The Strickland administration responded quickly to another damning report from the Ohio Inspector General’s Office (IG), rejecting outright the IG’s finding that the Ohio School Facilities Commission, and specifically Director Richard Murray, had abused commission “neutrality” in promoting union interests over non-union contractors on school projects.
Inspector General Thomas Charles accuses Murray of “pro-union biases” and direct conflicts of interest in the 40-page report, while state Budget Director Pari Sabety, chair of OSFC, charges Charles with a dearth of evidence in support of his claims.
The report has now prompted Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) to call for Murray’s resignation.
It is the second investigatory finding against a top Strickland appointee in three months. Both originated in Charles’ office. His previous report on the Ohio Department of Public Safety and State Highway Patrol led the Ohio Senate to reject the appointment of former Safety Director Cathy Collins-Taylor. Charles had accused the administration of bullying the highway patrol in a cancelled investigation of the now-suspended inmate worker program at the governor’s residence. He now accuses Strickland-appointee Richard Murray, OSFC’s executive director since Mike Shoemaker was fired in a hail of union criticism, of bullying school districts to accept union contracts.
“Not only was Murray inappropriately making plain his preference for union construction, he literally mobilized union labor against non-union contractors,” Charles says, noting the new director summarily fired OSFC’s chief legal counsel – “who was unpopular with organized labor” – upon entering office and “boasted about it at union meetings.”
Charles goes on to discuss the widely reported incident involving former Shawnee State University trustee Gary Coleman, an organizer for Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), and Clay Local School District – a meeting attended by Murray.
“The union representative berated school officials with profanities and racial slurs for 15 minutes while Murray sat silently by his side,” the IG states. “Murray … said he made himself available at these meetings to answer questions and did not take sides. Regardless of whether Murray always remained neutral at the meetings – and the evidence suggests he did not – Murray’s mere presence at union arm-twisting sessions spoke volumes.”
Charles goes to great pains to establish that Murray not only professed ongoing union membership with LIUNA and attended numerous labor gatherings, he also sought consultant work with his former employer, the union affiliate Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust (LECET), after accepting the job as OSFC director.
“Murray sought an Ohio Ethics Commission advisory opinion about whether he could work as a paid consultant for LECET,” the IG says. “Murray withdrew the request before the Ohio Ethics Commission could issue a determination, but for Murray to even consider such an arrangement was an astonishing indication of his divided loyalties.”
Charles says those purported loyalties eventually reached the level of a formal and legally actionable conflict of interest. He refers to another widely reported construction project involving the new Ohio School for the Deaf and School for the Blind.
“For Murray, adopting a project labor agreement (PLA) was more than a controversial policy decision; it posed what we believe to be an appearance of impropriety….” Charles states. “Murray belongs to Local 423, one of the unions engaged in the PLA. Local 423 will receive union dues from employees on the project; and, under the terms of the PLA Murray signed, Murray’s former employer, LECET, also will be paid for each hour of employee work. Separately, LECET’s partner organization, the Ohio Laborers’ District Council, also will receive a portion of each union employee’s wages.”
Charles estimates the value of the School for the Blind/School for the Deaf PLA to union interests at $145,000.
In view of these charges, he makes the following recommendations:
– The commission should take action to ensure the executive director demonstrates neutrality regarding school districts’ selection of contractors, regardless of union affiliation and prevailing wage or PLA matters.
– The OSFC should standardize its evaluation of bids, and its oversight of contractor performance.
– To evaluate further the prime contractor’s quality of work, OSFC should develop an evaluation form to document problems that occurred after occupancy.
In total, says Charles, a string of incidents since Murray arrived at OSFC reveal his disregard for a history of neutrality – a characterization of OSFC’s position on labor issues which Sabety rejects.
“The main premise of this report is that the Ohio School Facilities Commission and the executive director have an obligation to act neutrally with regard to prevailing wage and project labor agreement decisions of local school districts,” she says. “But for the first 10 years of the commission’s existence under previous gubernatorial administrations, the commission was not neutral. Despite state law permitting prevailing wage and project labor agreements on all public building projects, including school facilities, previous administrations had a policy that outright prohibited the adoption of such quality bidding practices.”
To correct that alleged bias, Sabety says the Strickland administration has instead adopted the policy of deferring to local control in the selection of school contractors.
“The OSFC passed a resolution allowing local school districts to pursue quality bidder requirements and project labor agreements where they deem it appropriate and where it can provide the highest quality construction for Ohio’s schoolchildren and the best value for Ohio’s taxpayers,” she says.
Sabety then backtracks somewhat by insisting Murray and OSFC have indeed acted with neutrality.
“The proof that the School Facilities Commission has remained neutral with regard to local district decisions is that the total number of local school districts that have adopted project labor agreements or incorporated prevailing wage provisions ‘amount to a fraction of OSFC projects,’ according to the IG report,” she states.
As for Murray’s own conduct, Sabety rebuffs the claim that the director had “behaved unprofessionally” in his role.
“He has not. The inspector general report provides no evidence of a school district that chose to use contractors because of pressure from the school facilities commission, or because of a perception of preference from the executive director.”
Harris responded with the following call for Murray’s ouster:
“Intimidation, contract steering and good old boy politics do not build school buildings and have no place in state government. I am concerned that the changes that have occurred at the Ohio School Facilities Commission over the past year under the direction of Richard Murray have tarnished the reputation of one of the state’s most successful programs.”
Harris says equally qualified union and non-union contractors should be on “equal footing” before OSFC.
“Based on the inspector general’s report, it is clear that under the leadership of Director Murray, the priority has been placed on the governor’s political supporters at the expense of our schools and Ohio taxpayers. If we have any hope of restoring confidence in this program and in the commission, Director Murray should step down. If he refuses, the governor should let him go.”
The full report on OSFC can be found at http://watchdog.ohio.gov/investigations/2010082.pdf.