Investigative Report: School Safety Inspections
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Updated: Wednesday, August 21 2013, 01:29 PM EDT
A News 13 investigation is digging deeper into problems plaguing the Buncombe County School District. Last night we told you about dozens of fire code violations reported year after year. Now, we've uncovered more work that was done at schools without the proper permits and without the proper inspections for years.
Contractors are the ones facing stiff penalties but they say school officials are also to blame. For years, the district has hired private contractors to do construction and install fire alarms. Since permits weren't pulled, the licenses of more than a dozen contractors are on the line and they're speaking out saying school officials are the ones who told them to break the rules.You may not know it but a cloud of controversy has been hanging over the Buncombe County School District since last Fall. That's when one of the district's electricians, John Payne, blew the whistle claiming school officials told him and other workers not to pull the required permits for life safety issues. With no permits that critical work was also not inspected.Payne says he confronted his supervisor about this, "I said are you going to get this inspected and he said, 'No'. So that's the reason that I actually kept records of the jobs that I installed for my protection, because I'm a licensed contractor, my license could be on the line."
Payne says not only were his bosses breaking the law by failing to pull the required permits for electrical work but they also told private contractors not to bother pulling permits either. In April of 2012, Payne told board member Lisa Baldwin what was going on and she demanded the Superintendent launch an investigation. Baldwin says, "My request to get the permit and inspection issue on the school board agenda, to get that addressed was ignored for months."
Four months later, in August, Superintendent Tony Baldwin says he conducted a "Thorough internal investigation" which cost taxpayers more than $12,000. In a letter he wrote to News 13 last October, Dr. Baldwin says the maintenance department reviewed nearly 9,000 work orders and only "44 of them - less than half of a percent - were found to contain permit irregularities..." That letter doesn't say what those’ irregularities’ were so we requested a copy of the investigation to find out.
When we asked Dr. Baldwin about it he replied, "There was an investigation, there was no official written report although we did have, I did have results that was provided to a number of parties including our board."But board member Lisa Baldwin maintains, "I did not get an investigation report, I just got an email that was a few paragraphs long . I sent my questions back and they were not answered."
Dr. Baldwin assures us the permitting problems were addressed but a News 13 investigation is now raising questions about how the district handled those problems and what we found has prompted a probe by county officials. According to the Superintendent, the district reviewed work orders for the past 3 years. It was found some private contractors hired by the district were either not pulling permits or not getting a final inspection when the jobs were complete.
Those jobs include everything from re-roofing schools to installing new fire alarms. As a result, the county's permitting department filed complaints against 16 contractors who now face state fines and disciplinary action. Despite all this, the district continues to work with 8 of these contractors. News 13 contacted all 16 contractors to get their side of the story and that's when things took a strange twist.
Contractor Christopher Ashe tells News 13, "If I would have known that's what they wanted to begin with I would have done it on every job."Christopher Ashe owned an electrical company called ARA. He's worked at Buncombe schools for the past 8 years and during that time he says officials at the district's maintenance department told him not to bother pulling permits. Ashe says when county officials found out he didn't pull permits they reported him to the state. He now faces fines and discipline. He also says school officials specifically told him not to pull those permits stating, “They said no, don't worry about permits. Scott Emory said that, that was their protocol for, well he started a few years before me for the school and he said that's how it's been for the last 40 years, they've not pulled permits."
Ashe knows he's required to pull two permits when doing work involving life safety issues; one with the county and another with the Fire Marshal. He says that's why he was surprised when the district's maintenance supervisor told him not to worry about it. Ashe says, "We were told we didn't have to pull permits on that because it was just an extension of their maintenance. Scott Emory told me that directly, which he got that from Greg."
Emory's boss is Greg Fox, the district's maintenance director. Fox denies the allegations saying, "I am absolutely denying that I told anybody not to pull a permit, that's correct." When asked if Fox was aware of anyone in his office telling contractors not to pull permits he replied, "No, I am not."
Fox says his department never told Ashe, or any other contractors, not to pull permits. Despite this, an owner of 'M.B. Haynes Corporation' tells News 13 district officials told his project manager not to pull a permit to install a wheelchair ramp at CC Bell Elementary in 2011. As a result, his company was reported to the state. A third contractor, who requested we not expose his identity, says the same thing.
We asked Fox if his electrical supervisor, Scott Emory, told contractors not to pull permits and he replied, "I would have to talk to Scott but I would not believe that he would say that either. He's also a licensed electrician, he knows the rules."
Some feel Fox should also know the rules since he's a licensed electrician as well. Despite this, Fox claims he never knew the district was required to pull a separate permit for electrical work. Fox admits, "I'm not aware that a second permit was required, no. I don't do fire alarms, that's not my specialty."
Matt stone is director of Buncombe County's Department of Permits and Inspections. When asked if the requirements to pull two separate permits for electrical jobs was a new policy, Stone replied, "The requirements have not changed. They've always been that way, yes."
When investigative reporter Mike Mason asked Stone why Fox didn’t know his workers needed to pull two permits Stone replied, "I do not know."Ultimately, Stone's the one who regulates all work that’s done throughout the school district and he's the one who reported those 16 contractors to the state.
Several of those contractors tell News 13 it's not fair they're being disciplined for doing exactly what school officials told them, especially since they told Matt Stone this had been going on for years.
When Mason asked Stone if he ever heard that anyone in Greg Fox's office ever told workers not to pull a permit he replied, "Well I'm just trying to think, as far as I can recall that they told an electrical contractor or building permit contractor that they did not need a permit. Hearsay, but I cannot say definitely that I've ever heard it no."
When Mason pressed Stone he finally admitted he heard rumors but admits he never investigated them. Stone now says he will launch an investigation into those claims. Meanwhile, cases against those 16 contractors are set to go before the state licensing boards next month. Coming up tomorrow night at 6pm, find out what the Superintendent has to say about our investigation and what he plans to do about it.
By Mike Mason
Follow Mike Mason on Twitter at @MikeMason1
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part I
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part II
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part III
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part IV
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part V
Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part VI
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