MASTERSON ONLINE: Audit reveals much

If the internal audit performed on the abandoned River Valley Sports Complex in Fort Smith helps provide direction for the ongoing federal investigation into questionable practices used to create this facility, there's clearly more fire than smoke in those empty fields.

I felt dirty enough after simply reading the city's draft audit to need a long shower.

This park project, supposedly to contain eight sports fields, began in March 2014 with a completion date of June 2015. It partly involved yet another of the much-abused General Improvement Fund. Those funds were generated from tax surpluses so legislators could help fund projects in their communities (as opposed to helping themselves).

The eagerly anticipated complex, now collecting weeds after two contract extensions led to the city directors in 2017 finally requesting the audit and canceling the contract, was the brainchild of District 8 Republican Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith in partnership with Sebastian County Election Commissioner Lee Webb.

The men contracted with city directors to build and manage the park with $1.6 million in city funds and monies raised through donations and supporters, some of which involved a GIF grant.

Now under an FBI investigation the bureau by its policy naturally won't discuss, Files has denied doing anything wrong, has not been charged with a crime, and said he will serve out his current term which ends in 2018.

In light of the circumstances, count me among those who finds irony in the fact that Files, elected in 2011 following a term in the House, is chairman of the Senate's Revenue and Taxation committee.

The draft audit, signed by Tracey Shockley and completed last month after eight months of research, was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen.

Like McCutchen, I shook my head while reading what the audit documented as Shockley methodically reverse-engineered the machinery behind this sports complex fiasco. I can only broad-brush some of its "low points" of the findings immediately below.

Files admitted he completed and submitted three contrived bids for utility work that went to Dianna Gonzalez, who worked for Files. Files had been using Gonzalez to build the park's concession stand, which also was deemed unsatisfactory in appearance with substandard materials and poor quality workmanship.

Despite Gonzalez having received an advance of $26,945 in December from the city to begin installing a water line on Jan. 9, the line remains unfinished and the money has not been returned.

The fields still are not level, covered in an unacceptable form of dirt, and contain large rocks. Plus an elevation on one side allows for improper drainage. Little surprise, since the audit also found the entire project never had a construction manager.

Multiple engineers used for the park were never paid for their services. Some contractors didn't have operating licenses.

Despite getting approval to proceed with the park in 2014, architectural plans were never submitted or approved until March 2015, a year after the contract had been signed and less than four months before the park was to have been completed.

Yet the auditors said groundwork already had begun before those plans were seen or approved. In April through June 2014, Grimes Dozer was paid $40,785 to perform drainage work and clear trees for surveying.

The same dozer company invoiced the park's account for $335,212 in 2015 and $93,845 in 2016 for work that included moving, spreading, leveling, packing and rolling dirt on the fields, as well as drainage. The company invoiced by the hour rather than customary method of charging for large-scale projects by project, cubic yard or acreage.

The Grimes firm also charged for services before they had been performed and there were a number of days when winds were clocked above 50 miles an hour and rainfall totaled between a half-inch and four inches, the audit also found.

What's confusing to me (and clearly to the auditor) was a line item in the statement of financial assurance section of the proposal to the city directors for building this park, where Files had listed the National Guard as contributing $1.2 million in dozer work. No other line item can be associated with a large volume of dozer work, the audit states.

It begs the question: Why was Grimes paid so much money to do work when Files wrote that the National Guard was volunteering to do as a donation?

The auditor also questioned why a Don Shoemake would be paid $7,000 to supply shale when Ivy Owen of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority had agreed upfront to donate all the shale needed for the park. Yet Owen said no one ever followed up.

The audit discovered other instances when other goods and services pledged to the park project in the original agreement were not obtained.

Yep. I've only scratched the surface here. But the audit clearly shows how wide and deep this River Valley Sports Complex stretches. And that's a shame for the good people of Fort Smith who need such place. And it only reinforces for me the fact that other Arkansas cities would be prudent as a matter of due diligence to perform their own audits of projects where GIF monies were involved.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 10/28/2017