A Signature Mystery

After months of criticism and allegations of misconduct surrounding its handling of a water and sewer department paving contract, Church & Tower is facing a new controversy regarding their proposal to supervise construction of Dade County's performing arts center. Alberto Ribas, president of the engineering consulting firm A2 Group, Inc., claims that his signature was forged on a document submitted more than a year ago by Church & Tower to win the $3.4 million construction management contract.

In an October 31 letter to County Manager Armando Vidal, Ribas states that he never signed a required form, known as a letter of intent, to act as a minority subcontractor on the project. "As president of A2 Group, Inc. (f/k/a/ Brizuela & Ribas Consulting, Inc.), I wish to formally advise you that the signature on the form 'Letter of Intent, Black, Hispanic and Women Business Enterprise, Participation,' in the proposal submitted by Church & Tower, Inc. is not genuine," Ribas noted. "Simply stated, the signature is not mine." He further wrote that "on the date stated on the form in question [August 9, 1996], I was out of the country on vacation with my family."

In an interview last week, Ribas said that although he never signed the form, he did work with Church & Tower in putting together a proposal and does expect to fulfill his role as a minority subcontractor. "My only contention is that that is not my signature," he explained. "I've got the responsibility to bring to the county's attention that that document was not signed by me. Other than that, I look forward to doing the work."

Ribas said he has no idea who would have forged his signature on the proposal. And he refused to speculate on a possible motive. He claimed that no one was authorized to sign on his behalf, and he is confident no one in his company signed his name for him. He refused to say if he has discussed this issue with officials from Church & Tower. "I'm not going to comment on that," he said. He also refused to say how he recently became aware of the problem. "I don't think that's relevant," Ribas said. "I've done my job by informing the county. What they do and how they handle it is up to them."

County staffers were stunned by Ribas's letter and aren't quite sure how to proceed. "We've never had a situation like this before," says Marcia Jackman, director of the county's Department of Business Development, which was responsible for overseeing the selection process.

"This is a first," echoes Bill Johnson, who is supervising the performing arts center project for the county. "It is very strange."

Hank Adorno, attorney for Church & Tower, declined to comment.
Working closely with the County Attorney's Office, Jackman plans to call in Ribas and representatives from Church & Tower for separate interviews this week. "Basically, right now I am on a fact-finding mission," says Jackman. "I'm going to try to determine what is going on. I'd like to bring it to closure as soon as possible. But I also want to be as thorough as possible." She stresses that the allegations by Ribas are extremely serious and could result in the Church & Tower contract being cancelled.

Regardless of the outcome, Ribas's claim marks an inauspicious beginning for Church & Tower, whose role in the $195 million performing arts center project is supposed to be that of watchdog. As construction manager, Church & Tower is the county's eyes and ears at the construction site and is responsible for making sure the work is completed according to specifications.

Given all the problems Church & Tower has encountered with its supervision of the county paving contract, the firm's ability to watch over the performing arts center was already suspect. Investigations by the Miami Daily Business Review, the Miami Herald, and the county's own water and sewer department staff have found that Church & Tower and its subcontractors have overcharged the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. The final cost to taxpayers could reach into the millions. The Dade State Attorney's Office has launched its own criminal investigation of the paving contract, and prosecutors have seized boxes of documents. Church & Tower denies any wrongdoing.

The selection of Church & Tower to oversee construction of the performing arts center was also controversial. Last year, eleven firms vied for the role of construction manager, and a screening committee ranked the top three candidates as follows: Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services of Tampa scored highest, followed by CRSS Constructors of Coral Gables, and then Church & Tower, which is owned and operated by the family of Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa.

Based on those rankings, Vidal initially instructed his staff to negotiate an agreement with Parsons Brinckerhoff, but before those talks could be completed, the County Attorney's Office issued an opinion declaring Parsons's proposal invalid because it had failed to submit the required forms outlining all of its minority subcontractors in a timely manner.

Vidal then decided to skip the second-ranked firm, CRSS Constructors, claiming it had suffered too many problems in a construction contract it supervised for the Dade County School Board, and instead negotiated a deal with Church & Tower. Vidal's choice came under attack from the losing firms, who complained that the manager selected Church & Tower because of its political influence at county hall rather than because of the firm's abilities. The contract with Church & Tower was approved by the county commission last summer.

Now Church & Tower is faced with the same problems that knocked out both its competitors. Not only did the firm have well-documented difficulties with a previous assignment (the water and sewer paving contract), but because of Ribas's letter, it now appears the firm did not submit a properly signed form from one of its minority subcontractors.

"It is rather ironic," chuckles Charlie Herndon, senior vice president of Parsons. "But nothing surprises me any more. We've moved on to other projects and I'm not going to make an issue of it."

"I wish [Ribas] had come forward a year ago," says Joe Mastrucci, vice president of CRSS. "Here it is a year later and I have no idea what the county's options are or what my options are. I'm just going to let the county do their own analysis first before we spend any time thinking about how we might respond. Obviously we felt at the time, and still feel, that we were the most qualified firm for that job. Do we think the manager picked the wrong firm? Certainly we do."

Vidal was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment, nor could the effect of the possible nullification of Church & Tower's contract be determined. The project's final design is still being discussed, and a general contractor has yet to be hired. Groundbreaking is slated for March 1999, with completion scheduled for the summer of 2002.

In a final bit of irony, under the terms of the proposal submitted by Church & Tower, Ribas's firm would receive five percent of the contract, or $170,000, for "scheduling and document control." In other words, one of Ribas's responsibilities would be to keep track of all of the project's paperwork. A discomforting thought, given that it took Ribas more than a year to realize that his own signature on a required form was a forgery.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede