EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 21, 2013

Plumber suspected in mold outbreak still getting city contracts

Haverhill company gets work even while being sued for Guilmette School job

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — The subcontractor whose work allegedly caused a mold infestation that shut a city school for most of a school year and cost $7.5 million to fix has since been awarded eight city contracts worth up to $1.5 million, records show.

The city has continued awarding contracts to Francis H. Maroney Inc., a Haverhill plumbing and HVAC contractor, even after filing a lawsuit seeking to recover the cost of cleaning up the infestation and rebuilding the interior of the Guilmette School following the demolition required to get at the mold.

The city is suing the general contractor who oversaw the $23.3 million school construction job and hired Maroney to do the plumbing and HVAC work 13 years ago. The general contractor, Peabody Construction of Braintree, responded to the suit by filing claims against the dozen or so subcontractors it hired to build the school, including Maroney, which earned about $4 million from the project.

The city’s suit alleges Maroney caused the infestation by its failure to properly insulate pipes serving the air conditioning system it installed when the elementary and middle school was built in 2000. The alleged failure caused moisture to condense on the frigid pipes in the summer heat, allowing the mold to spread undetected through insulation, ceiling tiles, air ducts and wallboards for years, the city says in its lawsuit.

The mold infestation shut the school from October 2010 to April 2011, displacing 1,100 students and 150 staff to other buildings.

Since then, the city has awarded Maroney eight contracts to do the plumbing and maintain the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in all 35 city and school buildings. The buildings include Guilmette, although the air conditioning at the school has been turned off for nearly three years because of concern that turning it on could cause another mold outbreak.

In May, acting Public Works Director John Isensee barred Maroney from doing further work on the HVAC system at the Guilmette School, but allowed it to continue doing the work in the other 34 city and school buildings. That issue became moot in June, when the annual contract was rebid. Maroney was underbid by Falite Brothers of Wakefield, after winning the contract every year at least since 2010.

“Obviously, we had some concerns about them, but luck fell our way and they didn’t win the bid,” Isensee said.

Maroney last month won the bid on another contract to do steam pipe and welding repairs in city and school buildings, including Guilmette, through June 30, 2014. The contract has a $50,000 cap, bringing the value of the contracts Maroney has won since the mold outbreak at Guilmette to $1.5 million.

State procurement laws allow municipalities to reject a low-bidder if they find it is not a responsible bidder. Isensee said he is not willing to make that finding against Maroney until he has a ruling from the state Superior Court, where the lawsuits involving Guilmette are pending, that it caused the mess at the school.

But when the suits were filed, Isensee said he was willing to block the company from doing HVAC work at Guilmette.

“Why would you bring them back in there when there’s a lawsuit going on?” Isensee said. “We just felt it was in the city’s best interest to look elsewhere since they’re embroiled in that situation.”

He said he waited until May to block Maroney from doing HVAC work at Guilmette because of the time it took investigators to trace the source of the mold infestation to the air conditioning pipes they said were poorly insulated.

Mayor William Lantigua, who chairs the School Committee, and Pavel Payano, who is its vice chairman, did not return phone calls to comment on this story. Committee member James Blatchford said Isensee’s decision to block Maroney from doing HVAC work at Guilmette did not go far enough.

“I understand going-out-to-bid (laws) and the process we’re supposed to follow, but you can say, ‘No. We’re not going to use this company until we find out whether it was the company’s fault for what happened,’” Blatchford said. “We shouldn’t be rewarding a company that possibly cost the city millions of dollars.”

James Maroney, president of Francis H. Maroney Inc., and Ed Maroney, the company’s vice president, did not return phone calls to comment on this story. The men are cousins. Aaron White, a Boston lawyer representing the company, could not be reached.

In court papers, the company said any negligence at the Guilmette job was by Peabody Construction, the general contractor. It did not elaborate. In a second defense, the company said the statute of limitations to sue has run out.

In the lawsuit it filed against Maroney and 13 other subcontractors — including engineers, electricians, masons and roofers — Peabody Construction said only that Maroney’s work at the school “did not conform to the contract” and was “not done in a good and workmanlike manner.”

The mold outbreak at Guilmette in 2010 was the second at the school since it opened 13 years ago. In October 2003, the school was shut for three weeks after mold was discovered in a computer lab that flooded when a sprinkler exploded.

In the most recent outbreak in 2010, mold was discovered in a ground-floor boiler room, prompting then-acting schools superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron to say the school would close for a week to allow cleaning crews to wipe it up. The shutdown lasted six months when the infestation was found throughout the building.

Students and staff returned to the school in April 2011. The rebuilding that followed the demolition is continuing this summer.

As the rebuilding was getting underway after the school year ended, the state Health Department reported last month that most of the building still suffers from poor ventilation and air quality, creating conditions that can spread mold and cause respiratory and other health problems.