Brett Shipp Stretches to Connect Dots Between Mike Miles and Lisa LeMaster

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Channel 8 WFAA TV investigative reporter Brett Shipp had a big piece on last night's 10 p.m. News Update newscast about Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles facing "new allegations of policy violations." I disagree with the piece, especially as it painted media relations consultant Lisa LeMaster, but that doesn't make it a bad piece. I just beg to differ.

Ship's main storyline was that Miles had helped a favored contractor get the inside line on a bid process. The main accuser in this case was another contractor who didn't get the job.

Nobody got the job, because there was no job, but we'll get to that later. Shipp still had a legitimate important story even though the bid process was suspended before any jobs were handed out.

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Brett Shipp
His story was that LeMaster was granted or somehow wrangled some kind of special access to a bid process in which she later became a bidder. Shipp interviewed a former school district purchasing executive who said you can't be inside the district helping to design a bid process, then step outside and come back in the door as a bidder. That would give you an unfair advantage over people who were not in on the bid process from the get-go. You might even set it up so only you could win the bid.

Then Shipp interviewed media consultant Dora Tovar, who bid on the same piece of work, which involved oversight of the whole communications department and crisis-management coaching for the district's full-time communications staff, the ones who deal with the media. Tovar pretty directly accused LeMaster of exploiting a cozy business relationship at the school district to squeeze Tovar out of some work she wanted. She told Shipp: "Clearly it was not a transparent process, it was not an equitable one ... She was possibly drafting that RFP [request for proposals], designing the RFP, knowing anything about that particular process and still participating."

I talked to Tovar this morning, and she was more blunt. She said Shipp had shown her documents that led her to believe LeMaster actually wrote the RFP. "There are documents that Brett has, stating that, that he showed me, that we believe, that lead [me] to believe that she wrote it."

I said, "That she wrote it."

Tovar said, "Yes, she wrote the description."

So here is where I begin to have big problems. LeMaster told me, and Shipp confirmed, that Shipp had asked her by email if she wrote the RFP or was in on it. Her answer by email was no, that she only learned of its existence late in the game, after the RFP presumably already had been sent to other potential bidders. Shipp's story did not include this exchange point for point. He said instead, "She does say she learned of the RFP at the same time as other PR consultants and has at some point assisted nearly every superintendent for free over the last 20 years."

And here's a wrinkle. LeMaster had indeed been working for DISD on a contract having to do with communications. In fact a month earlier she delivered to Miles a plan for restructuring the communications department. And, indeed, here she was back, as Shipp reported, bidding on another communications-related job.

But there is only an issue if LeMaster took part in or knew a lot about the second RFP. Otherwise she's free to come bid on as many communications contracts as she pleases, whether she has worked for the district before or not. She says the question here is asked and answered: Shipp asked, and she said no, she was not in on it.

Shipp offered no proof on-air that she was in on it. Tovar told me Shipp had shown her proof off-air that LeMaster was in on it, hence her emphatic accusations.

I spoke with school district acting communications chief Jon Dahlander this morning. He told me the RFP process went like this: Mike Miles sent him an email telling him he wanted to see an RFP for such-and-such a body of work. Dahlander forwarded the email to the district's purchasing department. Purchasing wrote the RFP.

Shipp's piece connected these dots: LeMaster did some work for Miles; an RFP went out for other work; LeMaster bid on it; Tovar said LeMaster cheated; maybe Miles helped a favored contractor break the rules.

So I'm a decent hand with the dots myself. Let me try some dots on you. A dot that Shipp either forgot to mention or didn't know about was that Tovar, as she confirmed to me this morning, had arranged through an intermediary a month ago to have her resume presented to Miles, because she wanted the job that Dahlander is currently occupying, chief of communications. Tovar didn't get the job. But she says Miles responded to her personally, explaining that the district was not going to fill the job by hiring.

That inside personal word from Miles caused Tovar to be especially alert to the RFP in question when she saw it. She told me that the minute she saw the RFP, she said to herself, "OK, there's their way of solving this. They're not going to fill it. They're going to contract it out."

Tovar also told me she believed she was alerted to the RFP sooner than other potential bidders because she was informed of it by a special division of the purchasing department set up to service minority bidders only. In fact Tovar thinks she found out about the RFP this way even though the main purchasing operation was trying to keep it secret.

So, time for my dots. I could write a dot story saying that an inside tip from Miles and a special minority contractors-only set-up gave Tovar an unfair advantage. She didn't get the job anyway, because nobody got the job, because the whole process was put on hiatus. But my dots are as good as Shipp's.

Shipp threw in a couple more dots -- an email from Miles, for example, saying the contract amount should be held to below $50,000, which would prevent it from being something that had to go to the board of trustees for a vote. Shipp asked Tovar if she was informed of the $50,000 limit, and she said no.

I asked LeMaster if she was informed of the $50,000 limit, and she said no, too. I asked Dahlander if anybody was informed of the $50,000 limit, and he said no. They decided not to put that on the RFP and "just see what we got back." If nobody saw the $50,000 limit, then the $50,000 dot is popped.

There are other issues here that may be legitimate. Tovar told me the purchasing department at the school district lied to her when she asked what questions had been asked by other bidders. She says they told her none had been asked, when in fact LeMaster had asked questions. Certainly that accusation should be run down.

Shipp said there's supposed to be a time limit on when a bidder can ask questions about the RFP, but he says LeMaster asked questions after that deadline, and the district answered her questions anyway. It looks to me as if Shipp pretty well proved that one.

I asked LeMaster about her questions today. She said she asked questions before bidding because she couldn't figure out how much to charge for coaching the staff through crises, "when we don't know how many crises they're going to have." She said, "Its very hard to do an RFP for the school district, because they're buying widgets, and you're selling brains."

Yeah, I don't know about that. But does that sound like somebody who wrote the RFP? And there is were I find my biggest dot problem with Shipp's piece. In fact I find a tiny little dot in there that is being severely overworked, crying out for help, and I feel sorry for that dot.

Shipp's story implies that LeMaster wrote the RFP. It was a greased deal. She set it up for herself, with Miles' help. Then Shipp says she asked too many questions too late in the game about how to bid on it. So how can both be true? Can you hear that poor little dot squealing in there?

Do I think Tovar got an inside tip from Miles and had an unfair advantage as a minority bidder? No. Do I think LeMaster wrote the RFP? She says no. Dahlander says purchasing wrote it. And LeMaster's subsequent questions make it look as if she couldn't even figure out how to respond to the thing.

I think Tovar and LeMaster are in business. They are competitors, going toe-to-toe for work, doing everything they can to keep their ears to the ground and noses in the air, to stay on their toes and know when to jump. But there is no evidence that hanky-panky took place here, unless you grab that one little dot with a pair of pliers and conclude that LeMaster knew too much about the RFP and also knew too little.

LeMaster refused to do an on-camera interview with Shipp. She should have. Maybe they could have worked out some of these points. Shipp's a great reporter. I just don't buy this one.



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22 comments
RSFagain
RSFagain

Interesting that besides Jim,  investigative journalist "take no prisoners" Becky Oliver had a child go through Woodrow.  I've never seen her doing DISD "exposés".  Either she was very satisified (which is what I hear) or she has more integrity than Mr. Shipp.

animas
animas

Brett Shipp just needs to go away.

phipho5490
phipho5490

This is so tedious. The DMN and channel 8 need to stop whipping this dead horse. It is a big fat nothing burger. Arguing over contracts that weren't even awarded ? Sheesh !

James080
James080

It seems clear that someone at Channel 8 has a close personal relationship with Rebecca Rodriquez and is projecting the fury of a woman scorned on Mike Miles.

Brett... old pal...your investigative efforts are coming off as weak and contrived, likely because they are weak and contrived. Whose water are you carrying in this false-light campaign of yours?

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Can't we just put all these people in a dark phone booth with knives? I am so tired of the thin accusations, and cheesy nest padding by incompetents.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

Looks to me like the point of this entire fruitless exercise by the Get Miles Club is to put so many dots on the page that nobody can connect them.

With all of the chaff in the air, the powers-that-be will then just throw their hands in the air, give a resigned sigh and declare Miles a tainted commodity regardless of whether or not it can be proven he acted improperly.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

Maybe the folks who hired MIKE not the school board the real people who HIRED MIKE (Remember all the hoopla and Fanfare ) Moved that firm to the top of the list ?

And that's how the process was going to go that direction ?

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

FYI, here is a link to Shipp's write up on the news story. Doesn't have the video but it goes into what you mention: http://www.wfaa.com/news/investigates/DISDs-Miles-facing-new-allegations-of-policy-violations-224170111.html

notice that there is nothing in the article that details how the conclusion is made of LaMaster's involvement in drafting the RFP. All that is said is a quote fom Tovar, "She [LaMaster] was possibly drafting that RFP, designing the RFP, knowing anything about that particular process and still participating."

Shipp then takes that "possibly", which as you point out Jim was an idea Shipp himself placed into the discussion, and turns that into reality. No proof provided. I guess it is a case of "take my word for it...".

I have thought well of Shipp's abilities and integrity in the past, now I am questioning them. This is very poor conduct on his part to say the least. The question is: why is Shipp conducting this campaign to toss dirt on Miles, and who's he carrying the water for?

WaitJustaMinute
WaitJustaMinute

im you totally missed the point of the story. With all of the highly qualified PR firms in town how come only Lisa and one tiny firm that lists itself as a Hispanic advertising agency bid on the contract? Why was the contract so vague and the bidding process so complex. The answer is that every other PR firm in town read the way the proposal was written and realized the fix was in. Whoever wrote the proposal meant for Lisa to win it. I reviewed the proposal and found it was too vague, required tons of extraneous paperwork and called for services the district had already paid for. If Brett had more time he could have gone into those issues as well. How is DISD going to get the best work or price if they write a proposal that no one will bid on? The answer is they won't. Finally, the proposal doesn't ask for what Mike Miles really needs which is a new communications strategy that makes up for his many communications problems. Continuing to pay to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic isn't going to help. The problem is at the top.  The proposal was pulled because it was so outrageous it was forwarded to the news media.  

Just_wonderin
Just_wonderin

@mavdog Rebecca Rodriquez threatened Miles with a media bashing:
http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/unfairpark/2013/09/mike_miles_the_coggins_report.php

Perhaps Channel 8 and DMN are her thugs.  Someone in each organization is approving these non-stories.

Celeste did a good job describing the RFP process from both directions.  I see nothing newsworthy in Shipp's article.

I'm surprised DMN editors allowed this Haag article to be published:
http://educationblog.dallasnews.com/2013/09/coggins-report-did-dallas-isd-superintendent-mike-miles-buy-former-communication-chiefs-silence.html/

Those in for-profit business understand that EVERY severance payment is buying silence.  Each contains a “non- disparagement” clause, requirement to not sue, etc.  

One of the first commenters asked, "Didn't you publish this last week?"
Haag's reply, "No it was in a footnote of the report that we overlooked."

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@WaitJustaMinute 

Obviously this was a very troubled proposal from the start. LeMaster says she only found about it from some kind of web-crawling rfp-watcher she uses and then only after everybody else had seen it. You observe that the rfp was vague and the bidding process complex -- precisely the same things LeMaster complained about. So how does that help her? And welcome to the public sector, by the way. You say what he needs is a "communications strategy." Yeah, but isn't that what all the girls say? Miles is in the middle of trying to bust up a 40-year-old entrenched patronage system. Are you even aware of that?  

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@Just_wonderin @mavdog 

The other perspective on the same thing is that Rodriguez was filing complaints and threatening media bashings while negotiating for severance. Coggins just as easily have come to the conclusion that the whole OPR investigation was her leverage for more  money. As you say, Coggins certainly knew that severance and a non-disparagement are S.O.P. -- another example of his ginning something out of nothing t throw the client a bone, so they wouldn't look stupid for hiring him -- which they will anyway, big-time, when this is all said and done.

Ontheotherhand
Ontheotherhand

@JimSX If you read the RFP carefully you will see that it is crafted in such as way that only Lisa and one other firm that has worked with DISD before would qualify. The proof is that she is the only legitimate PR firm that bid. I would not have said she wrote the RFP I would have said it was written for her.

I agree with what you have written about Miles breaking up the entrenched patronage system. If you are doing to do that you need a much better overall communications strategy than the one he is using. He is one of the worst communicators I have ever seen. I keep asking whether the horse being whipped in his favorite inspirational movie is the student or the teacher.

Any PR person with half a sense would have developed a communications policy that would have made Miles a hero instead of a victim. Instead he hired a yes woman from his old district. His handling of the resignation letter was amateurish. The letter could have been sent without his fingerprints on it and he could have covered his a-- if he had used a better strategy. As usual the victims here are the kids.     

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@Waitjustaminute @Just_wonderin @waitjustaminute @JimSX All public sector bids are needlessly complex, baffling and seem to be written for the guy/gal who seems to always win the bidding process.  I bid on RFP's for ISD's, Police and Fire, Sanitation, DFW, TxDOT, etc, etc.  You're right in one small part of your allegation: People who specialize in that kind of work seem to get the business.  What you need to ask yourself is: Do they get the work because they specialize in these projects, or do they specialize in this to get the work?  Our company has been slogging through forms and qualifications and registrations for over three years, trying to 'specialize' in public sector projects, so we CAN be the ones who always get the jobs.

Just_wonderin
Just_wonderin

@waitjustaminute

Don't believe anyone here is defending that rfp.  

My best recommendation on how you can get info to Miles is to identify someone you know who knows Paula Blackmon or one of the Executive Directors (try LI). Have that person introduce you.

It's best to establish your credibility with insider in order to get info to him and you must be dealing with part of the change mechanism - not the old guard.

Waitjustaminute
Waitjustaminute

@Just_wonderin @waitjustaminute @JimSX 

Read the whole RFP. If you can understand all the forms you are a better person than I am. People who specialize in that kind of work know how to get the business, low ball the bids and then raise the price after the fact. The best people stick with the private sector where people can make decisions based on competence. DISD suffers because the best people aren't even seeking its business. Miles needed real help. I am not sure whether he would have listened but he certainly didn't have access to the best thinking on the many issues he faced when he took the job.       

Just_wonderin
Just_wonderin

@waitjustaminute @JimSX

I have never bid on a DISD rfp - different industry.  I have bid on rfp's.  The language about minority or woman-owned firms and diversity of employees is required of entities that receive federal funds - don't know what requirements the State of Texas has.

My guess is that it is in every rfp published by DISD.  If it is not, its presence is a clue to which are funded, at least in part, by federal funds.

It IS a non-issue.

waitjustaminute
waitjustaminute

@JimSX The most obvious one was the requirement that the vendor have worked with large urban school districts in the past. I believe there was some other language about diverse audiences.  There are points for being minority or women owned and a package of other forms to be filled out that are baffling unless you have done it before. It is so vague that only someone who had worked with DISD would comprehend what they were talking about and how to price it. The proof is that only Lisa and one other firm bid the project and I believe someone reported DISD had to reach out to the second firm to get the bid. Just to be clear I am not interested in the business. As a taxpayer I found the process deeply flawed. Miles whole approach to PR Sprague to Rodriguez to LeMaster has been a huge waste of money. When I tried to recommend someone to Miles office who would have guided him through the landmines he stepped on I was impolitely rebuffed by one of his henchmen. Again, I have no personal dog in this hunt other than being a taxpayer who doesn't like the way this is being handled.   

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@Ontheotherhand @JimSX 

He didn't write the letter. He allowed it to be written.  I think your suggestion is too clever by half -- that he should have handled it in a more duplicitous way. When you have highly motivated interests trying to make even the most innocuous behavior look duplicitous anyway, it's hardly smart to play into their hands by being even more duplicitous yourself. But, listen: you offer an interesting allegation: that the RFP was written so that only LeMaster could have won the bid. I do, indeed, have a copy. Please point me to the specific sections that make your allegation true.

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