Thursday, June 29, 2017

Does Lord Snow have a seat on both sides of the table?

Lord Snow has assumed a rather prominent role at the Mississippi Department of Education, as it represents both MDE and those who do business with the agency.  Butler Snow acts as both a lawyer for MDE and a lobbyist for clients who obtained very lucrative contracts.  The Mississippi Way continues in more regal fashion.

A JJ review of documents obtained through public records requests and Transparency Mississippi show MDE has paid the Ridgeland law firm nearly $600,000 for legal services while it lobbies for two companies awarded contracts worth over $50 million.  The contracts have renewal options, so millions more will be paid to them.  Take a look at each set of contracts and fees.  The contracts are posted below. 

Butler Snow

It may get a bit confusing reading through the contract awards and modifications so here is a road map:

March 1, 2015 - June, 30, 2016: $49,500
April 1, 2015- June 30, 2016: $350,000 (amended)
July 1, 2016- June 30, 2016: $200,000
Total contract awards: $595,000

MDE signed a contract with Butler Snow on April 28, 2015.  The term of the contract was from  March 1 to June 30, 2015.  The maximum amount of the contract was $49,500.  Butler Snow was to provide legal services to MDE:

SCOPE OF SERVICES: The Attorney/Law Firm will provide legal services to review and analyze investigative findings and materials pertaining to testing irregularities, review and research the applicable law and advise MOE on administrative options resulting from the investigation.

 The Board of Education voted in at the April 15, 2015 to hire Lord Snow to provide "legal services": 

the Board approved on a 7 to O vote to contract with Butler Snow, LLC to provide legal assistance to the Mississippi Department of Education for a total amount of $250,000.00.
The Board had more work for Butler Snow as it approved a contract modification at the December 17, 2015 meeting:

Board approved on a 5 to 1 vote to modify the contract with Butler Snow, LLP to assist with the preparation and filing of administrative complaints and conducting administrative hearings and any related appeals involving test irregularities for a modified contract cost of $350,000.
The contract stated what Butler Snow would do in exchange for this bit of dough:

the Attorney Law Firm will provide legal representation related to the preparation and filing of administrative complaints and preparation for and conducting administrative hearings and any related appeals involving testing irregularities in school district.
 The Board renewed the contract at the June 16, 2016 meeting:

the Board approved the contract with Butler Snow, LLP to assist with the preparation and filing of administrative complaints, preparation for and conducting administrative hearings, and any related appeals involving testing irregularities for July 1, 2016 -  June 30, 2017 for $200,000.00.
MDE has paid Butler Snow $488,000 as of February when JJ submitted a public records request to the agency. The contracts are posted below. However, Butler Snow is working several angles at the Mississippi Department of Education.  Butler Snow lobbyists also represent several businesses who have MDE contracts.   Two of these businesses have obtained contracts worth tens of millions of dollars from MDE.

Renaissance Learning

The Board approved a contract with Renaissance Learning on January 14, 2014. The initial amount of the contract was  $1.13 million.  The contract term was February 19, 2014 to June 30, 2014, but had eight one-year renewal options.  The minutes state the purpose of the contract was to provide "a coherent assessment system for the Mississippi K-3 Assessment Support System (MKAS2)."  The contracts are posted below.

Renaissance Learning is represented by Butler Snow lobbyists Sydney Allen, Caroline Sims, and Katharine Stewart.  Posted below is a record of when Lord Snow lobbied for Renaissance:

2013: Sydney Allen, Caroline Sims: $50,000.
2014: Sydney Allen, Caroline Sims, Katharine Stewart (Jan. 10): $60,000
2015: Sydney Allen, Caroline Sims, Katharine Stewart: $60,000
2016: Sydney Allen, Caroline Sims, Katharine Stewart: $60,000
2017: Same three lobbyists but compensation not yet submitted.

The ink was barely dry on the contract when the Board unanimously approved a modification on April 17, 2014 for an additional $7,200.  Such an amount is not even a small potato but rather a spud.  However, the spud of modification grew sprouts that bloomed, as the Board repeatedly increased the amount of the contract from $1.13 million to $8.5 million. Three of the increases were double the amount of the original contract award. 

The contract amounts after each modification and the amount of each modification are posted below:

$1.13 million: Original amount of contract approved in January 2014.
$1.726 million: $592,046 increase due to expansion of MKAS assessments.
$4.14 million: $2.4 million increase due to  increased scope of work (p.18, 1.0) 2015 renewal.
$6.13 million: $2.2 million increase due to increased scope of work (p.4) 2016 renewal
$8.54 million: $2.2 million increase due to increased scope of work (p.1) 2017 renwal

The actual amounts of the increase were not included in the minutes that are posted online although they are available upon request.

Questar Assessment, Inc.

Butler Snow client Questar won a $122 million contract to provide educational testing, assessments, and other services in 2015.  However, it must be pointed out that Butler Snow's official representation of Questar did not begin until approximately six weeks after the contract was awarded to the company from the Great White North.

Butler Snow lobbyist Katharine Stewart began representing Questar on June 1, 2015.  Fellow Ms. Sims registered as Questar as a client on October 1, 2015.  Ms. Sims 2015 registration report states Questar is a registered client for Mr. Allen as well.  However, Mr. Allen did not register Questar as a client although he did do so in 2016 and 2017.  Questar paid compensation to these three lobbyists for two years:

2015: $33,000
2016: $72,000
2017: No compensation yet reported.

MDE issued an RFP in early 2015 for testing services.  The press release stated:

(MDE) will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) in early 2015 for state tests aligned to Mississippi’s college- and career-ready standards for the 2015-2016 school year.

The MBE will seek a multi-year contract to secure assessments for grades 3-8 English Language Arts and Math and for high school Algebra I and English II. The assessments will be selected based on the best interest of Mississippi students. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to test students on what has been taught.
“We are looking forward to having consistency with our state assessments so that teachers and students will have comparable measures of progress from year to year,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “Changing tests each year creates a moving target and doesn’t provide an accurate picture of what students are learning.”

This year, Mississippi students will take new assessments developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). NCS Pearson Inc. will administer the tests. This is the first year students will be measured on tests aligned to the state’s college- and career-ready standards. The new tests will replace the MCT2 for grades 3-8 and the SATP2 for Algebra I and English II. Those tests have been phased out because they are not aligned to the state’s current learning standards.

The MBE will seek new bids for state tests because the Mississippi Department of Education’s contract with NCS Pearson Inc. is an emergency procurement, which is limited to one year. Any assessment vendor may submit a bid for the assessment contract provided they meet the RFP requirements. The RFP process will be open and transparent and will adhere to all Mississippi procurement laws and regulations.

Questar won the contract.  The initial contract amount was $12.3 million for a term of one year.  Questar is eligible for "nine one-year renewals".  MDE renewed Questar's contract twice:

$12,346,829: Contract ending June 30, 2016 (p.11)
$23,336,938 (+ $10,990,109): Renewal for one year to June 30, 2017 (p.2)
$34,822,047 (+ $11,485,109): Renewal for one year to June 30, 2018 (p.1)

Ironically, the Clarion-Ledger attempted to find out who bid for the contract.  It reported in an April 2015 story:

The Clarion-Ledger on March 17th requested the names of vendors vying for a multi-year contract to administer statewide assessments to tens of thousands of elementary and secondary public school students in Mississippi.
MDE plans to announce its preferred vendor to the state Board of Education on Thursday – one month after receiving the proposals and three weeks after denying the newspaper's public records request.

The deal is worth an estimated $8.4 million per year, based on the amount of the current one-year contract, which MDE awarded under emergency provisions to Pearson in September.

MDE solicited the proposals in February after the state Personnel Services Contract Review Board rejected the agency's original plan to give Pearson a sole-source, multi-year contract. The board said MDE should have solicited proposals.

Plagued by controversy since last year, MDE's handling of the testing contract drew additional scrutiny after allegations surfaced last month that it deliberately wrote its request for proposals so that only one company – Pearson – would qualify. Article

MDE has denied those allegations.
The newspaper reported on April 15, 2015:

The Mississippi Board of Education on Thursday approved a $122 million contract with Questar Assessment to test hundreds of thousands of school children starting next year.

Questar, headquartered in Minneapolis, was among three companies vying for the 10-year deal during a heavily scrutinized process shrouded in secrecy. Article
Questar's bid was actually $10.7 million more than the next bidder buuuut it had a higher score and negotiated its price down to approximately the same amount as that competitor.  More information about the bids is published at the end of the Clarion-Ledger article.  

Meanwhile, Questar also has a second contract with MDE for testings services for students with learning disabilities.  The contract began at a measly term of  $1.8 million but increases each year:

$1,798,128: One-year term ending June 30, 2016
$5,098,128 (+ $3.3 million) Renewal for one year to June 30, 2017 (p.33)
$7,398,128 (+ $2.3 million) Renewal for one year to June 30, 2018 (p.43)

Questar also received an an emergency no-bid contract recently after the Board terminated a contract with Pearson after errors were found in the scoring of several assessments.  


Anonymous said...

That's called good business

Anonymous said...

OK. What's your bitch? Do you think they ought not be practicing law? Or do you think they ought not be lobbying?

If you want to question their compensation, you should first check the conditions of the legal representation - which I am sure is a series of hourly rates. How do they compare to similarly situation law firms?

The rates charged the lobbying clients seem to be the same as those charged by most of the major lobbyists.

So, what is it that you think is wrong here? Maybe Ed and Barbara Blackmo's firm should do the legal work?

And the companies that got awarded the contracts - would you be happier if the Clay Firm had represented them for the same fee?

No - we all know its your fascination with the BS firm up north. But if it keeps you happy, what the hell do I care.

Anonymous said...

Caroline Wicker Sims - the daughter of U.S. Senator Roger Wicker.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Anonymous said...

This is some excellent journalism. Please keep the sunshine on Butler Snow and its legalized-bribery arm, Butler Snow "Advisory Services."

The commentators, above, must work for Butler Snow. What is good for Butler Snow and Co. is very bad for the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Butler Snow associate at 4:04.

What could possibly be wrong with having the firm that serves as the revolving door/golden parachute for Republican officials, cronies, and family members work both sides of the table on million dollar government contracts made by Republican appointees?

Butler Snow is a firm built on the skills and keen insight of experienced advocates like Katie Bryant and Caroline Wicker, not some front to legally funnel GOP bribe money.

robert redd said...

It's hard to accept the department that bitches about budget cuts & inadequate funding can justify BOTH fees to BS & the contracts for testing that are listed,especially when they stonewall "open bidding".

robert redd said...

It's hard to accept the department that bitches about budget cuts & inadequate funding can justify BOTH fees to BS & the contracts for testing that are listed,especially when they stonewall "open bidding".

Anonymous said...

Our money, in various ways and means, has helped to finance the Butler Snow global expansion. Now I can't prove this, but I'm quite sure of it.

That's what's wrong with this picture. Even planning for the Siangapore office to expand into Hong Kong to help various Asian clients navigate our tax laws (Including clients in the Peoples Republic of China). Does it not strike you as odd that a Mississippi based law firm had that much capital to expand so rapidly?

Anonymous said...

I guess they could have hired Morgan and Morgan since they are for the people.

Anonymous said...

8:27 -- Not when we, the taxpayer are subsidizing them so well! Federal contracting is the most corrupt racket I have ever seen. Many, use their positions like kingdoms, and on our tax payer dollar, become rulers deciding winners and losers with very little fair and equitable methods. Something called the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) which should level the playing field, is used inconsistently by those awarding the money, and unless you are a huge business, fighting the system is expensive and time consuming. Many of those in charge, forward pass themselves into jobs that they've already created by ensuring funding for multiple option years. The one year cooling off period is humorous. (Trump wanted 5 and you heard the federal government bureaucracy screaming loudly about it because it would definitely screw up their game). Currently, all they do is go on as consultants for companies they have been working with as USG employees, and are not technically "directly" involved in programs they were associated with's a sick system and BS is the poster child for all that is wrong! You got the money, and are willing to pay to play -- you get the work. Most normal people don't have a clue just how broken our system is.......with little recourse to fix it.

Anonymous said...

How does the value of a contract increase that much from the original bid? That's stuff that would make a Jackson politician blush, and its happening at the State level, apparently courtesy of a Republican leaning law firm. Oh I'm sorry not the law firm. The separate advisory firm down the hall and around the corner from the coffee machine.

Anonymous said...

Do you think people pay for Butler Snow because they have Ole Miss summa grads on staff that can nail that caselaw analysis, convince the judge, and win the case? Or do they pay for it because what Butler Snow is actually selling is access and influence, and to a lesser extent brand and intimidation? This kind of over the counter corruption is just part of the American way. Don't hate the playa; hate da game.

Anonymous said...

It's a handy dandy coincidence that someone could use BS or BS LLP as an acronym for Butler Snow LLP.

Anonymous said...

Part of the American way my ass. Scruggs went to jail for less.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't this fall under " conflict of interest"? I suppose only because the clients don't have enough sense to see the conflict. Or the MDE is corrupted and see their interests and the economic interests of the party in power's minions as being the same.

Anonymous said...

4:04...How many times in your representation of those big insurance companies have you been permitted to represent both the plaintiff and the defendant?

UMAA SUMMA said...

"Why doesn't this fall under " conflict of interest"?"

The tassel-loafer wearing Ole Miss Summa Grads discounted that notion years ago.

4:04 here said...

No, not a part of the B/S dynasty. Not a lawyer either. But do realize that the DOE, just like all state agencies have occasion to hire attorneys. The funny thing here is that DOE is not controlled by the "republican establishment" that folks are bitching about here.

Do they have a good marketing group? Damn right.
Does their lobbying group have a hell of an impact amongst lobbyists? Yes, but not overwhelming; good client list but certinly not the dominating one similar to the law firm.

My observation was that the awarding of contracts to clients of the B/S lobbying group and the representation of the agency by the law firm (for specific legal activities) is unrelated and not a conflict of being on 'both sides of the table'.

Anonymous said...

I worked in Big Law for 15 years. Conflicts of interest are a running joke in that world. There is an unwritten rule that the firm should always keep up appearances about ethics, but once the lawyers figure out serious money can be made on both sides of a deal, they will 'help' the clients understand that it is in the clients' "best interest" to have the firm work on both sides. Not only is this sanctioned by the managing partner(s), those naive enough to challenge the practice will get burned.

Anonymous said...

How did a contract balloon from $1.13 million to $8.54 million over three years? Even Chokwe's people don't do that.

Kingfish said...

Sorry Tiny Tool, not approving your comment. You'll have to do better than that. I realize when you get jobs because of your family, its hard to imagine that others can do things on their own.

Macy Hanson said...

The New Yorker cartoon at this link describes it all:

Anonymous said...

If you want to argue that having a Chinese wall between your lobbying associates and your legal associates is legal- feel free. The ABA only establishes advisory rules against this. But, don't tell me that artificially inflating the inherent value of a tax payer (key word) funded contract over time when doing so is "completely fine". Some of the comments here act as if MDE is a corporate client rather than a creation of the state and the "Evil Empire", analogous to Goldman Sachs, should be allowed to do whatever it so chooses on our dime.

This is where "privatization theory" goes wrong and numero uno as to why people are so angry, both liberal and conservative. I'm not naive enough to believe that is stops with MDE, either.

You people are ripping us off and there's nothing conservative or liberal about it. At best it's an ethics violation (we can't count on the MS BAR) to enforce that. At worst, ya know-----

Kingfish said...

To be fair, more services are provided in each renewal.

Anonymous said...

The Parkway East project in Madison County had the same attorney on both sides of the table. Madison County and St Dominic

Anonymous said...

Excellent reporting Kingfish.

Anonymous said...

12:25. "Scruggs went to jail for less"!!

BULLS**T. Scruggs went to jail for attempting to bribe a judge. And for bribing another judge. He should have gone longer for the multiple more judges and juries he bought.

Calling a complete violation of everything our country of laws is based on as being "less" than whatever it is that is being questioned here is absolute stupidity. Or ignorance. Or blond loyalty. Or all three.

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