Pinellas "Mulchgate" prosecution ends with guilty pleas - WFLA News Channel 8

Pinellas "Mulchgate" prosecution ends with guilty pleas

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PINELLAS COUNTY, FL (WFLA) -

Three men arrested three years ago in the Pinellas County School District's "Mulchgate" scandal pleaded guilty Tuesday morning at the Pinellas Justice Center. They were about to face trial later this week for racketeering.

Only one of them is heading to prison for rigging school maintenance bids amounting to $860,000. The other two won't even have a criminal record.

An Eight on Your Side news investigation of the men had been underway for months by the time police arrested them in February 2010 for illegal acts committed up to four years earlier.

Pinellas school investigators say the trio pocketed a fortune for school mulch contracts extending over a three year period from 2006-2009. The contracts involved upgrades for playgrounds located at dozens of schools around the Pinellas School District.

School district staff became suspicious over time because private landscaper Robert Sciarra ended up winning bids for those mulching contracts almost every time.

"When you see the same companies receiving the jobs every time red flags go up, said former Superintendent Julie Janssen after police arrested four men back in February of 2010 on racketeering charges.

Tuesday, Paul Jensen pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation and bid tampering. Jensen was a school district maintenance manager who illegally steered contracts to Sciarra.

Jenson's son Heath pleaded guilty to unlawful compensation. Investigators said Sciarra gave half of the $860,000 he received through school district mulching contracts to Heath Jensen who then gave half of his earnings back to his father Paul who helped rigged the bids in the first place.

Sciarra pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation for his role in the "Mulchgate" scandal.

Paul Jensen was sentenced to 30 months in prison and has to repay the school district $18,692 for investigative costs. His son Heath and Sciarra each received five years probation without formal convictions on their record or serving any time behind bars. They each have to repay the district $20,000 for investigative costs.

Under the terms of their guilty pleas neither Heath Jensen nor Sciarra are allowed to bid on or profit from new public contracts for the duration of their probation. Sciarra can continue work for the City of Seminole where he already has a landscaping contract.

Alan Smith, another Pinellas School District maintenance manager who was originally charged in the "Mulchgate" conspiracy, faced trial last year on racketeering charges. A jury found him not guilty after prosecutors failed to prove he profited from any of the mulching contracts.

Both Smith and Jensen retired from the school district prior to their arrests and qualified for pensions.

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