Tarrant County investigating possible irregularities in road construction project

Posted Monday, Jul. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Top county officials are trying to determine whether a contractor was paid for work he didn’t do as part of a project to eliminate a dangerous intersection on the far southeast edge of Fort Worth.

Contractor Randle D. Howard was paid more than $36,000 last spring to build a driveway and drainage culverts near a mobile home dealership at Rendon Bloodworth Road and Farm Road 1187.

But more than $14,000 of the work was done by two other companies, which were also paid, according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram under the Texas Public Information Act.

In addition, Howard was paid $6,000 more for pouring a concrete slab on private property, an apparent violation of county rules.

“We put this concrete pad on private property. We’re not allowed to build on private property,” said County Administrator G.K. Maenius, who is looking into the situation along with County Auditor Renee Tidwell. “I don’t think there was any ill intention, but we should not have done it.

“We are going to go back to Howard, and we need to have better justification of what was included in that $14,000, to see if we got our money’s worth,” Maenius said. “We are working on this. It’s not good; it’s not good at all.”

Last week, Howard took the unusual step of addressing the Tarrant County Commissioners Court to deny any wrongdoing. He declined to comment further to the Star-Telegram.

The Star-Telegram filed a request for the documents after a veteran Tarrant County road crew worker said he overheard an exchange between Howard and the county employee overseeing the project.

The conversation, the worker said, occurred at the job site in May 2012.

Howard said he was unable to complete the agreed-on work, the crew member said.

The job was bigger, Howard said, than what he had expected when he bid nearly $37,000 to win the contract, according to the worker.

T.C. Webster, director of field operations in Tarrant County’s Precinct 1, promised to “fix the problem,” the crew member said.

Webster declined to comment for this report. Maenius said Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Brooks, who supervises Webster, asked him to conduct an independent review of the project.

The Star-Telegram agreed not to identify the tipster because he fears retaliation for speaking out. But armed with his account, the newspaper began its own investigation of the use of taxpayer funds.

A few days after the alleged conversation, another company delivered to the site $12,797 worth of culvert drainage pieces, which were lifted in place at a cost of $1,600, according to county documents.

Those companies were paid for their work, and Howard’s company, R.D. Howard LLC of Fort Worth, was paid the full amount of the original contract, the documents show.

“R.D. Howard clearly did not do any of the $14,000 part of the bid,” the county worker said. “Nobody could believe it; we were all talking about it. We knew what was supposed to be done by the contractor, and we were doing it.”

In addition, the county wants to know why Howard installed a $5,775 concrete driveway extension on private property adjacent to the job site. That project was not included in the original purchase order.

‘I am absolutely offended’

The issue went public last week when Howard, who said he had been unofficially notified of the county’s investigation, appeared before the Commissioners Court.

Questions had been raised, he told commissioners, about improper billing and whether he gave kickbacks to county officials.

“I have never given or paid any kickback or under-the-table” payments to “any Tarrant County official, nor have any ever been requested of me,” Howard said, reading from a statement. “Moreover, I have never given any such payments to any government official or anyone else.

“I have never knowingly or willfully overbilled, double-billed or received unearned payments from Tarrant County officials, or any other of the more than 100 local, state and federal government agencies.

“And, I am absolutely offended and insulted that anyone would question my integrity in this manner.”

The contractor told commissioners that he had “verbally” agreed to install the concrete driveway on private property “free of charge” under his original contract.

It is not clear why he prepared a bid for Webster, dated June 6, 2012, or why he was paid nearly $6,000 via a purchase order dated five days later.

If Precinct 1 road crews do anything on private property, Maenius said, they must seek approval from the elected commissioner in charge.

Commissioner Brooks said he was unaware of the billing questions or the private-property work before the Star-Telegram requested the project records.

He said couldn’t comment further until Maenius has completed his review.

“I don’t have all the facts right now. When I know more, I will talk about it,” Brooks said.

It ‘wasn’t right’

The road crew worker said he knew “the whole thing wasn’t right.”

“I had never seen something like this,” he said.

After the project was completed, he waited a few months to ensure that all the bills and payment invoices had been recorded by Tarrant County. Then he started digging into online county records and, over six months, he put together a “book” detailing the project.

“Once I had all the stuff together, I knew I had something special. It blew my mind because the facts were there, the bid history, work orders, the payment history for the materials. There was no way they could cover that up,” the worker said.

Records obtained from the county by the Star-Telegram match the documentation compiled by the worker.

Howard’s contract was one piece of a joint Tarrant County and state Transportation Department project to eliminate a dangerous Y intersection on a banked curve where Rendon Bloodworth Road met Farm Road 1187, Maenius said.

The project entailed converting the end of Rendon Bloodworth into a cul-de-sac, which eliminated the mobile home dealer’s access to FM 1187.

“It was a dangerous curve, and we needed to fix this,” Maenius said.

Howard’s part of the project, according to the original purchase order, was to build a new driveway, culverts and drainage pieces over a deep bar ditch, restoring the business owner’s access.

Howard’s crews also added a concrete driveway extension on private property, to allow the “property owner to more safely pull off shoulder, decelerate and enter property,” according to the June 6 bid from Howard to Webster.

‘Taxpayers’ money’

Tidwell, the county auditor, said she expects to present a written report to commissioners July 9.

She will recommend that the county tighten controls on who approves purchases of goods and services within individual departments and precincts. She also will advise that the county adopt a more formal process for documenting changes in scope when projects are modified.

She said no change orders were issued for the Rendon Bloodworth project.

Maenius said that if there was any wrongdoing, the county will deal with it.

“This office, that is what we do. We have some homework to do on this thing. We are not slowing down on it. It is not on the back burner; it is upfront,” he said.

“If it means we have more restrictive policies and procedures and a checkoff point with more than one person making the decision, we’ll do that,” he said.

“We need to improve our processes and that’s what we are going to do.”

The road worker said he wants someone at the county to be held accountable.

“It’s the taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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