Probity Check on State Contracts

August 08, 1993

Finally, Maryland's state legislators are going to take a look at whether there have been improprieties in the controversies surrounding the awarding of state contracts. Our only question: What took them so long?

It has been clear for some time that influence was exerted on state officials in a number of major contract awards. In some cases, the regular procurement process was altered; in other cases, the entire competitive bidding procedure was junked. Abnormalities in these big state procurement contracts have become the norm rather than the exception. That's why we wrote in a June editorial on the subject that this was "a scandal waiting to happen."

So it is a welcome development that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has appointed a blue-ribbon Senate panel to review Maryland's procurement law "in order to protect its integrity." In a letter setting up this panel, Mr. Miller used unusually harsh language to describe the situation:

Recent contract awards, he said, "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 their public officials and officers."

Mr. Miller asked the group to review and evaluate recent controversial contracts, such as the no-bid lottery keno contract; the no-bid home-detention equipment contract; the no-bid retirement savings plan contract, and the negotiated, no-bid agreement with C&P Telephone Co. to build a fiber-optics network for state schools.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the other two members of the Board of Public Works have failed to act as watchdogs in many of these controversies. Attorney General J. Joseph Curran has failed to step in, too. Senate President Miller, to his credit, now is taking the lead in finding out what laws need to be tightened to prevent future abuses.

We urge the committee to make a thorough review of these controversies and, if necessary, to seek subpoena power to ensure truthful testimony. Many individuals might be reluctant to go public with their criticisms of government officials for fear of endangering their prospects for obtaining future state contracts.

We also urge Mr. Miller to broaden his panel's membership to include top leaders of the House of Delegates. Unless House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell is willing to play a role in this legislative inquiry, the chances of a Senate reform bill making it through the House are slim. The objective should be to identify past abuses and prevent future excesses. A joint House-Senate effort is essential.

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