New emails reveal Horry County Schools employee communicated with contractor months before bid

New emails reveal Horry County Schools employee communicated with contractor months before bid

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Newly obtained emails reveal Horry County Schools facility director communicated with First Floor Energy Positive months before the company first presented to the school board.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) began an investigation into the board’s decision to select First Floor to build five new schools in 2015.

The school district announced the investigation earlier this month.

The district also revealed communication between First Floor CEO Robbie Ferris and former school board attorney Keith Powell began months prior to the presentation to the board.

At the time, the district stated that no one with the district or board members knew about this communication until 2017, however in one email from Ferris, he references being in contact with facilities director Matt Dean.

Emails obtained by WMBF News show communication between Dean and Ferris began in April 2014, six months before Ferris presented to the board.

The numerous emails showcase the pair working together to develop a construction proposal to pitch to the school board.

“Our lawyer is working this weekend on how to get your project done,” Ferris wrote in one email.

In the same email, Ferris also references communication with school board members.

“Tom has called one of your school board members to see if they are willing to come to Sandy Grove,” Ferris said.

Sandy Grove is another energy positive school in Hoke County, North Carolina that First Floor built prior to working with Horry County Schools.

It is unclear which school board member Ferris is referring to. Previously, the district said no board members or district employees knew about communication between Powell and Ferris until 2017.

The district said it will, “refrain from commenting publicly on information pertaining to the ongoing SLED investigation.”

The emails then show that Dean invited Ferris to attend a tour of Dillon Middle School in May 2014. Numerous district employees and school board members were copied on the email with tour details.

An email shows Ferris’ lawyer and ‘finance guy’ would initially be at that tour but ended up skipping the tour to “focus their energy on the numbers/plan.”

Instead, another employee, Marion Wise, was scheduled to attend the tour with the district.

Ferris wrote to Dean the morning of the tour, “I have asked Marion to listen to board members carefully as they tour. If Dillon is acceptable to them then that would be an indication that improving the architecture might be difficult.”

April 2014 emails from Brent Jeffcoat, who Ferris’ references as his lawyer, discuss details on how First Floors could make a proposal to the district without going through a competitive bidding process.

“I do think your plan meets the requirements or sole source… I would include in your proposal that the construction be bid,” Jeffcoat wrote.

Ferris refers to Jeffcoat as his lawyer multiple times but Jeffcoat told WMBF he did not work with Ferris on the Horry County Schools project. He said he was providing some background on procurement laws to Ferris.

Previously obtained emails between Powell also showed Ferris exploring the idea of entering a contract with the district without a competitive bidding process.

Ferris forwarded his discussion with Jeffcoat to Dean.

“I like this structure a lot. Your procurement folks need to vet it but if they like it, we can get it done without an rfq or rfp. Feel free to call me or Brent, our attorney, any time,” Ferris wrote to Dean in April 2014. “Let me now if you want him in Dillon to discuss this with you or the board.”

Dean’s reply advised Ferris to work on the proposal further and to “demonstrate how this methodology would be beneficial for the district.”

Dean mentioned that the district’s chief financial officer does not think the situation would be favorable.

The emails showed the pair continuing to go back and forth about budget and district project goals.

In June, Dean provided Ferris with details on the size of schools the district is looking for.

The last email between the two is on July 8, 2014.

“It is still our intent to submit you a proposal to accelerate construction of your schools,” Ferris wrote to Dean. “We will continue to work with lenders willing to loan money for projects without taking the buildings as collateral.”

Dean left the district in 2015 and could not be reached for comment.

Ferris presented to the school board months later in October.

Prior to the presentation, WMBF reported the board was reviewing plans for new schools but the board delayed the final vote a few times.

After Ferris’ presentation, a new Request for Quotation (RFQ) was reissued by the district that focused on energy-positive schools.

A year later, in November 2015, the district selected First Floor to build five new schools despite it being the highest proposal.

First Floor’s proposal estimated the construction of the schools to cost $219 million, which was $50 million over the district’s budget.

WMBF reached out to Ferris but has not heard back.

The district said SLED is investigating this incident after the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office received a citizen complaint.

WMBF requested a copy of this complaint but was denied.

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