MARTINSVILLE, Ind. -- The Martinsville City Council has launched an investigation into how a construction contractor received $662,310 in taxpayer money without a bid and without a contract.
The city council hired Bunger and Robertson, a Bloomington law firm, at $295/hour to investigate whether the city followed proper procedures and laws.
Records obtained by Call 6 Investigates show the city paid Roberts Construction LLC and its president James Edward Roberts more than half a million dollars in claims dating back to July 2016.
“It was shocking, and it was especially shocking that the city’s only been working with this company since 2016,” said Kris Fuller, (R) Martinsville City Council. “What really threw it together was when I requested all quotes and bids and contracts and there were none.”
The city has halted work with Roberts Construction while the law firm conducts its investigation.
It’s not clear where Roberts Construction is based out of, but they are not a Martinsville or Morgan County company.
The company’s website says they are located in Beech Grove, the claims submitted to the city list a P.O. Box in Cloverdale, and a registration with the Indiana Secretary of State lists an office in Freedom, which is in Owen County.
The claims submitted to the city include work for sidewalk improvement, storm sewer, asphalt and concrete work, as well as vegetation excavation.
Fuller discovered the Roberts Construction claims this summer after he started looking into citizen complaints about the city’s sidewalk improvement program.
“As a councilman, we’re stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars, and part of that is making sure any project the city does is done through open, fair competition and that one company is not favored over another,” said Fuller. “We’re looking into why that particular company was picked over any other company. Things being done fairly with open competition to all construction companies that come into the city of Martinsville to the benefit of taxpayers."
Cecelia Krefft lives in Martinsville and supports the outside investigation.
“We citizens want to know the truth,” said Krefft.
Krefft wants the law firm to look into the company’s possible ties to Mayor Shannon Kohl, and whether the city’s street department could have done the work instead.
“I don’t understand why we didn’t expand the budget and hire more employees,” said Krefft.
Call 6 Investigates spoke with Mayor Shannon Kohl, who is a Republican, along with the entire city council.
She said Roberts Construction works alongside city workers.
“We only have two city street department employees that can do concrete work,” said Kohl. “We would get nothing done if we didn’t contract out some help for them. They work alongside the city employees, so the city employees are doing a ton of work.”
Call 6 Investigates asked Kohl if she has any ties to Roberts Construction.
“I do not. My sister was married to a worker there ten years ago, and he is a former brother in law that I’m not close to and I haven’t talked to in years,” said Kohl.
Records show her former brother-in-law and the president of Roberts Construction, James Roberts, donated $1,000 to Kohl’s mayoral campaign in 2015.
Kohl said she was the one who asked Roberts for the donation, and emphasized she called numerous companies at the time seeking $60,000 in campaign contributions.
Call 6 Investigates asked Kohl how an out-of-county company could get half a million dollars worth of work without a contract and without a bid.
“I can’t speak on that right now, and I don’t want to speculate while the review is going on,” said Kohl. “We have asked our city attorney to look at everything, not just the sidewalks, but all policies and bidding procedures with every department. The review will let us know what we need to change and what we need to do differently.”
Kohl pointed out the city council approved the Roberts Construction claims.
“I’m certainly not going to stand in the way of their review if they want to hire someone and pay for it, but I’m not sure I think it’s necessary with the scope of review we are doing,” said Kohl. “I feel like this is overshadowing the success that we’ve been having.”
Councilman Fuller said the council did approve the claims, but he assumed the Board of Public Works had already vetted the contractor.
“It’s our belief when the claims get to us that everything has been done correctly before it’s been brought to the council and that all laws are being followed,” said Fuller. “In this case, we’re investigating to make sure that indeed happened.”
Call 6 Investigates reached out to Roberts Construction, but they declined to comment.
Fuller said no one has accused the company of not doing the work, but rather, the question is whether the city followed laws and procedures.
The law firm’s investigation is expected to take several months.
Bunger and Robertson Attorney William Beggs is charging the city an hourly rate of $295 an hour, the hourly rate of an associate is $245 an hour, with a paralegal at $80 an hour, according to the contract.
Indiana law says when public works projects cost less than $50,000, the board should seek quotes from at least three companies by mailing them a notice with plans and specifications and the board shall award the contract to the lowest and most responsive bidder.
For public works projects greater than $150,000, Indiana statute has a laundry list of requirements including publishing notice seeking bids and requiring bidders to submit financial statements and proposed plans for doing the work.
The law also says that a single public works project can’t be divided into multiple projects for the purpose of avoiding the requirement to solicit bids.
The Bloomington law firm is expected to look at whether these laws applied in Martinsville’s case and if so, whether those laws were followed.