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FORT SMITH -- State Sen. Jake Files told Fort Smith officials last month that he filled out and signed a tax record for a subcontractor and prepared two more subcontractors' price quotes to secure a $46,500 grant from the state General Improvement Fund, city records show.

The grant money was intended to reinvigorate a behind-schedule effort by Files' nonprofit River Valley Sports Complex to build a $1.6 million, tournament-quality softball complex in the city's Chaffee Crossing area.

But after city officials learned of "irregularities" in the price quote process and other concerns related to the grant, the city canceled its contract with Files' development firm.

The "irregularities surrounding RVSC actions in procuring bids" could violate "laws or regulations of any public body having jurisdiction," according to a Jan. 31 letter to city officials from Michael Jones, an attorney hired to review the city's contract with River Valley Sports Complex.

According to that letter, "Files admitted" at a Jan. 27 meeting with two city officials "that he had prepared and signed a W-9 for the low bidder and presumptive bid winner, one Dianna Gonzalez," Jones wrote.

Further, Files "confirmed that he had prepared and submitted bids represented to have come from" two Fort Smith-area companies, Lego Construction of Greenwood and Williams Power & Lighting of Pocola, the letter said.

Files, a Fort Smith Republican and chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, and his business partner Lee Webb did not respond to emails and telephone calls late last week or Monday.

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Files did email a reporter the same day the contract was canceled, saying he and Webb "have never, nor were ever going to make a dime off of the project. We have invested hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in this project, all volunteer. In helping the city attain the grant, I did not benefit from it at all nor was I going to benefit."

"There are concerns" about the bid process, City Administrator Carl Geffken said in an interview. "The perception alone is sufficient to tarnish the reputation of the city of Fort Smith."

City officials hadn't realized Files had significant say as a state senator about which projects received General Improvement Fund, or GIF, grants in his Senate district, Geffken said. That relationship worried city officials, he said.

The newspaper was unable to reach Gonzalez or the Lego or Williams Power companies late Monday.

City officials plan to ask River Valley Sports Complex to return the $26,945.91 in grant money spent so far. The city says it plans to reimburse Western Arkansas Planning & Development District for the full $46,500.

Files' email said he's "committed to getting the monies that were expended to the sub-contractor back to the city for them to re-bid the water/sewer line project and do what was intended, or send the money back" to the planning district if the city chooses.

Concerns raised

When Fort Smith directors voted to cancel the River Valley Sports Complex contract on Feb. 7, officials said the reason was the company's inability to meet construction deadlines.

Documents and interviews obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette show further worries.

The eight-field complex was to have been finished by Nov. 15, 2016, according to project timelines. The city had already paid Files' nonprofit $1.08 million for work completed since 2014.

But construction on the ballpark complex was stalled, city officials said in emails.

In December, Files asked the city to apply for a General Improvement Fund grant with the Western Arkansas Planning agency, according to public records and interviews. The grant was to extend utility lines to the site.

The planning agency's board approved the grant with a unanimous vote, according to Director Sasha Grist.

River Valley Sports Complex agreed to coordinate, oversee, keep records and provide accountability for the grant, according to a Dec. 29 services agreement between Files and city officials. The firm also had to supply three price quotes for the project.

The day the planning and development group issued the grant check to the city, Dec. 30, city officials wired more than half, $26,945.91, to subcontractor Gonzalez, city bank records show.

Then sometime in early January, the Western Arkansas Planning agency staff reviewed price quotes and other paperwork connected to the grant.

In a Jan. 11 letter to Geffken, Grist outlined "concerns," including that:

• Gonzalez's address on the price quote didn't seem valid, and an Internet search couldn't locate her company.

• The planning and development agency couldn't determine if a second bidder, Lego Construction, was still an active construction company.

• The district couldn't learn if the third bidder, Williams Power and Lighting Inc., performed the kind of water and sewer line work needed for the ballpark project.

After receiving Grist's letter, the city began to investigate and hired Jones to evaluate the contract with River Valley, Geffken told the Democrat-Gazette.

Also on Jan. 11, Files sent an email to Geffken containing another invoice from Gonzalez. The senator asked for $7,050 more in grant money, documents obtained by the newspaper show.

"Dianna sent this invoice to me to see if there was a way to get a check as of Thurs/Friday this week," Files wrote.

The city hasn't paid that invoice, Geffken said.

About the same time in mid-January, Geffken said, the city learned Files also was involved in the General Improvement Fund grant as a state senator who influences who receives the awards.

Files did express support for awarding the $46,500 grant to the city, Grist said in response to Democrat-Gazette questions.

"The project received support from Senate District 8" and verbally from Files, she said.

On Jan. 27, Geffken and another city administrator met with Files about their concerns and asked that Gonzalez attend. She did.

By Jan. 31, Jones had finished a three-page letter saying he believed city officials were within their rights to terminate the contract with Files' company.

In addition to missed deadlines and concerns about the price quotes, the letter also noted:

"The city learned that the wiring and lighting phrase was not completed as represented by RVSC" at least in part because "the subcontractor was not fully paid for their work."

A Section on 02/14/2017

Print Headline: Ballpark concerns detailed

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