"WE DON'T DO this voluntarily, we will do it because we were ordered to do it," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development told the city Housing Authority to drop NOI Security as a provider of high-rise patrols. The mayor neglected, though, to mention the prime reason for this order: City officials' defiance of federal law made a mockery of the bidding process.
HUD found that Baltimore officials had "violated the federal procurement regulations" in selecting NOI over Wells Fargo Guard Services. In addition, the arbitrary award to NOI cost taxpayers an extra $1 million.
Mayor Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III were fiercely criticized for employing a guard firm linked to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. They maintain NOI succeeded where other security providers failed. Its tough-looking, bow-tied guards seemed to enjoy the goodwill and cooperation of most public housing tenants. Moreover, they were able to do their jobs without carrying sidearms.
There is little doubt the HUD order to Baltimore was influenced by controversies involving Mr. Farrakhan's public statements, particularly his anti-Semitic outbursts. At the same time, the way Baltimore housing officials made sure NOI was the winning bidder last January, after HUD had declared a previous contract with NOI invalid for similar reasons, made it inevitable that HUD would intervene again.
It is now up to Wells Fargo to prove that it can build the kinds of bridges to public-housing tenants that NOI had. As for the Schmoke administration, HUD's action should be an important reminder that contracts cannot simply be handed out to favored companies. It is a betrayal of the taxpayer to award contracts to the highest bidder (by over $1 million in this case). From now on, the city should follow the law.