Eastern Carolina Council, Part 8: Jockeying for Position

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NEW BERN – Feeling sorry for a mega-big engineering firm – one that sports multiple offices across North Carolina and oozes with experience in negotiating contracts – is difficult.

Nevertheless, a close reading of public documents — which bear the fingerprints of Eastern Carolina Council and its then fledgling law firm of Grady Quattlebaum, PLLC — conveys the distinct impression that the Wilmington office of Withers Ravenel Engineering got jerked around during the latter part of 2020.

By late summer of 2020, the three entities – Withers Ravenel, Grady Quattlebaum, and Eastern Carolina Council, led at that time by executive director, Katie Bordeaux – all knew that $400,000 in CARES ACT had been committed.

This was during a time of pandemic-induced hysteria. Uncle Sam, in his infinite wisdom, had ordered: SPEND, SPEND, SPEND. The grant had much fewer strings attached than might have been the case in more normal times.

Usually, large reservoirs of cash become moving, hard-to-snare targets. Not this time. The inside track, and a good vantage point were key to this operation. All it would take is a good aim on a stationary target – BULLSEYE FOR SURE!

And, back then, it looked like Withers Ravenel had the upper hand. Principals with the firm, Jenny Mizelle and Ty Cowell, had co-signed a July 27, 2020, cover letter that accompanied a slick, glossy 30-page packet. Neither of the principals have responded to this newspaper’s request for comment.

The cover letter and packet were part of the engineering firm’s response to ECC’s ‘Request For Qualifications.’ To see the Withers Ravenel document, click here.

Withers Ravenel sought and anticipated a type of consulting service known as SECTION 160D rewrites – named after a prominent part of revised and amended state legislation. And, Withers Ravenel had experience, too! One enticing blurb from that slick packet was meant to open up a wide swath of Section 160D consultant fees for Withers Ravenel:

The packet worked. By late summer, Withers Ravenel snared a commitment from ECC for $320,000 of the CARES ACT grant, with the remainder, approximatey $80,000, earmarked for ECC’s entirely legitimate administrative expenses.

You do the math: 320 plus 80 equals a nice, neat $400K.

ECC directed Withers Ravenel to perform a mountain of tedious paperwork – so-called ‘rewrites’ of land use and planning ordinances for ten smallish town and counties, all located at various points across ECC’s multi-county jurisdiction.

Withers Ravenel went to work. However, other things were also happening during the late summer of 2020.

In July 2020, New Bern attorneys Arey Grady and Jill Quattlebaum simultaneously left the employ of the prominent Sumrell Sugg law firm to form their own practice, known as Grady Quattlebaum PLLC.

Jill Quattlebaum had been Sumrell Sugg’s designated attorney for the lucrative ECC account. In that capacity, she was instrumental in nailing down the CARES ACT money on behalf of ECC. She was also familiar with the day-to-day affairs of ECC. And, public documents show that Bordeaux and Quattlebaum had a close, working relationship.

So, Bordeaux, the ECC executive director, quickly persuaded her agency’s governing board to drop Sumrell Sugg in favor of the freshly hatched two-attorney law firm. By August of 2020, ECC received its first invoice from Grady Quattlebaum – one of many that were to follow

Then, something happened. Where it came from is still unclear. But make no mistake – the ouija board had shifted. All of those Section 160D rewrites that ECC had assigned to Withers Ravenel would now need so-called ‘Legal Reviews.’

No longer did Withers Ravenel have the inside track.

Next week: The new law firm of Grady Quattlebaum has a good first year in business, with a very nice chunk of revenue coming from ECC. Alas, in late July of 2021, the law firm would resign as attorneys for ECC; while Bordeaux, the ECC executive director, is fired two days later.

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