The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating what led the Horry County School District to spend more than $200 million building five energy-efficient schools, according to public records.
The results of the investigation will be turned over to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, which will review the case and determine how to proceed.
District officials on Tuesday released a statement about the case in response to inquiries and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from MyHorryNews.com. The district initially denied a request for certain records, but they agreed to release them after receiving a letter from the media outlet's attorney Jay Bender.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said he could not provide any details about the matter. But SLED agents have interviewed multiple district officials about the case, including board members, in recent months. Those interviews focused on how the contract for the new schools was awarded. The district also provided SLED with emails pertaining to specifications of the schools that FirstFloor Energy Positive built after winning a $220 million contract in 2015, records show.
The emails the district sent to SLED were between FirstFloor CEO Robbie Ferris and former Horry County school board attorney Keith Powell. The messages were written before Powell prepared a request for proposals, which laid out the requirements for the new schools.
Multiple attempts to reach Powell, including as recently as Tuesday morning, were unsuccessful.
MyHorryNews.com received copies of the emails Tuesday morning.
“What I saw was an aggressive salesman,” said school board member Holly Heniford, who has seen the emails. “And that was Robbie having an opportunity by somebody who represents us, who should have been looking out for our best interests, allowing him to influence the bid.”
Ferris said his correspondence with Powell was strictly about industry terms that would be in the RFP.
“The district’s director for construction management, Matt Dean, indicated that he wanted us to communicate directly with Mr. Powell in this regard, and at the time it was my understanding that Mr. Powell was drafting the RFP and needed our help and direction with the industry terms of art,” Ferris said in a statement, adding that no one from his team had been interviewed by SLED.
But even before Ferris was a bidder for Horry County’s energy-positive schools, he was no stranger to the district.
In 2012, school officials paid consulting firm Cardno Tec $875,000 for a district-wide assessment that showed the need for four new schools before preparing to put the project out for bid. Ferris’ company submitted a proposal for conceptual design but was not a final contender for the work on those four planned schools.
That didn’t stop him from courting then executive director of facilities Matt Dean and Powell in the summer of 2014, when emails show that he was pitching his idea for schools that are energy-positive, meaning they generate more energy than they use. At the time, the district had already begun the process of soliciting qualified bidders for the four schools.
In those 2014 emails, Ferris proposed sole-sourcing his energy-positive schools idea and moving forward without a bidding process to ensure that his company got the job, but the schools were still bid out.
On Oct. 3, 2014, Ferris met with then school board chairman Joe DeFeo, former Burroughs and Chapin CEO Doug Wendel, school board member Neil James and Heniford at James’ office at Santee Cooper.
The next Monday, Ferris emailed DeFeo and James to thank them for their time and told them that his legal and financial team was ready to talk to the district’s procurement attorneys about the schools. He told them his team was “ready to move quickly with your projects.”
“As far as my involvement, Joe [DeFeo] said it was a meeting with an architect,” James said in a conversation with MyHorryNews.com in January, adding that he didn’t know beforehand that the meeting was with Ferris.
Heniford, a real estate agent, was running for school board at the time. She said she was called to the meeting by DeFeo. She was interested in green schools, not just FirstFloor.
“Robbie did his presentation,” Heniford said. “That was the first time I’d ever seen him before. Never met him. What I wanted was the product. It was a really nice presentation. … We had lunch, Neil [James] brought in pizza, but we continued the conversation about the schools and going into detail about that.”
Heniford and James both said no promises were made during the meeting.
On Oct. 20, 2014 Ferris presented the board with a proposal to build five new schools that would generate 40 percent more energy than they consumed. That's an idea DeFeo told the board would bring in money for the district. DeFeo later tried to claim that his words had been misinterpreted, although the meeting where he made those remarks was recorded on video.
On Nov. 10, 2014 the board voted to scrap their early plans for four traditional schools and begin the process of bidding out five energy-positive schools. But the new request only specified that the schools produced more energy than consumed, instead of the 40 percent requirement initially proposed by Ferris.
James said that the cancellation of the first building project wasn’t due to Ferris, but instead because of the potential to save money with energy-efficient schools. At the time of the vote, Heniford wasn’t on the school board, but she said she wasn’t concerned about Ferris’ first pitch to the board, which wasn’t in response to the RFP that the district issued.
“I don’t care what his [first] proposal said,” Heniford said. “I wanted what we were asking for.”
With the help of district staff, school board attorneys wrote out the technical specifications for the new schools. In December of 2014, during the development of solicitation documents, school board attorney Keith Powell talked four times with FirstFloor registered agent Brent Jeffcoat, according to attorney billing records obtained by MyHorryNews.com. Additionally, Powell reviewed “edits” made to the document by DeFeo, who was also talking to the board attorneys developing the solicitation requirements.
Jeffcoat said in emails that he was talking to Powell as a favor to Ferris, in order to help him better understand South Carolina procurement code.
Those conversations were in addition to emails between Powell and Ferris regarding the development of the RFP.
Eventually, a 10-member selection panel that included five board members rated FirstFloor the highest of the top three bidding companies. The five board members were Neil James, Holly Heniford, David Cox, Ray Winters and Sherri Todd.
“We had criteria to vote on,” Heniford said. “It was not just the lowest bidder. That was one of the items. There were categories. One was the bid, one was that it was energy positive, one was ‘Did they give us the graphics and the layout that we wanted?’ There were specific categories and we had to rank them in all of those. Nobody else could get the bonding to produce energy-positive of the three. They couldn’t. And that’s what we asked for.”
Heniford said that the bonding was important to ensure the district got what it was paying for.
“You wouldn’t hire a builder to build your house, you wouldn’t hire a plumber to come in your house unless they were bonded,” she said. “Because if they mess up your plumbing, if they mess up your air conditioning, you go back on their bond, on their insurance, to pay for their mistake that they made on your property.”
Ferris’ company, although being the highest bidder, was awarded a $220 million contract in 2015, with the district budgeting an additional $20 million in contingency funds. Board members said he had the best proposal and the best product.
Despite the board’s optimism about the new schools, the construction program saw multiple delays.
The new Socastee Middle School and Myrtle Beach Middle School did not open in time for the fall 2017 semester. That’s because Ferris’ contract dates were extended due to work days that were lost because of rain. In the case of Socastee Middle School, FirstFloor was behind the gun from the start because of delays getting onto the property.
“They had in their contract weather days,” Heniford said. “They got their approvals and we approved them. That machine that constructed those schools, the construction machine that built those schools was very fine-tuned. They did a phenomenal job. Nobody thought that they could do what they did at all, and they did it.”