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    DeKalb construction probe complicates multimillion-dollar suit on cost overruns

     

    DeKalb County schools’ multimillion-dollar damage suit over construction cost overruns may be undermined by a criminal probe of school contracts.

    The school district has been locked in a court struggle nearing epic proportions since it suspended its construction management firm, Heery/Mitchell, in 2006. What began with the contractor’s claim for roughly $500,000 for unpaid invoices has escalated to the point that DeKalb, in a counterclaim, seeks damages of up to $125 million for mismanagement. The file for the court case is more than five feet thick.

    pat popeNow, DeKalb prosecutors are investigating possible wrongdoing by school employees involving construction contracts after Heery/Mitchell was canned. Agents last month seized school records for six projects from the office of the new in-house construction manager, chief operating officer Pat Pope.

    Cost overruns at five of those projects, Heery/Mitchell noted, are a part of DeKalb’s claim of mismanagement. These include: Columbia and Arabia Mountain high schools, McNair and Henderson Mill Elementary schools and the Mountain Industrial Center.

    DeKalb claims Heery/Mitchell allowed millions of dollars in payments for construction change orders that it should have flagged as unnecessary; the construction manager says school officials were ultimately responsible.

    Heery/Mitchell claims its dismissal was just a pretext to place the projects under a new construction manager. In court papers filed last week, its lawyers said “it was terminated pretextually by the School District to facilitate fraudulent activity in the same projects Heery/Mitchell had been managing.”

    “… a key component of Heery/Mitchell’s defense is that its termination as SPLOST II program manager was pretextual, in that the School District’s actions to remove Heery/Mitchell from involvement in the selection, deployment, and coordination of architects and contractors and to facilitate the ascension of a DCSD employee now under criminal investigation over her role in discharging Heery/Mitchell’s former duties …”

    DeKalb County prosecutors served search warrants Oct. 13 at Pope’s office and at the home and business of her husband, Anthony Vincent Pope, an architect who has designed a number of DeKalb schools.

    Attorneys for Heery/Mitchell are scheduled to question Pope on Wednesday about the investigation. This time, Heery/Mitchell wants to hear what Pope knows about the criminal investigation by DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes-Fleming. The lawyers are also pressing for copies of records seized at Ms. Pope’s office.

    DeKalb’s lawyers opposed the request to depose Pope, noting that Heery/Mitchell had questioned her three times previously. But DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger ruled in July that a deposition focusing on the DA’s investigation was OK.

    Last month, Pope was relieved of her duties overseeing DeKalb’s school construction program and moved to another school office five miles away to pursue unspecified projects. School board Chairman Thomas Bowen described the move as an appropriate precautionary step while the investigation is pending.

    The Heery/Mitchell lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March 2010.

     

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