By Evan Wyloge | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
Emails obtained by AZCIR from four school districts show the depth of the relationships construction company executives have cultivated with school district administrators.
For instance, builders and school officials took trips together to Mexico and French Polynesia. The emails also show numerous invitations to golf outings and several visits to a restaurant co-owned by several building companies’ owners and executives.
School district officials also regularly sought out the companies to ask for money for various projects, the records show.
In February 2010, the owners and executives of an architecture firm, a general contractor and two subcontractors, who all later went on to win a significant portion of the bond project work in Maricopa County over the next several years, created a company called 4S&P LLC. The company’s address was the same as the address of architecture firm ADM Group, Inc. as the address of the company. The portion of the required state corporation filing that discloses the “purpose of the company” was left blank.
Ben Barcon, who owns ADM Group and was one of the partners in 4S&P, said in November 2017 that the LLC was used to purchase a condo in Mexico and a “party bus” that was kept in Arizona. (Through a spokeswoman, Barcon now says 4S&P didn’t own the condo, but that he owned it in partnership with three executives of a construction subcontractor, two of who are also partners in 4S&P.)
David Peterson, the former superintendent of Scottsdale Unified School District, visited the condo in Mexico in 2016, a spokeswoman for Barcon said in an email. Peterson, who also accompanied Barcon on a trip to Tahiti in 2014 while he was still superintendent, told AZCIR he always paid his own expenses when he took trips with Barcon.
Barcon’s spokeswoman said the condo was also “occasionally offered to districts as a raffle or silent auction gift for fundraising events,” and other school district officials could have used it without his knowledge.
In May 2011, the same group of architects, contractors and subcontractors, along with two co-owners of another general contracting company, formed 4S&P Restaurant Holdings LLC.
4S&P Restaurant Holdings LLC owned Cask 63, a high-end restaurant and bar in Scottsdale. The restaurant opened in January 2012, but shut its doors abruptly in May 2013.
Emails obtained from SUSD show that Cask 63, located about 10 minutes away from the SUSD offices, quickly became a local hangout for district officials and employees. Emails showed multiple visits to the nearby restaurant for after-work happy hours and other planned meals and events.
One former Cask 63 employee, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution, said there was a reason SUSD officials and employees visited the restaurant so often: They ate and drank for free.
District employees would come into Cask 63, the former employee said, and rack up bills between $1,000 and $3,000, “depending on how many people there were, or which people showed up,” and they rarely, if ever, paid.
Barcon disputed the claim that school officials did not pay for their meals and drinks, but said through his spokeswoman that the owners paid for some guests on occasion.
Emails provided by Scottsdale Unified School District, Phoenix Union High School District, Tolleson Unified School District and Madison Elementary School District show golf was a shared pastime for the vendors and district employees. Emails confirming golf outings show several building company executives and school district officials planned golf outings together. Sometimes, the golf rounds took place around annual vendor exposition events at Arizona resorts.
They also show that, when the districts had financial needs, they could count on their vendors to meet them.
In the case of Phoenix Union High School District, when two students won a prestigious QuestBridge Scholarship at Stanford University in 2014, PUHSD officials sent a solicitation to more than ten different potential vendors, asking them to cover the travel costs.
In 2012, Scottsdale Unified School District officials emailed the same group of vendors to let them know that they had a special opportunity to post “mobile advertising” on the sides of their 81 school buses and 58 utility vehicles. Records show some of the vendors purchased those advertisements.
When Madison Elementary School District needed to find financial backing for a 2013 school foundation event, administrators assembled a list of vendors to solicit money from.