Channel 8 WFAA TV investigative reporter Brett Shipp had a big piece on last night's 10 p.m. News Update newscast about Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles facing "new allegations of policy violations." I disagree with the piece, especially as it painted media relations consultant Lisa LeMaster, but that doesn't make it a bad piece. I just beg to differ.
Ship's main storyline was that Miles had helped a favored contractor get the inside line on a bid process. The main accuser in this case was another contractor who didn't get the job.
Nobody got the job, because there was no job, but we'll get to that later. Shipp still had a legitimate important story even though the bid process was suspended before any jobs were handed out.
His story was that LeMaster was granted or somehow wrangled some kind of special access to a bid process in which she later became a bidder. Shipp interviewed a former school district purchasing executive who said you can't be inside the district helping to design a bid process, then step outside and come back in the door as a bidder. That would give you an unfair advantage over people who were not in on the bid process from the get-go. You might even set it up so only you could win the bid.
Then Shipp interviewed media consultant Dora Tovar, who bid on the same piece of work, which involved oversight of the whole communications department and crisis-management coaching for the district's full-time communications staff, the ones who deal with the media. Tovar pretty directly accused LeMaster of exploiting a cozy business relationship at the school district to squeeze Tovar out of some work she wanted. She told Shipp: "Clearly it was not a transparent process, it was not an equitable one ... She was possibly drafting that RFP [request for proposals], designing the RFP, knowing anything about that particular process and still participating."
I talked to Tovar this morning, and she was more blunt. She said Shipp had shown her documents that led her to believe LeMaster actually wrote the RFP. "There are documents that Brett has, stating that, that he showed me, that we believe, that lead [me] to believe that she wrote it."
I said, "That she wrote it."
Tovar said, "Yes, she wrote the description."
So here is where I begin to have big problems. LeMaster told me, and Shipp confirmed, that Shipp had asked her by email if she wrote the RFP or was in on it. Her answer by email was no, that she only learned of its existence late in the game, after the RFP presumably already had been sent to other potential bidders. Shipp's story did not include this exchange point for point. He said instead, "She does say she learned of the RFP at the same time as other PR consultants and has at some point assisted nearly every superintendent for free over the last 20 years."
And here's a wrinkle. LeMaster had indeed been working for DISD on a contract having to do with communications. In fact a month earlier she delivered to Miles a plan for restructuring the communications department. And, indeed, here she was back, as Shipp reported, bidding on another communications-related job.
But there is only an issue if LeMaster took part in or knew a lot about the second RFP. Otherwise she's free to come bid on as many communications contracts as she pleases, whether she has worked for the district before or not. She says the question here is asked and answered: Shipp asked, and she said no, she was not in on it.
Shipp offered no proof on-air that she was in on it. Tovar told me Shipp had shown her proof off-air that LeMaster was in on it, hence her emphatic accusations.
I spoke with school district acting communications chief Jon Dahlander this morning. He told me the RFP process went like this: Mike Miles sent him an email telling him he wanted to see an RFP for such-and-such a body of work. Dahlander forwarded the email to the district's purchasing department. Purchasing wrote the RFP.
Shipp's piece connected these dots: LeMaster did some work for Miles; an RFP went out for other work; LeMaster bid on it; Tovar said LeMaster cheated; maybe Miles helped a favored contractor break the rules.
So I'm a decent hand with the dots myself. Let me try some dots on you. A dot that Shipp either forgot to mention or didn't know about was that Tovar, as she confirmed to me this morning, had arranged through an intermediary a month ago to have her resume presented to Miles, because she wanted the job that Dahlander is currently occupying, chief of communications. Tovar didn't get the job. But she says Miles responded to her personally, explaining that the district was not going to fill the job by hiring.
That inside personal word from Miles caused Tovar to be especially alert to the RFP in question when she saw it. She told me that the minute she saw the RFP, she said to herself, "OK, there's their way of solving this. They're not going to fill it. They're going to contract it out."
Tovar also told me she believed she was alerted to the RFP sooner than other potential bidders because she was informed of it by a special division of the purchasing department set up to service minority bidders only. In fact Tovar thinks she found out about the RFP this way even though the main purchasing operation was trying to keep it secret.
So, time for my dots. I could write a dot story saying that an inside tip from Miles and a special minority contractors-only set-up gave Tovar an unfair advantage. She didn't get the job anyway, because nobody got the job, because the whole process was put on hiatus. But my dots are as good as Shipp's.
Shipp threw in a couple more dots -- an email from Miles, for example, saying the contract amount should be held to below $50,000, which would prevent it from being something that had to go to the board of trustees for a vote. Shipp asked Tovar if she was informed of the $50,000 limit, and she said no.
I asked LeMaster if she was informed of the $50,000 limit, and she said no, too. I asked Dahlander if anybody was informed of the $50,000 limit, and he said no. They decided not to put that on the RFP and "just see what we got back." If nobody saw the $50,000 limit, then the $50,000 dot is popped.
There are other issues here that may be legitimate. Tovar told me the purchasing department at the school district lied to her when she asked what questions had been asked by other bidders. She says they told her none had been asked, when in fact LeMaster had asked questions. Certainly that accusation should be run down.
Shipp said there's supposed to be a time limit on when a bidder can ask questions about the RFP, but he says LeMaster asked questions after that deadline, and the district answered her questions anyway. It looks to me as if Shipp pretty well proved that one.
I asked LeMaster about her questions today. She said she asked questions before bidding because she couldn't figure out how much to charge for coaching the staff through crises, "when we don't know how many crises they're going to have." She said, "Its very hard to do an RFP for the school district, because they're buying widgets, and you're selling brains."
Yeah, I don't know about that. But does that sound like somebody who wrote the RFP? And there is were I find my biggest dot problem with Shipp's piece. In fact I find a tiny little dot in there that is being severely overworked, crying out for help, and I feel sorry for that dot.
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Shipp's story implies that LeMaster wrote the RFP. It was a greased deal. She set it up for herself, with Miles' help. Then Shipp says she asked too many questions too late in the game about how to bid on it. So how can both be true? Can you hear that poor little dot squealing in there?
Do I think Tovar got an inside tip from Miles and had an unfair advantage as a minority bidder? No. Do I think LeMaster wrote the RFP? She says no. Dahlander says purchasing wrote it. And LeMaster's subsequent questions make it look as if she couldn't even figure out how to respond to the thing.
I think Tovar and LeMaster are in business. They are competitors, going toe-to-toe for work, doing everything they can to keep their ears to the ground and noses in the air, to stay on their toes and know when to jump. But there is no evidence that hanky-panky took place here, unless you grab that one little dot with a pair of pliers and conclude that LeMaster knew too much about the RFP and also knew too little.
LeMaster refused to do an on-camera interview with Shipp. She should have. Maybe they could have worked out some of these points. Shipp's a great reporter. I just don't buy this one.