Fired Phila. School Dist. administrator who blew whistle on controversial procurement process sues district for retaliation

Jon Campisi Feb. 28, 2012, 1:09pm

A former top administrator for the Philadelphia School District who alleges his firing was connected to his blowing the whistle on a controversial district move to award a contract to a minority firm despite the fact that the work was supposed to go to another bidder has filed a federal civil rights complaint against his former employer.

Francis X. Dougherty, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., accuses the School District of Philadelphia, former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and others of terminating his employment because he spoke out about “instances of wrongdoing and waste.”

The complaint, which was filed Feb. 24 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Philadelphia attorneys Alice W. Ballard and Lisa A. Mathewson, claims that Dougherty was fired after speaking publicly about the awarding of public contracts on the basis of “favoritism, personal connections and race.”

The awarding of the contracts, the complaint alleges, resulted in the “inequitable and improper allocation of School District resources, to the detriment of the School District and the taxpayers who fund its operations.”

The case is related to a controversy that arose out of the district’s procurement process during the 2009-10 school year.

In December 2009, in connection with highly publicized incidents of interracial violence at South Philadelphia High School, the district undertook a $700,000 emergency camera installation project to improve security at the school.

The prime contract for the project was awarded to the firm Carr & Duff, a contractor that had an existing, competitively bid contract for emergency work with the school district, according to the complaint.

As the work on the security cameras neared completion, the suit claims, former Superintendent Ackerman discovered that there were no minority firms working on the project, and she subsequently ordered Dougherty, who was the district’s deputy chief business officer for operations, to find some work on the project for IBS Communications Inc., a minority-owned contracting firm with which Dougherty and his staff were not familiar.

The lawsuit states that IBS had never previously done work for the school district, had no experience with district specifications for surveillance cameras, and was not familiar with school district buildings or work protocols.

The suit claims that Ackerman ordered that work be given to IBS because either she or someone “in her network,” had a prior relationship and connection with IBS or because IBS is a minority-owned firm.

The lawsuit claims that Ackerman’s order to find work for IBS, despite the fact that the firm wasn’t the lowest responsible bidder in the contract awarding process, something required by the Pennsylvania School Code, was an “instance of wrongdoing and waste” in that it violated the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, the Pennsylvania School Code, the school district’s procurement procedures, and other district policies.

In September 2010, Dougherty received Ackerman’s ire when the former superintendent learned someone made a public information request for information about the district’s dealings with IBS relating to the security camera project, which was estimated to cost $7.5 million.

“Defendant Ackerman directed hostile questions to Mr. Dougherty about how his staff found out about IBS, saying that Mr. Dougherty was the only person whom she had directed to find work for IBS on the South Philadelphia High School project in December of 2009,” the lawsuit states.

In late September 2010, the suit claims, Ackerman transferred management responsibility for the security camera project from Dougherty and his team to the district’s procurement director, a position that did not include management responsibility over contracting for capital construction projects.

The transfer was done with the belief that that procurement director would award the security camera contract to IBS, the lawsuit claims.

The contract was eventually awarded to IBS.

In November 2010, Dougherty submitted a report to the FBI Tips and Public Leads website, the suit states. The report touched on the misuse of taxpayer dollars and other wrongdoing.

The FBI soon began to investigate, of which the district found out.

Dougherty went on to reach out to various elected state officials as well as local media to make public the issues relating to the procurement process.

Dougherty was eventually fired in the spring of 2011.

In addition to Ackerman, her former second-in-command, Leroy Nunery, and district chief talent and development officer Estelle Matthews, three individual School Reform Commission members are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of First Amendment retaliation and violating Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Law.

Dougherty seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to attorney’s fees and other court relief.

Ackerman has since left the school district. She accepted more than a million dollars after the district offered to buy out her contract.

The controversial move came very shortly after the School Reform Commission voted to extend her contract.

Local media has reported that Ackerman has since left the Philadelphia area and now calls New Mexico home.


The federal case number is 2:12-cv-01001-CDJ.


More News