Federal authorities on Thursday took possession of Leon County Schools’ email archiving system, district officials confirmed.
Multiple sources told the Tallahassee Democrat that FBI agents served a search warrant at the district and left with the archiving system. The FBI, working with a federal grand jury and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tallahassee, is conducting a criminal probe into the district’s construction projects.
Chris Petley, spokesman for the school district, issued a statement Friday saying, “Yesterday, LCS provided an archived email server to federal authorities to provide verification for emails previously provided in paper form. Any further inquiries about this matter should be directed to the federal agency involved.”
District officials, citing exemptions to the Sunshine Law involving active criminal investigations, denied a request by the Democrat for a copy of the search warrant and wouldn’t disclose which federal agency confiscated the backup system. Superintendent Jackie Pons did not return phone calls or emails seeking information about the search warrant. Last year, attorneys for the school district denied a request for a copy of a federal grand-jury subpoena seeking thousands of pages of documents involving school-construction projects dating back to 2007. But Pons decided to release the subpoena to the Democrat anyway.
On Thursday afternoon, the district’s information- technology director, Bill Nimmons, sent an email to all district employees instructing them not to delete their emails.
“I wanted to let you know that our email archiver is temporarily out of- service,” he wrote in the email, which was sent at 4:20 p.m. “We are working with the vendor to resolve the issue. Please make sure that you do NOT delete any emails that you receive until further notice. We will notify you when the email archiver system is back inservice.” The grand jury, which operates in secret, issued a subpoena in late October demanding the district turn over thousands of pages of documents involving construction projects at 17 schools dating back to 2007. It asked for contractor score sheets, rankings and presentations, architectural plans, contracts invoices and payments, along with School Board minutes and agenda items, including drafts, and correspondence with vendors.
The subpoena also specifically asked for emails from April 2009 between Pons and then-Assistant Superintendent Paul Byrd, who oversaw school construction at the district for years.
Byrd was arrested last year on charges of drug trafficking after deputies in Franklin County found more than 30 grams of cocaine in his district owned truck. The FBI later asked to search the vehicle, school officials confirmed, and Byrd himself voluntarily spoke to federal agents sometime last year, his attorney has said.
During a School Board meeting in November, one of the district’s attorneys, Hank Coxe of Jacksonville, said the federal government was looking for an email from Pons to Byrd instructing him to shut down the vendor-selection process for a project at Griffin Middle School. Coxe said the email was missing, along with vendor scoring sheets, and that the lost documents likely led to the issuance of the subpoena. District officials have said they changed the scope of work at Griffin at the last minute because the project was being impacted by the closure of Bellevue Middle School.
Last year, allegations surfaced through a notebook compiled by an anonymous, self-described group of school employees and concerned citizens that Pons handed school-construction contracts to political donors and failed to follow statutes governing the competitive- bidding process. The notebook asserted that Pons divided construction projects into smaller phases so contracts would come in under a $2-million threshold triggering a competitive process. In at least one case, a contract came in exactly one penny under the threshold.
Pons has denied any wrongdoing, and Coxe, whose firm conducted its own investigation, said last year that there was no evidence contracts were awarded based on “criminal or fraudulent intent.” However, Coxe said the missing documents left the district open to accusations of impropriety.
The subpoena also specifically asked for emails from April 2009 between then-Assistant Superintendent Paul Byrd, shown here in 2012, who oversaw school construction at the district for years, and Superintendent Jackie Pons. Byrd was arrested last year on charges of drug trafficking.
Original article here.