And also an address at the Pita Stop building
By Kyle Whitmire
The Birmingham Mayor’s office has proposed a $150,000 contract with a consulting firm implicated in dirty tricks during the last city council election and also tied to unofficial mayoral aide John Katopodis.
The consulting firm, Stuart Consulting Group, has its Birmingham address at the “Pita Stop” building on Birmingham’s Southside. In a lawsuit against HealthSouth, Katopodis has claimed ownership of the building.
In 2005, Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott was running for re-election. She faced opposition from two candidates, one of whom was Chris Hartsell, now Mayor Larry Langford’s chief operations officer.
During that council election, Katopodis supported Hartsell, donating to his campaign and soliciting support for him.
Abbott won that election handily, but not before a bizarre dirty trick was perpetrated against her campaign. In the waning days of the campaign season, an automated message went out to District 3 households from then-Councilor Bert Miller.
After a series of scandals destroyed his reputation, Miller was not seeking reelection, but he did endorse Abbott in the auto-dialer message. Using a technical ruse, the messages displayed Abbott’s home phone number on recipients’ Caller ID.
Abbott was furious and threatened to press charges against Miller for identity theft.
Birmingham police investigated the incident, tracing the automated messages back to their source. The messages did not come from Abbott’s home number, as shown by Caller ID, but rather from an address in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans.
The calls were coming from the Stuart Consulting Group.
The police department’s investigation found that Stuart Consulting used a company called AccessCom Inc. to place the calls. The investigators subpoenaed Stuart Consulting, but the company would not honor the subpoena.
Stuart Consulting is owned by Frank Stuart Sr., the president of the company. Birmingham Weekly as learned that Stuart is a friend and associate of Katopodis.
Fast forward to 2008
At the city council’s Budget Administration and Finance Committee meeting Monday, Hartsell stood in place of his new boss, Mayor Langford.
In that meeting, the mayor’s office put before the council a $150,000 contract for Stuart Consulting for “Public Works Department management and operations assessment.”
According to the contract cover sheet, mayoral assistant Kevin Owens submitted the item to the council. Nonetheless, it was Hartsell who spoke in favor of the contract.
Hartsell told the councilors that the city needs a consultant to analyze the Public Works Department and recommend efficiency improvements.
“That is not a function that the director of public works can do?” Councilor Miriam Witherspoon asked Hartsell.
After taking office last year, Mayor Langford appointed Ricky Kennedy to be Public Works Director. Previously, Kennedy had managed a city landscaping crew that cut grass in Linn Park. The promotion came with a pay raise of more than $100,000.
“I think Mr. Kennedy is doing a good job,” Hartsell told the council. However, the city needs a consulting firm that might recognize improvements Kennedy had missed, Hartsell said.
Stuart Consulting did similar work with the City of New Orleans, Hartsell told the council. According to Hartsell, the firm has saved New Orleans more than $1 million with the improvements it recommended.
Councilor Witherspoon asked Hartsell why Birmingham could not simply adopt the same policies as New Orleans. Hartsell said that the different cities might require different policies.
Hartsell told the council that he very familiar with the Stuart Consulting Group’s work and he recommended it for the city.
Hartsell did not disclose that the firm’s owner and president, Frank Stuart Sr., was a close friend of Katopodis. Nor did Hartsell share any knowledge of Stuart Consulting Group’s activity in the 2005 council election.
Under one roof
The political correlations are conspicuous, but another connection now seems outright brazen, in light of recent news reports. Stuart Consulting Group now has a Birmingham office at 1102 12th Street South, Birmingham. Or at least, that’s its address here. That’s the same address of the “Pita Stop” building.
Since 2003, Katopodis has been engaged in a lawsuit against HealthSouth over ownership of that building.
In that lawsuit Katopodis claims that former HealthSouth CEO Richard M. Scrushy gave the Pita Stop Building to a non-profit he manages, the Council of Cooperating Governments.
Katopodis has used the Pita Stop building as the address for several of his charities and non-profits, including the Council of Cooperating Governments, the You Help Foundation and Computer Help for Kids. The building is also the address of the Holy Family Foundation — a charity set up under the name of Melva Langford, the mayor’s wife.
More recently, city documents show that the Pita Stop building is also the declared address of the Birmingham Education Initiative. Langford’s administration set up that non-profit to manage a taxpayer-financed program to give laptop computers to Birmingham school children.
It is not clear whether the Birmingham Education Initiative would pay the Pita Stop owner rent for using the space. Langford’s proposal allocates $500,000 for staff and administrative costs, including office space and storage.
In its lawsuit, HealthSouth has accused Katopodis of using Computer Help for Kids dollars, much of which came from public funds, to pay rent to the Council for Cooperating Governments, both of which he controls.
In that lawsuit, HealthSouth also accuses Katopodis of even living in the Pita Stop building.
Computer Help for Kids has been the subject of a criminal investigation. It was created by Langford, Katopodis and Scrushy, and it has received more than $1 million in public funds, including $200,000 in 2001 from the City of Birmingham. In 2002, a city audit attempted to determine how Computer Help for Kids had used that money. However, the audit was aborted after Katopodis would not give the city records it had requested.
The contract for Stuart Consulting is scheduled to appear on the city council agenda next week.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read: Computer Help for Kicks
And: FBI probes Langford-linked charity