Subverting the Bidding Process -- Again

BARRY RASCOVAR

September 27, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Remember the furor that surrounded the state's lucrative computer contract for the lottery agency last year?

An even bigger controversy is about to break loose, one that has some state officials alarmed.

What's involved are attempts to tamper with the state's procurement system and heavy-handed intervention by legislators on behalf of one bidder for the state's new vehicle emissions inspection program (VEIP).

How heavy-handed? State transportation officials have been threatened with retribution at next year's General Assembly session if they don't hand the VEIP contract over to this bidder. A meeting in the governor's office saw legislators demand that the bidding process be wiped out and their ally awarded the contract by fiat -- a contract worth tens of millions of dollars.

Those involved in these discussions include some of the state's most influential legislators, including Sen. Clarence Blount, chairman of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the new chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee that has jurisdiction over this VEIP contract.

What the state is seeking is a VEIP program in which a private developer builds auto-emissions stations to meet new Clean Air Act standards in 1995. The state would then buy these sites from the developer, who would continue to manage the testing facilities. Capital outlays would be $60 million to $80 million; operating revenues over $20 million a year.

This is a huge contract, one that should be handled by the book.

The state's procurement law requires a process that starts with detailed bidding instructions, known as a request for proposal (RFP). But the current operator of the state's emission facilities (he bought the business just this spring in a leveraged buyout) has cried foul. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus have gone to bat for him. They claim the RFP is racially biased against the current operator, who is black.

In fact, the current operator has objected to most of the state's efforts to open up the bidding process. His friends in the legislature want to close the process to everyone except their ally.

Instead of the "level playing field" sought by transportation officials, objecting legislators want a sharply slanted field that favors their bidder.

This bidder also wants to stop the state from owning these emissions-testing stations. Yet a consultant concluded that state ownership, combined with private construction and private management, would be the best deal for motorists, who will foot the bill through emissions-inspection fees.

Letting a private firm own the sites would wind up costing motorists more in fees and also give the firm a decided advantage when it comes time for renewal of this contract in three to five years.

That was the case the last time the state re-bid its auto-emissions contract. The company then operating the stations won the bid, but officials feel this was due to an unfair advantage, an advantage they believe cost motorists dearly in higher emissions-testing charges.

This time, transportation officials want to make sure Marylanders get a break. State ownership of the sites ensures all bidders an equal chance. It also keeps the cost down to motorists, since it is far cheaper to float state bonds for this project than to finance it privately at far higher interest rates.

But coming up with a "clean" bidding contest is becoming increasingly difficult.

The current operator has hired a bevy of high-priced lobbyists; one of the other interested bidders has hired superlobbyist Bruce Bereano and his sidekick, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, the duo that succeeded in winning the controversial lottery contract. In that case, they did an end-run around the state procurement law; this time, ironically, they are trying to uphold the sanctity of that same law.

Meanwhile, state legislators are mucking around in a bidding process designed to prevent political tampering.

Have our leaders forgotten the Agnew scandals that led to procurement-law reforms? Do we have to be reminded by the U.S. attorney every 15 or 20 years of the bounds of proper behavior in the State House?

Another big scandal may be headed directly toward the State House. Already, savvy officials are taking cover.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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