CHARLESTON, W.Va. --A court filing blamed Jorea Marple's distaste for no-bid contracts as a reason she was fired from her job as state schools superintendent. It's not the first time the state's purchasing processes have come under scrutiny, and it's not the first time some key players in Marple's case have been involved.
In 2006, the state auditor investigated Tygart Technology, founded by Sen. Joe Manchin's daughter, Heather Bresch, and her then-husband, Doug Kirby, after allegations were made that the company received a lucrative subcontract in order to do work for Manchin while he was secretary of state.
Tygart Technology was working as a subcontractor for Wade Linger's company, TMC Technologies. Linger now serves as the president of the state Board of Education, and has been at the forefront of Marple's firing.
Tygart Technology did extensive work developing the secretary of state's computer system as a subcontractor for Linger's company. Tygart also received thousands more in no-bid jobs from the Secretary of State's Office for extra work on top of the subcontract -- all without a contract, according to the auditor.
Then, just as now, Linger found himself in the middle of no-bid contract finger-pointing.
"All of the work TMC has done for the state of West Virginia, including the work of our subcontractors, has been performed through legitimate contracts that required competition," Linger told a reporter in January 2006. "The characterization of this as no-bid work is false and misleading."
Manchin's spokesperson at the time denied that his office had asked TMC Technologies to hire Tygart Technology.
While it was found that Tygart Technology did fail to follow proper procedures after the auditor investigated the company's invoices, the auditor ruled that, "On the surface, there seems to be no criminal intent," according to Gazette reports at the time.
A bulk of the work was paid for in amounts less than $10,000, which avoided a state law requiring all contracts more than that amount be sent out for bids.
TMC had won its statewide contract in the late 1990s using an appropriate bidding process, just as Linger had claimed, according to the auditor.
"I've never dealt with no-bid contracts. I can't remember a single one. I suppose it's possible there could be something in there that was no-bid, but I can never remember being in a position to do that because my companies have never been in categories where no-bid contracting was prominent," Linger said last week. "The allegations were false then, and they're false now."
Marple's refusal to support no-bid contracts tied to the interests of certain Board of Education members is at the heart of her controversial firing, according to a pending petition filed by public interest firm, Mountain State Justice.
When Marple was suddenly ousted, she told the Gazette the reasons must have been political. Since then, the Board of Education -- particularly the five members who voted to terminate her -- have been under fire, with accusations of "a Manchin faction" dominating the board's decisions.
The no-bid contract accusation is just the latest in a string of conspiracy theories surrounding her termination. Some say Manchin disliked Marple's husband, state Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who recently lost his seat just before Marple did. Others say board member Gayle Manchin, the senator's wife, and Marple butted heads. Many say, whatever the reason, that Marple was doing a fine job and her termination was unfair.
Bren Pomponio, the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of parents from Boone County, was told the contracts tied to Marple's firing are with Globaloria, a computer-based social learning network, and AmberVision, a software program that helps find missing children.
Gayle Manchin serves as co-chair of the Globaloria-WV Advisory Board. Idit Caperton, wife of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, founded the company.
Both Gayle Manchin and Caperton were upset that Marple said that contract had to go up for bid, Pomponio was told.
In 2010, the state Board of Education received a $65,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation, where board member Lloyd Jackson serves as a trustee.
Pomponio was told part of that grant was used to implement the AmberVision program, and Marple thought the funding should have been used toward something else more education-based instead.
Allegations that Linger had an interest in SecurLinx, the company that runs AmberVision, also arose, according to Pomponio.
Linger bought a company that once did work on AmberVision. In addition, Board of Education member Mike Green has a small investment in SecurLinx.
All board members have denied that ties to either of those companies fueled their decision to fire Marple, and there are no apparent financial ties to AmberVision currently.
Jason Hodge, treasurer and secretary for the AmberVision Foundation, said AmberVision has never had a contract with the state Board of Education and that the lawsuit's allegations are unfounded.
"AmberVision has never had a contract with the state Board of Education, no-bid or otherwise. It is a nonprofit and has always been free to West Virginians," Hodge said. "We never received a nickel from the Board of Education. They did with the grant what they did with it. Allegations to the contrary are unfounded. How can you have a problem with a no-bid contract that doesn't exist?"
"It's simply not true. I had nothing to do with no-bid contracts then and I have nothing to do with them now," Linger said. "I have always supported the competitive process, and I don't circumvent it. I don't believe in it as far as my business goes or in any case. I do my business in the most ethical way possible so that if it's scrutinized, it will hold up."
TMC has made more than $7 million through state business since it got its start in 1996, according to state records. Linger sold TMC to Maryland-based Global Science & Technology in 2005, which has made more than $5 million in West Virginia business.
"I have been involved in contracts in West Virginia since 1992, and throughout that process, the businesses I've been involved in have created hundreds of well-paying, high-tech jobs in this state," Linger said.
"I'm sure I've created as many as 200 jobs doing high-tech work. My businesses have all contributed to the growth and diversification of this state and our work force, and I'm proud of that. I know sometimes when people hear about someone as a quote 'businessman' they somehow read negative connotations into that. I hope the people that live here will take into consideration that my business has been positive for this state."
In 2005, the Manchin name was tied to a different scandal with no-bid contracts.
A federal investigation in 2009 found that a contractor for the Charleston company Wallpapers in Stock had redecorated the Capitol offices of then-Gov. Manchin without abiding by state bidding laws.
Clark Diehl, the contractor, admitted that he did work without submitting a bid, then created fake bids to circumvent the law. Diehl pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion and at one point faced up to 25 years in prison. He was eventually sentenced to spend six months in a federal halfway house.
Manchin's office paid Diehl's company more than $30,000 without bidding out the work, and Manchin denied accusations that his office had intentionally strung the contract or had broken it into smaller purchases to avoid competitive bidding.
Prior to that, Manchin's office paid more than $40,000 without bidding out a contract for other Statehouse renovations. Payments for that project had been broken into $10,000 increments -- the minimum that would require competitive bidding, according to the auditor.
Three months after Tygart Technology's and TMC's purchasing procedures were scrutinized, then-Gov. Manchin passed House Bill 4031, or "The purchasing reform bill."
The purpose of the bill, Manchin said, was to safeguard the resources of the state and simplify the purchasing process, in addition to making it easier to do business with West Virginia government. The bill allowed the state to take part in cooperative purchasing agreements with the federal government.
The bill raised the amount that can be spent without going through a formal competitive bid process from $10,000 to $25,000.
Linger spoke at the bill-signing ceremony that day and commended Manchin for his work.
"West Virginia now joins many other states that have taken this step to streamline the purchasing process by taking advantage of this federal program," Linger said in April 2006, according to news reports and a press release issued by Global Science & Technology. "Now West Virginia state government agencies can access those companies with the same ease and efficiency as does the federal government. This is a great example of how Gov. Manchin is working to improve West Virginia."
Manchin expressed praise of Linger, too, when he attended his company's open house that year.
"The most encouraging thing here is, I knew Wade and his wife, Jill, when they first came here in the early 1990s. I've seen the determination he's had to make this happen here and I've seen his success," Manchin said in Daily Mail reports at the time.
Manchin appointed Linger to the Board of Education two years later, saying his background in technology was a good match for the state's goal of providing high-tech skills to its students.
In 2011, board members voted to make Linger board president.
Though Linger is a resident of Fairmont, the Manchins' hometown, he has continued to deny any ties to the senator that would influence his decisions as Board of Education president.
"I've been trying to do business and do good things for West Virginia, and in doing so I've had the opportunity to work with some very good, well-meaning people that I believe have the best interest of West Virginia at heart in everything that they do. Those people include Joe Manchin, and so, that's just the facts," Linger said. "I hate to have any other implications put to that. I respect the man."
The state Department of Education, like other state agencies, must use state contracts, as required by state code.
A $750,000 education efficiency audit conducted by Pennsylvania firm Public Works LLC at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year calls the state's purchasing requirements a hindrance, though.
The audit makes a wide range of recommendations to better the school system and reallocate funds to save money -- many of which require policy changes.
Public Works LLC has done work for the state before, when it performed a "top to bottom" assessment of state agencies in 2005.
The West Chester, Pa., firm drew attention when it was the only company to bid on a contract to help overhaul state government for then-Gov. Manchin. That's because Public Works president, Eric Shnurer, had worked for the Manchin campaign in the past.
The Manchin campaign paid Shnurer's company, the Brain Storm Campaign Policy Group, nearly $20,000 to help develop policy ideas to get him elected as governor.
Shnurer said his ties to Manchin have no bearing on the educational overhaul his company recently prepared for West Virginia.
"There isn't a single thing in the audit that Sen. Manchin had any discussion with me about -- period," Shnurer said. "People will look for any sort of excuse to discredit things they don't like, but that any of these recommendations came from Sen. Manchin is fiction."
When it comes to state bidding laws, the audit points to the department's operation of institutional schools and the Schools for the Deaf and Blind, which are considered to operate more like local districts than state agencies, according to the audit.
"The state procurement system does not provide adequate nor timely procurement services for these operations," the audit says.
The audit suggests state code be amended to exempt the Department of Education from the state's procurement laws that require competitive bidding.
The department would like to use outside educational consortiums for services and materials, but state code says the department cannot use those services without going through a bid process because it has to first demonstrate that the transactions would be "financially advantageous," according to the audit.
"Instead, WVDE must use the current state procurement process that can take several months longer than those of the approved consortiums," the audit says.
In its response to the audit released earlier this month, the Board of Education agrees with all of the recommendations made pertaining to state purchasing laws.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Dec. 14, 2012, with comments from Jason Hodge of AmberVision.