Metropolis: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Documentsin the Case

The plot surroundingFort Worth school construction spending just got thicker.


Last week, the owner of Briscoe Construction Co. threw down his hard hat, packed up his blueprints, and pulled his workers off the job at six Fort Worth schools, bringing $6 million worth of construction work to a screeching halt.

For those who have followed the often-controversial career of Leonard Briscoe, Sr., it was the predictable result of a long-smoldering and often nasty dispute between Briscoe and the district. Briscoe has claimed he is owed an additional $230,000 for overseeing the construction work — a higher-than-contracted-for fee that he says the late school board president Gary Manny verbally promised him.

The dispute, affecting the district’s $400 million bond program, is likely to be resolved now through a costly lawsuit. “He doesn’t want to, but he is going to sue [the school district] if they don’t work something out,” Briscoe’s attorney, Art Brender, said late last week.

In view of the mess, a cryptic note written a year ago by school district attorney Bertha Bailey Whatley raises two troublesome questions: What was one trustee’s ex-parte role in the Briscoe affair? And what did the school board know and when did it know it?

On April 19, 2002, Whatley penned a few fractured sentences on a small sheet of memo paper and attached it to the cover sheet of a 2002 contract between Briscoe and the district that set a fee of $572,000 for Briscoe’s work in overseeing construction at the six schools. The board approved the contract after Briscoe came in with the lowest bid.

The note read: “This contract reflects changes Mr. Briscoe and Mr. Sims made per WER’s agreement to add an additional $230,000... Can’t until Board ratifies... On 04-16-02 I saw them (B and TAS) photocopying documents in WER’s office as I was leaving.” The note was initialed BBW and dated.

The memo was found in a box of public documents recently released by the district to Fort Worth Weekly under an open records request. Whatley’s legal assistant Lisa Silvia acknowledged that the memo was written by Whatley and that the “WER” referred to William Eldon Ray and “TAS” to board member T. A. Sims. The note, however, was confidential, Silvia said, meant for “her clients, the board. It wasn’t supposed to be made public. ... I don’t know how it got in that box of documents.”

The note does not say what documents Whatley saw the two men copying or if she was an eyewitness to the changes she says Briscoe and Sims made to the contract. She has refused to talk to the Weekly about the note.

However, last August the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Whatley’s statement that, at some point after the board approved Briscoe’s contract, she had discovered Briscoe inserting a retyped contract into his file with the additional $230,000 tacked onto his fee, raising it to a total of $802,000. That would have made Briscoe’s services cost about $200,000 more than the second- and third-lowest bidders. Whatley stopped him, she said, and changed the figures back to the approved amounts, explaining that fee changes would have to be ratified by the board. Briscoe reportedly replied, “You’re right. No problem.” In some cases, changing a public record can be a violation of Texas criminal law regarding public corruption.

Whatley has never publicly identified Sims, however, as having been present with Briscoe the day he is alleged to have altered his contract.

When Sims was read the contents of the note last week during a telephone interview, he exploded in anger, saying it was the first time he had heard the allegations. “T.A. Sims did not make any changes to Mr. Briscoe’s contract,” he said. “I did not photocopy anything, and anyone who says that is lying.

“I have never been involved making copies with Mr. Briscoe or anyone else in Mr. Ray’s office,” Sims added. “If Mrs. Whatley saw me or anyone changing documents, she would have had a duty to report it immediately.”

In fact, another trustee, who asked for anonymity, said that Whatley did not bring the note or her suspicions to the board until December, eight months after she wrote the lines.

Trustees quickly understood the note’s implications, the board member said, and several reacted angrily. Whatley reportedly was pressed to explain how a contractor could get access to sensitive documents to alter them and insert substitute pages. One trustee said that if Whatley could prove Briscoe had doctored public documents, the board should bring charges against him. To date, however, the board member said, no action has been taken.

Strangely enough, Sims said he was not at any board meeting when the note was discussed, and that no member of the board has ever asked him about it. “The first I knew of it was when you read it to me.” He was puzzled, he said, as to why no board member has called him to ask him about such a serious charge. “If a board member is involved in something like this, I would want to ask him about it.”

When asked what the board knew and when it knew it, Trustee Christene Moss’ response, via e-mail, was as ambiguous as the note. “It doesn’t matter,” she wrote. “I cannot answer until I receive some other answers. ...This information is not totally factual.” No other board members responded to requests for comments.

Briscoe said he’s “an easy target” for allegations like Whatley’s because he’s “been to jail,” referring to his 1993 stint in federal prison for bribing a HUD official to help him get federal funding for a Florida public housing project.

When asked about Sims’ charge that she had lied, Whatley said icily, “Mr. Sims can say what he likes. It’s his right. I will not comment further.”

As for Briscoe’s contract, Whatley said, “He says he has a contract dated April 16, 2002 [that gives him more money]. There is no such contract. There is only one, the original, dated March 1, 2002, and it is in this office.” A board member and attorney Brender, however, both said that there are at least three versions of the Briscoe contract floating around, all with different dates. One board member told the Weekly that one version bears the name of Briscoe’s son and partner, Leonard Briscoe, Jr.

For almost a year, Briscoe’s company has been the construction management agent at six schools undergoing remodeling and expansion: Morningside Middle, Glencrest Sixth Grade, and McRae, Meadowbrook, Glen Park and Oaklawn elementary schools. For most of that time, he and the district have been at loggerheads over his fee. Shortly after a low bid of $572,000 won him the contract, he began a quest to get an additional $230,000, an amount he claimed had been promised to him in a private meeting with then-associate superintendent Eldon Ray and the late board president Manny.

Briscoe said in a recent interview that after he submitted the bid, he told Ray a mistake had been made in the bid criteria, allowing for only one project manager for the six jobs. “I needed at least three,” he said “if the jobs were going to be done right. Eldon and Gary agreed with me.”

Other contractors who had bid unsuccessfully for the contract were enraged at Briscoe’s attempt to up his fee after the fact. Several told trustees that voting more money for Briscoe would make the bidding process meaningless. The majority of the board agreed and voted against raising Briscoe’s fee.

In a lengthy interview last week from his office, the 62-year-old Briscoe, who is recovering from heart surgery, seemed weary. He denied any wrongdoing or collusion with Sims to change the terms of the contract.

Briscoe’s critics assume the walkout is an attempt to pressure the board to get the additional $230,000. But he said that’s not what it’s about. His $572,000 fee, Briscoe said, has been eaten up by lengthy delays that he blames on the “incompetence of my general contractor, the Fort Worth ISD.” Bill Branum, head of Total Project Management, the company managing the entire bond package, told board members last week that some of the delays were not Briscoe’s fault. For example, two schools are waiting for a city building permit because the district’s consultants haven’t filed the correct papers. At another, an architect failed to identify existing utility lines before building pads were built over them. And the district recently fired several subcontractors because they were using an unlicensed bonding agent.

“I do not believe the district can hold me or my firm morally or legally responsible for delays caused by others,” Briscoe said.

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