August 8, 2023

Billy Townsend: Why Jacob Oliva, now Arkansas’ Education Secretary, should be very worried about the DoE/Jefferson grand jury

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The Florida corruption scandal that is now the subject of a federal grand jury has been followed and studied by Florida blogger Billy Townsend. Here’s a clear explanation of what happened, and why the repercussions may be felt in Arkansas. Reposted with permission. 

Understand this crucial point about the Florida Department of Education/Jefferson County bid-rigging scandal that has exploded into a federal grand jury investigation:

There was one corrupt bid process. But there were two corrupt bids, with two different, but slightly overlapping, casts of characters.

  • The Strategic Initiatives Partners, LLC track, with Florida DoE Vice Chancellor Melissa Ramsey and Board of Education Member Andy Tuck.
  • The MGT track, with charter school lobbyist Ralph Arza, former legislator and hugely connected political player Trey Traviesa, Richard Corcoran’s former business partner, et. al.

These bids were competing with each other for a lucrative Jefferson County-based contract; but they were corrupt in very different ways.

The overall journalistic and investigative bid scandal narrative, which the feds seem to be investigating, goes like this:

The entire corrupt DoE/Jefferson bid process, thought by Melissa Ramsey to be personally overseen by then Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, was rigged for MGT to win. The Florida DoE even used a draft agreement/contract with MGT to build the request for quote that MGT would respond to. That’s right, DoE built the bid specs for a supposedly “competitive” bid with the agreement it expected to make with MGT, which is run by Corcoran’s former business partner. Melissa Ramsey’s unexpected last minute bid, full of its own ethical problems, blew up the whole corrupt game before MGT could ink the actual deal. The state government’s sham investigation then scapegoated Ramsey, Tuck, and Strategic Initiatives Partners LLC’s bid, while ignoring the MGT track.

The greatest mystery for me in all this is: what was Melissa Ramsey thinking? Was she just corrupt and self-dealing? Or is she a strange heroine in this matter, launching a doomed, illegal, self-destructive kamikaze mission to save Jefferson County from more grifting? Put in a pin that. I don’t know the answer; but I increasingly tend to lean to the latter, at least in terms of basic intent.

Jacob Oliva’s very problematic MGT order to a subordinate

By contrast, there is no mystery about who explicitly told DoE to use the MGT draft agreement to build the “request for quote” that only Ramsey’s new company and MGT would respond to.

Jacob Oliva gave that order.

Oliva is the former chancellor of Florida’s K-12 schools — and subordinate to Richard Corcoran — who is now Arkansas’ top education official. What follows is quoted straight out of Florida’s sham investigation from late 2021. Note that part in bold.

On November 17, 2021, the OIG conducted a sworn, recorded interviewed with Wood as a witness in this matter. Wood stated that on November 5, 2021, Oliva instructed her to draft an RFQ for Transitional Services for Jefferson County Schools. Wood explained that Oliva gave her a deadline of November 8, 2021, to complete the RFQ and provided a document titled “Master Engagement Agreement By and Between Jefferson County Schools Succeed, LLC and The Florida Department of Education” (master agreement) to help develop the RFQ. The master agreement prescribed a proposed scope of engagement between MGT of America and the department. The OIG found no evidence that the parties ever formalized the proposed agreement. Wood explained that she did not have any experience writing RFQs and had only worked on Requests for Applications, so she was unsure how to compose the RFQ.

I have long thought that order, documented in an official state investigation, and then ignored, puts Oliva in great peril, if anyone ever does an actual serious investigation.

Oliva is connected to both corrupt bids, but only cleared by the state’s sham investigation of one

Oliva’s role in the scandal is also unique and crucial because he is the only character in this whole drama associated with both corrupt bids.

Ramsey and Tuck named Oliva as part of their company, Strategic Initiatives Partners, LLC (SIP), when they submitted their corrupt bid. I have no idea why. Oliva denied being part of the company; and the state investigation cleared him of wrongdoing in the Ramsey/Tuck track.

But the state’s sham investigation ran away screaming from the MGT track, which had far more powerful people behind it. MGT, not Ramsey/Tuck, is the core of the scandal. It certainly seems to be the core of what the feds are investigating, based on what the subpoena requests.

After Oliva ordered his subordinate to craft the “request for quote” with the MGT draft agreement, DoE sent 25 companies the RFQ. Only MGT responded. The other 24 likely thought the fix was in, for good reason.

The Ramsey/Tuck company then submitted an unsolicited bid, which was transparently illegal because they were both DoE insiders. Their bid immediately triggered the state’s sham investigation. And they both resigned, essentially immediately.

Oliva kept his job — and then parlayed it into a promotion of sorts as Arkansas state education secretary.

You might want to become “aware” of the grand jury and its subpoena, Jacob

The DoE/Jefferson grand jury is now making news in Arkansas.

This is a tough lede from the Arkansas Times; but it could be worse:

When Jacob Oliva left Florida to become Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ new education secretary, he left behind a messy insider bid-rigging debacle that’s now being taken up by a federal grand jury.

And this statement issued by the Arkansas Department of Education has a hint graveyard whistling about it:

The articles in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are inaccurate. Secretary Oliva was never subpoenaed and has not been asked to testify. The articles reference a bid that was reviewed by the Inspector General about two years ago. At the time of the state investigation, no evidence was found of any wrongdoing involving the secretary. The secretary is completely unaware of any new investigation.

Let me just leave you with this:

If I knew I had given an order to my DoE subordinate to write a supposedly competitive RFQ using the draft of an agreement I expected my department to make with a politically connected company …

And I knew only that company — out of 25 my department sent the RFQ to — had responded …

And I knew all this was established in writing under oath as part of an investigation of a different corrupt bid …

And I knew a federal grand jury had subpoenaed a whole bunch of stuff about MGT …

If I knew all that, I would be getting very very “aware” of lawyer phone numbers — and my options.

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