The Philadelphia School District spent $287,000 - substantially more than previously divulged - on the investigation that cleared Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman and her deputy of wrongdoing in awarding an emergency, $7.5 million no-bid contract for security cameras.

The investigation - conducted by attorneys at the Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. law firm at a cost of up to $477 an hour - also searched for sources of leaks about district contacts, leading to the firing of a top district official, and delved into district procurement practices.

Michael Davis, the district's general counsel, released what he said was a summary of the Pepper report on March 4, but the district has refused to release the full report. At that time, the price tag was nearly $173,000.

The new total reflects invoices Pepper later submitted for work done in February and March that The Inquirer obtained under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

The investigation began in December after The Inquirer reported on Nov. 28 that Ackerman had intervened on behalf of IBS Communications Inc., a small minority-owned firm in Mount Airy, to install security cameras at 19 schools the state had deemed "persistently dangerous."

Federal investigators have spoken to several current and former employees about contracting procedures, according to several sources with knowledge of the inquiry.

State legislators who had criticized the cost of the inquiry in March were incredulous about the updated cost at a time when the district is facing a $629 million deficit.

"You're kidding me. That's just a very high cost to pay," said State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), who chairs the House Education Committee. "At a time when the Philadelphia School District is hemorrhaging cash, it seems like an expensive bill. . . . When we're talking about teacher layoffs, that's equivalent to the salary and benefits for four teachers."

State Rep. Michael McGeehan, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, exclaimed: "Oh, my Lord!"

"This underscores the out-of-control spending that this administration has been involved in," he said.

McGeehan also said the district's unwillingness to make the Pepper report public was another example of "the arrogance and the tin ear of this administration, which is unanswerable to the public."

The district has said it was not required to release the complete report because the state's Right-to-Know Law exempts records of "noncriminal investigations" from disclosure.

The Inquirer filed an appeal with the state Office of Open Records. In a ruling issued last month, the office upheld the district.

The Pepper firm billed the district at hourly rates ranging from $207 for an associate to $477 for a partner. The most common rate was $315.

Besides lawyers' fees, the district also paid for the services of an investigative firm and for a company specializing in digital forensics that copied several employees' computer hard drives to try to determine who provided information to The Inquirer.

The total cost was $287,629.

The summary of the Pepper report that Davis released in March did not directly address allegations that Ackerman directed staff to give the emergency $7.5 million contract to IBS.

District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said yesterday that the investigation found that the award "involved no improper or illegal motive."

On an earlier South Philadelphia job, Ackerman added IBS as a contractor after the bulk of the work was completed, showing her staff the firm's business card. All that was left was the drawing of "as-builts," schematic drawings of the equipment that was installed. Another firm had been willing to prepare the drawings for one-twelfth the IBS charge of $12,980.

The IBS contract, which the School Reform Commission approved in September, requires the firm to complete the work by June 30.

While the investigation was under way, six district administrators were placed on paid leave in December. Four returned in late January.

The district recommended the other two staffers be fired: Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery, and John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services.

Last month, the SRC fired Dougherty for allegedly violating district policy because he forwarded more than 50 e-mails from his district account to his personal e-mail. Many were related to the camera contract.

The precise rationale for the pending action against Byars has not been disclosed. He has asked for a district hearing.

Contact staff writer William K. Marimow at 215-854-4141 or bmarimow@phillynews.com.
Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.