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Auditors report bidding missteps

The superintendent and some staff at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School in Lexington violated state procurement rules, and may have attempted to circumvent the law by splitting bids on certain contracts, according to a forensic audit that the district’s school board released last week.

“The district faces a significant challenge to follow its financial policies and procedures,” states a December letter from the audit company, the Abrahams Group. The auditors found several problems in the way the district awarded work to a marketing firm, and attempted to get an appraisal for the school property.

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In a statement read by Superintendent Edward Bouquillon at the Minuteman School Committee’s meeting Tuesday night, he accepted responsibility for the problems highlighted in the report, and said that he had been disciplined. The nature of the discipline is a personnel matter, he said.

The vendors were not accused of misconduct in the report, which was partially redacted.

The joint statement from Bouquillon and the School Committee was the first public acknowledgment of the procurement problems that have been the subject of several closed-door meetings by the board since last fall.

The statement said Bouquillon has “apologized to the committee and the district for his errors in judgment and lack of supervision of staff involved in these matters.” But it added that the auditors found “no instances of misappropriation of public funds or personal profit.”

The School Committee had commissioned the audit after Camie Lamica, Minuteman’s director of business and operations at the time, complained about certain financial practices. Lamica has since resigned, but she said last week that she also contacted the state inspector general’s office, which oversees procurement issues in public entities. An official at the state agency declined to comment last week.

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In the meantime, the district has changed its procurement procedures, and has offered employees additional training on the state law, according to the joint statement.

The 650-student vocational school, on Marrett Road in Lexington, draws high school students from 16 member communities as well as other area districts, including Boston and surrounding suburbs.

The district’s School Committee — which has representatives from member communities Acton, Arlington, Belmont, Bolton, Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Dover, Lancaster, Lexington, Lincoln, Needham, Stow, Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston — set aside $12,500 to hire the Abrahams Group last fall.

“It’s disappointing news, for sure,” said Jack Weis, a School Committee member from Belmont. “I think they are serious issues.”

The report mentions other staff, but their names were redacted. The report also does not explain why bidding laws were sidestepped.

Bouquillon did not return phone calls seeking a comment.

The auditors found multiple legal and procedural violations, particularly with marketing work done for the school by consulting company Ovus Ater and its design subcontractor.

The audit identified seven instances of “clear violations of law and procedures’’ regarding the Ovus Ater work.

Bouquillon tapped the Cambridge-based company to develop a strategy to increase Minuteman’s enrollment, revamp the school’s website, and create a plan to gain support from member districts for a renovation proposal, the report states.

In fiscal year 2012, the district paid Ovus Ater and its subcontractor $30,000, but no invoice was more than $5,000, which would have triggered a state requirement that the district seek at least three telephone bids to get the best price, according to the report. No bids were solicited, the report states.

Two invoices were for $4,999, according to the report. In one of those cases, an initial $5,000 requisition was changed to a $4,999 purchase order, the report states.

Last summer, Bouquillon also signed a $71,500 agreement with Ovus Ater to help increase enrollment and develop a marketing and communications office. There is no evidence that the district sought quotes from any other vendors for that work, the report states.

Elements of the agreement also violated state law, including a request for a partial upfront payment, the report states.

Jack Foley, a principal with Ovus Ater, said in an e-mail, “I respectfully disagree with the findings of the report as they relate to Ovus Ater. Beyond that, I have nothing to add.”

His firm sent the district a demand letter in September for payment of $23,833 for work that Ovus Ater had completed. No payment has been made, school board members said.

Foley said he decided not to pursue the matter further.

The report also questioned how Bouquillon approached a proposal by Jones Lang LaSalle, an international financial and professional services firm, to evaluate the school property as the district considers rebuilding the facility. The appraisal was halted when the audit began. No money was spent.

After being contacted by Bouquillon, Jones Lang LaSalle sent a proposal, and the agreed price for the work was to total $9,000. However, Bouquillon discussed paying the company in two $4,500 installments split between two fiscal years. The company asked for the initial $4,500 as a deposit, according to the report.

“The proposal is fine, however the invoice must be for $4,500 only and dated prior to July 1, 2012,” Bouquillon wrote to a Jones Lang LaSalle employee on June 27, 2012. “Proposals that total over $5,000 require I get a total of three quotes (our audit rules . . . I put them in place!!:) So leave the proposal as is, but invoice me now for $4,500. I will sign and fax to the boys in Boston.”

The e-mail discussions between Bouquillon and a representative from Jones Lang LaSalle were “probably improper,” the report states.

In addition, “it is not clear if this was the intent, but the issuance of two separate invoices for less than $5,000 may have been an attempt to circumvent” procurement laws, the report states.

Paige Steers, a spokeswoman for Jones Lang LaSalle, said the company did provide some services to Minuteman but was not paid. “We were contracted to provide appraisal and valuation services,” Steers said. “We started the work and then the program was put on hold. The firm never collected any compensation for the work.”

According to the audit report, Lamica told Bouquillon about her concerns over the proposed payment schedule.

Neither Ovus Ater nor Jones Lang LaSalle is accused of misconduct in the report.

In early August, Lamica notified Minuteman that she planned to resign and take a job with another school district. She went to the School Committee soon after with her allegations.

Lamica said she brought her concerns to the School Committee to ensure there was more oversight of the Minuteman administration.“I think just an awareness that they need to keep an eye on things,” Lamica said.

The auditor also reviewed other complaints from Lamica, including that Bouquillon’s daughter and son-in-law, who also work at Minuteman, were slow to pay their bills for day-care and auto repair services they received at the school. According to the report, although the invoices for the services were unpaid for several months, all the bills have since been paid.

Bouquillon’s contract with Minuteman expires at the end of June. He was hired in 2007.

The School Committee will start meeting about contract negotiations with Bouquillon this week, according to its website.

The School Committee decided to limit the investigation to the initial complaints brought by Lamica, and did not look at any other outside contracts, Weis said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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