Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's administration has responded to leaks about no-bid contracts and a widening budget deficit by warning district staff members that they could be suspended, dismissed, or referred to "appropriate authorities" for disclosing district information without authorization.
Michael A. Davis, the district's general counsel, sent a memo Thursday to employees at district headquarters reminding them that the district's ethics policy requires "maintaining confidentiality, conducting yourself in a manner that engenders respect and justifies trust in your integrity, competency, and devotion to the mission of the School District."
About a week ago, sources said, a technology company specializing in digital forensics was brought to the district's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. to copy the computer hard drives of six senior officials as part of an internal investigation.
The six were suspended about two weeks after The Inquirer reported Nov. 28 that Ackerman had intervened on behalf of IBS Communications Inc., a small minority firm based in Mount Airy that was awarded a $7.5 million emergency, no-bid security contract.
Ackerman pushed aside a Newtown firm that had begun preliminary work to install surveillance cameras at 19 schools classified by the state as "persistently dangerous," sources said.
In an interview, the superintendent denied ordering her staff to award the project to IBS, but acknowledged that they had learned about the company after she produced its business card and told them to give IBS a portion of another security project.
Davis' e-mail was the latest development in Ackerman's efforts to counter a barrage of adverse publicity that has hit her administration in the last two months related to the no-bid contract and reports that the district may be facing a $430 million shortfall July 1.
Much of the information about the $7.5 million contract and the magnitude of the district's financial problems came from sources inside and outside the district who believed their jobs would be jeopardized if they revealed their names.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) said he would seek to amend the state's whistle-blower law to extend protection to public employees "who help facilitate the media's ability to obtain information on wasteful government spending."
And State Rep. William F. Adolph Jr. (R., Delaware), the new head of the House Appropriations Committee, has joined the list of state officials who have asked the state auditor general to conduct a special investigation of Ackerman's decision to give the emergency no-bid contract to IBS, which was not on a state list of vendors approved for emergency work.
McGeehan, who has sharply criticized the contract, sent a message Wednesday about his proposal to amend the whistle-blower law to all members of the House in Harrisburg, asking for cosponsors.
"As you may know, several Philadelphia School District employees were recently suspended for bringing to light contractual controversies involving millions of taxpayer dollars," he wrote.
State law currently provides job protection for public employees who report allegations to government authorities, including law enforcement.
"Because the 'media' is not included in the definition of appropriate authority, protection . . . does not apply," McGeehan said.
He also wants to increase the law's current civil penalties for retaliating against a whistle-blower from a $500 fine to one of up to $10,000.
After learning of Davis' memo to School District staffers, McGeehan said: "That speaks to the need for a beefed-up whistle-blower law."
He said he had been "flooded" with information from School District employees "pointing out what they feel are some outside-the-general-practice goings-on within the School District."
He said the district's decision Dec. 13 to place the six senior officials on leave signaled its determination to silence staff.
"Obviously, the suspensions acted as a shot across the bow to any employees that might come forward with what they see as something out of the ordinary," he said.
The employees, all of whom were placed on paid administrative leave, include top information technology staff members - Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, and Melanie Harris, the department head.
The others are John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services; Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II; Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs; and Augustine Pescatore, a commander in the Office of School Climate and Safety.
The district's internal probe, which is being conducted by Michael Schwartz, a lawyer from Pepper Hamilton L.L.P., has included interviews with the suspended employees' colleagues.
Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, confirmed that the Davis memo was sent Thursday to all employees at district headquarters.
She said that Schwartz's investigation was continuing and that the six employees remained on administrative leave. She declined to comment on whether their hard drives had been copied.
"As the investigation is ongoing," she said in an e-mail, "we are unable to offer any additional comment on the matter."
On Thursday, Adolph, a veteran House member, said he wrote Dec. 17 to Auditor General Jack Wagner to ask for a special investigation into the $7.5 million no-bid contract described by The Inquirer. He said state officials needed to know whether the district followed procurement regulations or whether additional controls were "necessary to avoid the circumvention of current procedures. . . ."
He said he was concerned that by avoiding public bids, the district may have paid too much for the project.
"This story raises concern as elected officials work to overcome significant budget deficits and search for ways to continue to provide funds for the children of Pennsylvania and a top-notch education," he wrote in his letter to Wagner.
McGeehan and Thomas Gluck, acting state education secretary, also have asked Wagner to investigate the no-bid contract and the district's procurement practices.
Nate Collins, a spokesman for the auditor general, said the office was still reviewing the requests.
Adolph said he has been told a decision would be made soon.
He said he believed that the investigation should be completed so that the Legislature had the answers before hearings begin in March that were to focus on how much state money the district would receive in the next fiscal year. Currently, the state provides 55 percent of the district's $3.2 billion budget.