

Links to the NFBA series:

North Florida Broadband Authority:
Baker County becomes the 7th north central Florida county to pull out of Obama stimulus funded NFBA

(Part XXXVII) (February 19, 2013)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Feds put failing stimulus funded NFBA on life support. 3yrs and $28+ mil later, 60 customers and no revenue model.
(Part XXXVI) (February 15, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Former Board Clerk sues NFBA for wrongful termination and violation of her constitutional rights
(Part XXXV) (January 30, 2013)

North Florida Broadband Authority: $30 mil later N. Central Florida Regional Planning Council - clueless
(Part XXXIV) (January 25, 2013)

North Florida Broadband Authority: After General Counsel's response, FL's Public Record Laws remain the latest casualty
(Part XXXIII (b)) (January 8, 2013)

• North Florida Broadband Authority: FL's Public Record Laws the latest casualty
(Part XXXIII) (January 6, 2013)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Foot dragging, lack of info cause Suwannee Cnty to call "strike 3" on the NFBA – They're out
(Part XXXII) (January 3, 2013)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Suwannee County tells the NFBA – One more strike and you're out
(PartXXXI) (December 20, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Wracked by gross mismanagement from the feds on down, the NFBA has become the poster child for non disclosure
(Part XXX) (December 18, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: More bad news. Last Mile Wifi CEO, "I knew they were going to extort me."
(Part XXIX) December 10, 2012

North Florida Broadband Authority: NFBA failed to make the grade in Gilchrist County
(Part XXVIII) (November 29, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Columbia County Pulls Out of Obama Funded Stimulus Project
(Part XXVII) (November 2, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: The NFBA road show traveled to an unprepared Columbia County with misinformation, half truths, and just plain lies
(Part XXVI) (Posted October 9, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Woebegotten Stimulus funded authority gets another black eye. No one bids to service the $30 mil 14 county network.
(Part XXV) (Posted October 1, 2012)

• North Florida Broadband Auth: Another County pulls out. Dixie says throwing away money a major issue.
(Part XXIV) (Posted September 13, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: NFBA road shows moves to Lake City for a double dose of free money
(Part XXIII) (Posted September 5, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Secrecy and a lawyer's spread sheet. It's business as usual at the NFBA.
(Part XXII) (Posted August 22, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority:  Mainstreet Broadband, NFBA's touted business partner, goes bust
(Part XXI) (Posted August 2, 2012)

• North Florida Broadband Authority: Two cities say "no mas." Refuse free tower space to NFBA
(Part XX)  (Posted July 26, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Taylor County Says Goodbye, "I don't think our county should be involved."
(Part XIX) (Posted April 18, 2012)

• North Florida Broadband Authority: Perry Pulls Out, City Manager tells Council, "It's just out of whack"
(Part XVIII) (Posted April 11, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Bradford County Says "No Mas" – Pulls Out
(Part XVII) (Posted April 4, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Operating in the shadows with the help of the Feds, the NFBA saga continues
(Part XVI) (posted March 29, 2012)

Lake City, City Manager Wendell Johnson looks to make White Elephant deal with troubled North Florida Broadband Authority
(Part XV) (Posted Feb 28, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Propped up by the Feds, financed by the American People - Who can you trust?
(Part XIV) (Posted Feb 25, 2012)

North Florida Broadband Authority:
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Not for them

(Part XIII) (Posted Jan 13, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority:
A Lawyer's Dream. A Look At The Numbers
(Part XIIb) (Posted Dec 29, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority:
A Lawyer's Dream. Money Is No Object
(Part XIIa) (Posted Dec 28, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority:
Feds come to town – Working under the cover of darkness was their MO

(Part XI) (Posted November 23, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority:
Feds continue investigation - Interim GM rehires resigned firms employees

(part X) (Posted Nov 11, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority: "The greatest threat to this project is the Government"
(Part IX) (Posted November 2, 2011)

• Federal grant for broadband access in rural Louisiana rescinded: Could the North Florida Broadband Authority Be Far Behind?
(Posted October 28, 2011)

• North Florida Broadband Authority: Redefining "Good Business Sense?"
(Part VIII) (Posted October 25, 2011)

• North Florida Broadband Authority: Feds resume funding – Put small vendors first
(Part VII) (Posted October 20, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Small vendors in big trouble | NFEDP/FSU's Hendry may resign (Part VIb)  (Posted Oct 14, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority: Blood in the street (Part VIa)  (posted Oct 13, 2011)

North Florida Broadband Authority: "I don't want to die on principle and not have broadband." (Part V)  (posted Oct. 6, 2011)

NFBA future in limbo - Fed keeps funds locked down - Suspend project  (Part IV) (posted Sept 28, 2011)

The North Florida Broadband Authority. Its world was about to change (part III)  (posted Sept 16, 2011)

"I think we have a failure to communicate." The N Florida Rural Broadband saga continues (Part II)  (posted Sept 14, 2011)

Feds close spigot on $30 million broadband stimulus grant. 15 north central Florida counties waiting for money to flow again
(Part I)  (posted Sept 12, 2011)