Black legislators pressure Schaefer to change emissions contract

October 03, 1992|By John W. Frece and Peter Jensen | John W. Frece and Peter Jensen,Staff Writers

Two powerful black legislators are pressuring the Schaefer administration to change the terms of a new, lucrative auto emissions testing contract so that a black-run Bethesda firm has a better chance of winning the bid.

The lawmakers claim they only want to give Envirotest Systems Corp., the company that currently runs the state's tailpipe testing program, a fair chance at retaining its contract.

But in an internal memorandum released yesterday, a high-ranking transportation department official claims the legislators have threatened "trouble for the department" unless the agency substantially alters the procurement process in favor of the incumbent.

Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount and House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats, claim the department has intentionally drafted a Request for Proposals (RFP) that makes it almost impossible for black-run Envirotest to keep the contract. They say it is typical of the department's historic attitude toward black contractors.

"It's another case of what has happened in history: that a black firm, or a black individual, sort of gets to the top, then the rules change whereby he can't stay there and compete," Senator Blount said.

The lawmakers say they want an independent group of experts to review the RFP for fairness and to analyze the bids once they are submitted.

The two men have been warned by an assistant attorney general, however, that they "could be accused of misconduct if they attempted to influence [the process] in a manner which favored Envirotest," according to an internal Transportation Department document.

The document is a "memorandum to file" written by Deputy Transportation Secretary Stephen G. Zentz on Sept. 18. It gives his account of a private meeting two days earlier between top transportation officials, Assistant Attorney General Ben C. Clyburn, and Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Blount. The memo was made available to reporters yesterday after a request by The Sun.

The cross-fire of allegations are the latest sign that the high-stakes contract for the vehicle emissions program will have the same heavy-handed involvement of lobbyists and legislators that surrounded the contract for a new lottery computer system last year.

The new emissions contract could be worth as much as $100 million over the next three to five years.

"This makes the lottery contract look like a Montana road show," Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said yesterday. "We're going to observe all the rules, dot all the i's, cross all the t's and it's going to be an open, fair process."

Mr. Lighthizer has instructed his staff to keep a written record of all their dealings with contractors, their agents and legislators for fear of a criminal investigation, according to a source within the department.

The secretary declined to comment on that yesterday, but noted that he has decided not to meet personally with any contractor.

An angry Mr. Rawlings accused the transportation department yesterday of trying to discourage his involvement by writing and then intentionally leaking the Zentz memo.

Mr. Blount said he now viewed the meeting described in the memo as "a set-up."

"Anybody who knows me knows I wouldn't [threaten the department,]" he said. "I have 21 years [in the legislature], a decent reputation. That's all I have. I couldn't threaten the department with anything."

Mr. Rawlings also said no threat was made to the transportation department's budget or any other program.

At issue is a new, multi-year contract to run an expanded emissions testing program required under the federal Clean Air Act. The state wants the winning bidder to build and equip 18 to 20 stations in Baltimore and 13 counties, an expansion from the eight jurisdictions where 10 stations now are located.

The new, more stringent testing will cost motorists about twice the current $8.50 fee, and the tests will take much longer to complete. The RFP calls for stations that are larger and with more lanes for traffic than the existing stations.

Envirotest officials say they are particularly upset that the transportation department apparently believes most if not all of the existing stations are obsolete. They contend they first learned of that conclusion when a transportation department official announced it at a public meeting. They say no one from the department has ever told them why.

The existing stations were built, operated and owned by Systems Control, Inc., which won the initial Maryland testing contract in 1981 and retained it until bought out by Envirotest in a hostile takeover this spring.

Envirotest, with offices in Bethesda and control of about 70 percent of the centralized vehicle inspection programs in the nation, is chaired by Chester C. Davenport. Mr. Davenport, a black former federal transportation official in the Carter administration, is a 20-year Maryland resident who lives in Potomac.

Mr. Rawlings admits that he and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus have met with Gov. William Donald Schaefer and with transportation officials in an attempt to get the RFP changed because they believe several provisions are unfair to the black incumbent.

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