The president of the Maryland Senate ordered a comprehensive review of state procurement laws yesterday, saying citizens have lost confidence in the state's ability to buy goods and services without interference from special interest lobbyists, legislators or others.
"I think the current law, as it exists, only needs to be sharpened," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "It was a reform law, but there appears to be some backsliding from what was put in place, and what we once felt had teeth."
"Apparently, the teeth have become dull."
To demonstrate the importance he is attaching to the probe, Senator Miller named the Senate's majority and minority leaders, Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, and John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, to chair the task force. He also appointed the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate's four standing committees as members, meaning the matter will be handled by the entire leadership of the Senate.
Mr. Miller said the panel will evaluate a series of controversial contracts the state has awarded since William Donald Schaefer became governor in 1987, including heavily lobbied, multimillion dollar deals involving the purchase of a fleet of MedEvac helicopters, a new system of lottery computers and planned new vehicle emissions testing stations.
Critics complained of legislative interference in all three contracts. There also were charges of administration mishandling of the bidding process and of heavy handed, politically charged lobbying by well-financed firms that were trying to steer the outcome their way.
The lottery contract, awarded to the Rhode Island firm GTECH Corp., is the subject of an investigation by the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
Mr. Miller said the panel also will review whether "all appropriate procedures and requirements of law were correctly followed" with regard to other recent contracts. They include a controversial 1992 contract to administer a retirement savings program for state employees and the recent purchase of home detention devices by state prison officials without seeking bids.
He said the panel also should look at whether a recently announced agreement with the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to set up a fiber optics network throughout Maryland should have been competitively bid.
Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, said Mr. Schaefer had no advance notice of the inquiry. She added, "The governor has gone on record inviting a review of the procurement process. If there is a problem there, then that needs to be turned up. But he hasn't seen one."
Ms. Boinest also said that neither the governor nor the other two members of the state's Board of Public Works, which approves all major state contracts, have expressed any concerns about procurement decisions.
"All three maintain the procurement process has been followed in each instance. They have taken extra precautions in contracts such as the lottery, and they have stood by the process that is in place," she said.
Neither of the other board members, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and Treasurer Lucille Maurer, could be reached yesterday for comment.
The House of Delegates is not involved, although it would have to act on any subsequent legislation passed by the Senate. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, also could not be reached.
Ever since Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was forced out of office in 1973 as a result of a procurement kickback scam when he was governor of Maryland in the late 1960s, the state has made several attempts to depoliticize purchasing practices.
The last major reform of procurement laws came in 1981, although a modest revision also was enacted in 1985. The arcane laws basically govern how the state must solicit and evaluate bids for goods and services and award contracts. They spell out exceptions, tell what procedures may be bypassed to permit "emergency" procurements, and say when "sole source" procurements from a single vendor are allowed.
The timing of this latest review comes on the eve of the 1994 election year, when Marylanders will pick a new governor and a new General Assembly. The task force's initial recommendations are expected in time for the 1994 legislative session in January, a session in which lawmakers may be looking for "good government" issues to back.
It also comes at the beginning of Governor Schaefer's eighth and final legislative session -- late enough to lessen the worries of lawmakers about potential gubernatorial retaliation if the inquiry should reflect badly on the administration.
"Unfortunately," said Mr. Miller in his letter to Senators Blount and Cade, "recent questions have left an appearance that the procurement system is not impartial, and that the independent judgment of public officials can be influenced."
"Whether or not this is an accurate assessment, the very existence of that perception tends to erode the confidence and trust of Maryland citizens in the public officials and officers," he said.