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Road builder faces overbilling charges

A Clearwater consultant and a Florida road contractor are charged with overbilling the state by $30-million on an I-75 project.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A grand jury has indicted one of Florida's largest road builders on 12 counts of grand theft and racketeering, accusing the contractor and its Clearwater consultant of double and triple billing the state more than $30-million on a project to widen Interstate 75.

If found guilty, White Construction Co. of Chiefland could face fines of more than $20-million and be banned from doing business with the state Department of Transportation. William Thomas Cooper Jr., a Clearwater consultant the company hired to file claims against the state, could spend 30 years in prison, if convicted.

The indictment, issued March 22 in Orlando, accuses White Construction and Cooper of filing false claims against the state totaling more than $30-million on the I-75 project in Marion County, and $3.66-million on another project in Walton County.

Those claims, if they had been reimbursed, would have been in addition to a combined $38-million the state already had paid for work completed on the projects. The state eventually settled White Construction's claim on the I-75 project, paying the company an additional $6.9-million.

Then, according to Assistant Statewide Prosecutor David Sutton, the state began looking more closely at the claims.

"This guy was finishing so ridiculously late," Sutton said.

White Construction had a history of falling behind on jobs, and Sutton said it was hundreds of days behind on the I-75 job, which was under way in 1995. The road, on a stretch from the Alachua County line south to U.S 27, was being expanded from four lanes to six.

Facing stiff penalties, White Construction and Cooper blamed the state, saying the state did not complete preparation work that had to be finished before construction could begin, the indictment says. White Construction said that the state's alleged delays -- including a claim that the state had not cleared utility poles in the path of construction -- cost the company millions.

"The reality is the poles were moved a week before construction was supposed to start," Sutton said.

In its claim against the state, White Construction overbilled for labor and expenses by as much as nine times the proper amount in a single day, Sutton said.

"It's obvious that all the fingers are going to be pointed at Mr. Cooper," Sutton said of the consultant. "He did some things that gave the impression that he was being less than honest."

Cooper, who was arrested Monday and released on $50,000 bond, could not be reached for comment. Officials at White Construction did not respond Monday to phones calls seeking comment.

White Construction, a family-owned business in Levy County that has earned more than $380-million with the state since 1981, has been in trouble with the state off and on for decades. But a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said White Construction, which has worked up and down I-75, can continue to do business with the state unless it is found guilty.

In 1988, White Construction won $6.5-million in a settlement with the state in a claim over delays in construction on I-75 in Hillsborough County. The work was completed more than 17 months late.

The state fined White Construction $237,500 for being late on all seven of its projects on I-75 in 1981.

The state recently has penalized other major road builders.

Last May, Anderson Columbia Co. agreed to provide about $200,000 in free road work and landscaping to settle complaints of shoddy work and uncooperative employees in its highway projects.

Earlier this month, DOT fired the largest contractor on the $500-million Suncoast Parkway project, saying the company had fallen behind schedule, missed payments to subcontractors and jeopardized the planned January 2001 opening.


-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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