PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Newly released emails show Gov. Dan McKee’s senior staff was closely involved in the bidding process that eventually led to the state awarding a controversial $5.2 million contract to the brand-new consulting firm ILO Group LLC.
A Target 12 review of hundreds of emails sent to and from the R.I. Department of Education since the beginning of 2021 — obtained through an Access to Public Records Act request — shows the governor’s senior staff stepped in to help a review team shape the scope of work tied to the contract.
Most of that work was subsequently awarded to ILO even though the firm’s proposal cost millions of dollars more than one submitted from a more experienced company, WestEd, which has worked with the state for decades. ILO was incorporated the same week that McKee took office and is led by former staffers at Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit led by longtime McKee adviser and ally Mike Magee.
Thomas McCarthy, executive director of the R.I. Department of Health’s COVID-19 response team, indicated he had a discussion with the governor’s now-chief of staff, Tony Afonso, after the review panel saw how much more ILO’s bid was compared with WestEd and other firms. Afonso — who is also listed as the point of contact on ILO contract documents — was then srving as senior deputy chief of staff.
“I spoke with Tony Afonso and he asked that we work with you to develop a rough sizing of what we think the engagement would require to deliver on the Governor’s intent,” McCarthy wrote in an email on April 29 to fellow members of the bid review team, which included North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi.
McCarthy’s email was also sent to Christine Lopes Metcalfe, who at the time was the governor’s senior adviser on education. (She resigned in August.) McCarthy asked her to work with an official at the Department of Education “to help flesh out” what would be expected of the bidders.
“We want to make sure we’re fully aligned with the Governor’s expectations,” added McCarthy, describing the goals of the contract as “supporting municipalities in fully reopening schools next year, building upon the outcomes of the LEAP task force, and working to establish municipal education departments.”
The LEAP Task Force — short for Learning, Equity & Accelerated Pathways — was convened by Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green in February to examine issues such as learning loss. The task force’s members included Julia Rafal-Baer, ILO Group’s co-founder and managing partner.
The emails offer a window into the ILO procurement process, which was put together quickly after McKee ascended to the state’s top job on March 2. The state issued a request for proposals (RFP) later that month for a consulting firm to help the state reopen schools safely amid the pandemic.
The scope of work also included helping the state get local governments to create so-called “municipal education programs,” alternative local education offices modeled on one created by McKee and Magee when the former was serving as Cumberland mayor.
Target 12 first revealed the ILO contract and the unusual bidding process that preceded it in a report last month. The deal is now scheduled to be scrutinized this week during at least three legislative hearings, beginning with the Senate Oversight Committee on Tuesday.
“Rhode Islanders expect the state’s procurement process to be open, fair, transparent, efficient and effective,” said Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown.
McKee has repeatedly defended the contract and scoffed at a question last month about whether ILO was given an inside track to get the deal. “Oh my God, what don’t people get?” he said. “Really.”
The governor has also insisted that all standard procurement procedures were followed, and that he didn’t have any influence on how it played out. The contract is being funded with federal coronavirus relief money.
“As far as the agreement goes, in terms of the contract, it was a competitive bid process right from the word ‘go,’” McKee said Sept. 15. “I don’t get a say. I don’t sit in the room and do the scoring. I don’t get in the room and have it brought to me. When it’s brought to me, that’s when I do my work.”
The Department of Education emails show no evidence of McKee’s direct involvement in the bidding process, but they do show the role played by his senior staff. At one point, after Lopes Metcalfe became involved, procurement officials scrambled to collect additional “conflict of interest forms” (COI) related to the bids.
“Anyone that is brought into discussions with the RFP needs to be vetted and sign a COI form — they can be an adviser if there is not conflict,” wrote Nina Lennon, the state’s interdepartmental project manager, after she’d learned multiple people were unexpectedly asked to weigh in on the process.
“Have you discussed this RFP with anyone else,” Lennon asked one education official. “This should be kept private.”
The procurement process was also on the radar of higher-ranking officials, including Jim Thorsen, director of the R.I. Department of Administration, which oversees the state’s purchasing agency.
“Please keep me updated on process progress, so that I can manage expectations appropriately,” Thorsen wrote on May 31 to his legal counsel, Daniel Majcher, who was another member of the review team for the ILO contract.
Majcher had just shared a final evaluation of the ILO and WestEd bids with the review team, recommending that they ditch the more stringent RFP process and instead award contracts to both companies through a “master price agreement,” which requires less scrutiny.
“Hopefully, this will result [in an] expedited process,” Majcher wrote.
Both Thorsen and Majcher have been invited to testify at the Senate Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday, along with their colleague Nancy McIntyre, the state’s head of purchasing.
Among the topics lawmakers are expected to raise at Tuesday’s hearing is what McIntyre and Thorsen recall about a Zoom meeting hosted by McKee on March 5, three days after he became governor and one day after ILO incorporated.
Calendar entries show McIntyre and Thorsen were invited to the meeting, along with ILO’s Rafal-Baer and Mike Magee; the latter pair were then still working together at Chiefs of Change. McKee aides have said Rafal-Baer didn’t end up attending the meeting and that the others who did simply discussed issues related to testing and school safety.
It remains unclear why McIntyre, who oversees awarding state contracts, would attend such a meeting. McKee did not respond to a question last month about whether the contract that eventually went to ILO was discussed during the Zoom.
McKee, Magee and ILO have all attempted to show separation between the new consulting firm and Chiefs for Change, arguing the two are not working together on the state contract. But the emails show how interwoven the operations of the two organizations were at the same time that the bidding process was ongoing, and even after ILO executives started working with the state.
After ILO’s contract had been approved, the Department of Education’s chief strategy officer — Brian Darrow — wrote an email to colleagues about it on June 24 headlined “C4C/ILO/PPSD.” The acronyms stand for “Chiefs for Change,” “ILO Group,” and “Providence Public Schools District.”
“Happy to connect quickly and provide context on this if at all helpful,” Darrow wrote. “Just trying to help connect dots and be supportive on my end.”
The note was sent along with a second email introducing state education officials to ILO’s point person, Emily Hartnett, and Rafal-Baer was carbon-copied on it.
Both Harnett and Rafal-Baer were still using Chiefs for Change email addresses as they began doing ILO’s contract work in late June. Target 12 has separately learned Rafal-Baer remained employed at Chiefs for Change until June 28, roughly a month after the review panel recommended a contract for ILO.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram