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Lawsuit in the making?: Water plant report roils into controversy

By Staff | Apr 12, 2011

Mayor John Sullivan thinks the Department of Justice might be able to step in and have a look at whether the city’s contractor took advantage when it built the North RO Water Plant.
Other officials say the appropriate agency to decide whether data was falsified and manipulated to justify the building of the water treatment facility might be the state Attorney General’s Office.
The issue may get answered legally, but not in the manner intended by those calling for a legal review at the Cape Coral City Council meeting Monday night.
Former City Manager Terry Stewart, who was accused of signing a construction document “months” before its presentation to council in 2007, adamantly denies the allegation and any inference that he and the contractor, MWH, may have somehow conspired to get the now-controversial plant built.
Stewart said Monday night following the meeting that council had the correct information readily at hand yet chose to malign his reputation with false allegations concerning a project that has become a politicized.
He said he intends to sue the city and name individually those whom he says have impugned his professional reputation — Mayor John Sullivan, council members Bill Deile, Eric Kuehn, Pete Brandt and Chris Chulakes-Leetz, and long-time UEP critic Sal Grosso, a member of the city’s Financial Advisory Committee.
“What we are seeing is my ethics, my character, my professionalism being questioned by people who have no basis to do so, and I’ve had enough,” Stewart said. “Before this is said and done, I want an apology from each and every one of them.”
According to Stewart, he wrote the wrong year on the date line shortly after the start of a new calendar year: Council approved the work contract on Jan. 29, 2007; the contractor, MWH, signed on Feb. 8, 2007; and he signed on Feb. 22, 2007, accidentally writing in the year 2006.
A simple look at the documents presented to council and still available on the city’s website shows council received an unsigned contract in January 2007, Stewart said.
“The information was easily discovered by anybody,” he said, adding he will retain legal counsel first thing Tuesday morning.
The latest utility controversy bubbled to the surface after council added to its agenda a presentation by the city’s Financial Advisory Committee.
FAC Chairman Don McKiernan told the board Stewart signed off on contracts almost 11 months prior to the then-sitting city council members ever having seen the documentation.
Between the signing of the contract, and the beginning of construction, McKiernan said MWH began to manipulate population and water usage projections.
“The plant was eyed to be built prior to 2004, and the data was manipulated after 2004 to ensure the plant would be built,” said McKiernan. “There had been a decision to go forward with the plant, and thereafter every step of the data was changed.”
Sullivan, who successfully pushed for a forensic and construction audit of portions of the expansion project, supported having another outside agency look at the water plant issues raised Monday.
Others on council voiced support for the proposal as well.
Councilmember Bill Deile said McKiernan’s background — which included being treasurer for several cities and special counsel to the Rhode Island Senate — gave the presentation and information merit, but he said he didn’t want to pay for an outside agency to look at the information to determine if any illegalities took place.
Deile added, though, that more information was needed.
“If Bernie Madoff hadn’t been indicted he’d be out making investment advice for other people just like MWH in New Orleans, in California, right now,” he said.
Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz suggested that State Attorney General Pam Bondi look at it after city staff compiled the information and sent it off.
Chulakes-Leetz also asked those viewing the televised session that if anyone “knew more” than City Attorney Dolores Menendez on the subject, they should make suggestions on who to contact.
Menendez asked for some additional direction.
“I don’t think we can bundle all of this information together and send it to somebody and say, ‘what’s up?'” Menendez said.
Whether the Department of Justice, or another agency will be asked to take a look was not determined. Menendez said she would work with the city clerk’s office to package the information so council could approve or deny such a move.
Menendez told the board there was missing information from the presentation materials presented by FAC members, including Lee Mars.
Mars said the group didn’t present the information as a means to provide answers, but to provide the information to the public.
“We didn’t come here with solutions, we came here with information,” Mars said.
MWH, meanwhile, has consistently stood behind its performance in Cape Coral.
Although not privy to the report presented Monday night, officials there again said they are confident any review would show no problems with the contract or how the work was performed.
“We stand by our work on the Cape Coral Utility Expansion Project and we’re confident that when the facts are reviewed the conclusions will show that there are no significant issues,” said Meg VanderLann, vice president of corporate communications, in a phone interview following the council meeting.
MWH president Joseph Adams previously sent a letter to Sullivan addressing allegations and critical information presented at council and FAC meetings.
“At MWH, our reputation for honesty, professionalism and ethical behaviour is priceless to us. Our employee-owners are each committed to these core values because we know our reputation is the key to our success. We are very concerned about statements that have been made by you and others about us during recent City of Cape Coral council meetings and finance committee meetings. Particularly troubling are the allegations of “potential criminal activity” as well as your statement, “These guys are in trouble in California, they’re in trouble in New Orleans and they should be in trouble with Cape Coral.” These remarks indicate to us that you and others do not have a complete and accurate understanding of the facts about our company, the work we did with the City of Cape Coral on the Cape Coral Utilities Expansion Programs (UEP), or the work we have done in New Orleans, Louisiana and Los Osos, California,” the March 14 letter states, in part.

— Editor Valarie Harring contributed to this report