A former Broward schools groundskeeping supervisor is arrested on bribery charges.
A former Broward schools groundskeeping supervisor is arrested on bribery charges.

A recently retired custodial and grounds supervisor for Broward Schools was arrested Wednesday on charges he accepted bribes from a district vendor.

Federal authorities arrested Richard Ellis Jr., 49, on four counts of bribery related to a federally funded program and four counts of interfering by threats or violence. His indictment, unsealed Wednesday, alleges four occasions where he accepted cash totaling $6,130 from someone doing work for the district vendor.

The vendor was handling repairs of traffic signage, paint striping, asphalt sealcoating and work on driveways and athletic facilities, the indictment said.

The individual paying Ellis was cooperating with the FBI, the indictment said. Neither the company nor the individual is named. However, the report said the company performed grounds work for the district as early as 2016 and also received a contract on May 8, 2018, which fits the description of Pence Sealcoating Corp., the focus of a 2017 internal audit that found the district had grossly overpaid for asphalt.

Pence President Charles Pence couldn’t be reached, despite attempts by phone.

Ellis, who pleaded not guilty, could face 10 years in prison on the bribery charge and 20 years on the interfering with commerce charge, as well as a $250,000 fine for each charge. He could also lose his state pension. His lawyer, Michael Dutko, said he would not allow Ellis to comment, and he also declined to discuss Ellis’s defense.

.@browardschools Facilities Task Force discuss scathing Council of Great Cities review on maintenance. @nathalie_lynch points out how expensive district’s groundskeeping costs are compared to other districts. District doesn’t compare well in many maintenance categories.

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“I know generally what’s alleged, but I don’t know a lot more than that,” Dutko said.

Ellis retired from the district in September. Dutko said he doesn’t think the school district was aware of the investigation and that his client cited personal reasons.

Broward Schools spokeswoman Kathy Koch said she was unaware of the indictment and did not comment.

As grounds supervisor, Ellis managed work orders, ensured work was adequately performed by contractors and was also authorizing payments, the indictment said.

The indictment says Ellis accepted bribes from this subcontractor starting as early as 2016. Pence had been the district’s only vendor for over a decade but the School Board approved a contract on May 8, 2018 that allowed it to use two other contractors in addition to Pence.

Ellis “agreed to ensure a steady flow of work” for the company, in exchange for cash payments related to the 2018 contract, the indictment alleges. The payments were based on a percentage of the value of the invoices, the report said.

The individual met with Ellis four times between September and December 2018, the indictment said. Although it said Ellis also accepted bribes in earlier years, no specific examples were cited.

The repairs Ellis approved required goods and materials to be transported to Florida through interstate commerce, and Ellis illegally obstructed and delayed commerce “by extortion,” the indictment says, without specifying what exactly transpired.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami said she would not comment beyond what was in court papers.

The arrest comes a few months after a scathing review by the Council of Great City Schools found exorbitantly high costs for groundskeeping in Broward schools, particularly when performed by outside contractors. The review, released in October, found Broward spent $6,189 per acre for this work, compared with an average in Florida of $694 per acre and a national average of $1,353.

A 2017 internal audit was highly critical of the district’s contract with Pence, its only vendor at the time for for asphalt and similar services.

That auditor found 47 invoices between 2010 and 2017 that paid $150 to $300 per-hour rates for supervisors, laborers and installers. By contrast, Palm Beach County schools paid $15 to $45 per hour for a comparable project in 2016, according to the report.

The district’s Physical Plant Operations Department also allowed contractors to mark up materials prices by as much as 150 percent, compared with 10 percent in Palm Beach and Orange county schools.

The huge markups meant that Pence was paid $12,875 in one instance for materials that cost $5,150 the previous year and more than $24,000 for materials costing about $10,700 three years earlier, the audit said.

The district also paid $150 to $300 for labor costs in 2016, compared with $15 to $45 per hour for a similar project in Palm Beach County.

Superintendent Robert Runcie said at the time staff would be changing some protocols as a result of the audit.