OAKLAND — An investigation is under way to determine whether the Oakland Unified School District has overpaid a small local law firm and let it bill for services with little to no oversight.
For the 2006-07 year, the Oakland firm Bryant & Brown received $846,900 from the district to handle construction contracts, lawsuits and facilities-use plans, according to school board documents — plus $200,000 from the district's general fund that was furnished by an East Coast developer that was negotiating to buy a prime piece of district land.
Now, the Oakland school district's lead attorney is investigating allegations that the two-partner firm was overpaid out of a $435 million pot of construction bond money, which voters approved in 2006 to refurbish the city's crumbling schools.
According to school board documents, the firm has received more than $1 million from this fund.
District spokesman Troy Flint and Interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor confirmed Wednesday that an investigator from the Alameda County district attorney's office will also review the evidence to determine whether improprieties occurred.
"The board wanted an aggressive review," Flint said. "We are going to continue this same hard line as we review all of our departments."
Flint said no employees had been fired or disciplined as of Wednesday afternoon, but that the general counsel's initial inquiry uncovered some "irregularities."
For example, most contracts with outside vendors are authorized by the general counsel's office, but this firm had a "unconventional arrangement," Flint said. Bryant & Brown dealt directly with the head of the facilities department, Tim White, without oversight from the legal department, Flint said.
Noel Gallo, a school board member who began raising questions about the firm's high fees in June 2007 — when former State Administrator Kimberly Statham approved the $847,000 contract — said he was deeply concerned about the investigation.
"This is an extremely serious matter that we should not take lightly," Gallo said. "We need a full, complete investigation from the top down." He added: "All those involved need to be terminated."
Neither White, nor anyone from Bryant & Brown, responded to calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The internal probe began after a heated discussion Sept. 10 between Gallo and Alice Spearman, a fellow board member. Another contract to Bryant & Brown had appeared on the agenda that evening, and Gallo asked the interim superintendent why the district needed its services when it had five attorneys on staff, including someone who works solely with the facilities department. The item was tabled.
Spearman, an advocate for local, minority-owned firms, accused Gallo of targeting the African-American legal team — which, she said, had saved the school district millions of dollars.
"We have a race problem here," Spearman said at the meeting. She added, "When black folks try to make some money, we have a problem with it."
Spearman said Wednesday she wasn't aware of the overpayment allegations during that meeting. Now, she said, she supports a full inquiry into these contracts and others — in the facilities department and elsewhere in the district.
"If it happened for one, they can find improprieties all kinds of ways if they look for it," Spearman said.
Spearman acknowledged that Gallo's questions likely sparked the inquiry, but she said she stood by her statement about race.
"Personally, I believe nothing would have been questioned had it been another firm," she said.