Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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The North Florida Broadband Authority
Its world was about to change

NFBA Chairman Stephen Fulford on the phone with the Feds. The news was not good.

The NFBA (North Florida Broadband Authority), which for the last year and a half has been floating on a sea of Federal Stimulus money, had the spigot turned off in July as the Federal Government investigated various charges of fraud and waste. Taking no responsibility and blaming the Federal Government, Bradford County, Rapid Systems and just about anybody else that they could at every opportunity they had, the NFBA was anticipating once again having millions flowing into its coffers. After Chairman Stephen Fulford announced at the beginning of the meeting that he was told the Feds would be releasing the money that afternoon and they would be calling with the good news at around three o'clock, the NFBA gave themselves a hand. The NFBA's world was about to change.

Sub contractor – concerns about money – "Are you real?"

Julie Brown - She just wanted to get paid.

About ten minutes into the meeting Julie Brown, a subcontractor on the project, addressed, the Board, "I'm primarily here over concerns for money. We are a subcontractor of Rapid Systems and the NFBA. Our contract reads that we will be paid within seven days. We have invoices starting back in July that still have not been paid. I am here to see if you are a real entity. Rumors have swirled around this project since the beginning but we ignored them, but they've gotten really bad the last week.

Ms. Brown continued:  Have you received funding already? Did you have the money in place when you started us working on these projects back in July? We've been asked to site walk 23 more sites. We are glad to have the work. We are concerned about getting deeper into this project without receiving some payment... We are looking at invoices that are turning 60 days old. Was there money in place and why isn't it flowing? We're not the only ones not getting paid if our phone calls are correct.

Chairman Fulford: There was money in place in July. The money was not frozen until August 13th. We have had no ability to pay funds since August 13. As of three o'clock today, hopefully, the money will be back on and everyone should be able to get paid tomorrow.

Ms Brown:  Great, so we can expect to be paid soon and feel happy about going on and doing some more work, right?

Mr. Fulford:  Yup.

GSG's Project Manager, Pat Lien, attempted to clear up the dates:  Actually, it was July 13th that our request for funds was denied.

The Board's Attorney, NGN's Heather Encinosa cleared it up some more: It wasn't frozen.

Then, Mr. Lien offered Ms. Brown some more clarification:  It wasn't formally frozen. We were put on a different status on July 13th... Ultimately, they put us on a suspension of the grant funds.

Link: The Department Of Commerce letter to the NFBA is here. It speaks for itself. (Emphasis added)

Ms. Brown inquired: So what you are telling me is you haven't received funds since July 13th? Our first invoice was July 20th.

She continued, "I wish someone would have told us what was going on."

Chairman Fulford, "I'm sorry."

A bit more to the frozen funds story

According to emails which occurred before the NFBA funds were frozen, the Feds offered to pay all of the invoices submitted for payment except for those from seven vendors. One of those vendors was General Manager Robert Sheets' company – GSG; the other, Capitol Solutions – the Grant Compliance company.

Rather than accept the deal, Chairman Fulford elected not to receive any money and the funds were frozen.

Link: You can see those e mails No Deal 1 and No Deal 2. (Emphasis added - adjust the popup to fit your view)

It appears that if this were not the case, Ms. Brown and many others would have been paid.

At a meeting subsequent to this, the NFBA members supported Mr. Fulford's actions. Bradford County did not.

The Feds

It's been a tough year for GSG and its owner, Robert Sheets.

The meeting rolled along. GSG's Robert Sheets, always well spoken, gave his take of the events with the Feds. He said in part:  At the end of the day they provided us with tremendous guidance in the overall direction. They wanted to have comfort and certainty in that we were moving forward.

Walter McKenzie of White Springs added: I think we are probably being called on to do some extra work that will not increase the efficiency or the accountability of our organization, but it will satisfy the requirements of what the folks in Washington want to have.

Mr. McKenzie thanked GSG's and the NFBA's Program Manager Pat Lien for all he had done.

Mr. Lien said, "Thank you very much. Especially in the financial controls, this is absolutely not just a sledgehammer, but a howitzer taking care of a mosquito."

Everybody continued to thank everybody and Tommy Langford of Gilchrist County said, "This really boosted my faith in what we got goin here."

At just before 3 o'clock, Mr. Lien said Krystal Strickland of GSG and the NFBA's Assistant CFO had a draw request of $7.6 mil already submitted to pay the vendors and it would be released as soon as the Federal Funds were released.

Sometime after that, the new Operations Committee Chairman, Pat O'Neil left, smiling and patting everyone on the back as he headed toward the exit.

Three o'clock came and went, the monthly NFBA meeting continued and there was no phone call from the Feds.

After a presentation by Jacobs Engineering's Mark Bonner, some general business and a report by the NFEDP's Jeff Hendry, there was no more business, it was after 4 pm.

At 4:07 pm, with the meeting's business completed, Mr. Fulford adjourned the meeting. The three o'clock phone call from the Feds still had not arrived

The Chairman's phone rings – finally – 4:30 pm

The Chairman on the balcony. The conversation was not going well.

At 4:30 pm Chairman Fulford's cell phone rang. The conversation was not put on speaker phone and the call almost went unnoticed by the folks still in the room.

After about five minutes, the time it would have taken for the Feds to tell him the funds were released, Mr. Fulford's head began to droop and he used his hands to hold up it up.

He began slouching over and as his eyes welled up with tears he could be heard saying, "I don't know where to begin -- I don't know what the allegations are."

That was the last thing anybody could hear and a few minutes later, phone in hand, Mr. Fulford headed out the door to the balcony.

About 20 minutes later Mr. Fulford returned to the meeting room. He was not looking well.

Someone asked, "Is it good news or bad news?"

Barely able to get the words out, Mr. Fulford said, "They'll be no money today."

Your reporter asked, "Is that a joke?" His answer was "no."

The Observer, "When will the money come?"

Mr. Fulford, "The second at the earliest. They did not release the funds."

The Observer, "Did they give a reason?"

Mr. Fulford, "I'll have an emergency meeting next week, so that I can explain it to the whole Board."

The Observer, "So you know what the reasons are now?"

Mr. Fulford, "Yes. They gave some more items that they'd like – related to corrective actions."

The Observer, "All the stuff that was there today, that's OK?"

Mr. Fulford, "Right."

The Federal government is looking for corrective actions and withholding $7.6 million. 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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