Shoddy work, shoddy oversight Influence peddled?: Federal trial renews worst fears about no-bid contracts.

November 16, 1995

IT'S FREQUENTLY forgotten that Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III didn't begin Baltimore's corruption-riddled no-bid housing repair program. That distinction belongs to his predecessor, Robert W. Hearn, whose academic approach to problem solving was often criticized as too slow.

Mr. Hearn acted out of character in 1991 when he decided to speed up the repair of vacant houses by awarding contracts without taking the time to go through a bid process. By doing so he created the monster that Mr. Henson inherited in 1993. The business-savvy Mr. Henson thought he could handle the no-bid program. He was wrong.

What began as a $1 million housing repair program under Mr. Hearn grew to more than $25 million with Mr. Henson in charge. His damn-the-torpedoes attitude got bigger results faster. But the speed was in large measure the result of a shocking lack of oversight. So much so that the federal government demanded it be repaid hundreds of thousands of dollars for repair work that was done shoddily.

More important, a federal investigation has uncovered more than a dozen cases of corruption within the repair program. Charles Morris, a former Housing Authority official, has admitted taking bribes from companies who were given no-bid contracts. He also has made statements to the FBI alleging that Lynette Young, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's chief of staff, used her influence to help at least one contractor, Larry Jennings Sr., get repair work. She denies that.

Mr. Jennings is on trial this week for bribery. He was placed on the list of approved contractors even though his son was then a member of the Housing Authority board. No-bid work also was given to companies controlled by Mr. Jennings' wife and daughter. Larry Jennings Jr., who has since resigned from the board, claims no wrongdoing occurred.

That will be up to the court to decide. But there's no need to wait to pass judgment on the no-bid repair program. Though well-intended, it was a horror. Mr. Henson should have taken extraordinary measures to ensure a program so susceptible to corruption was well policed.

He should have made sure contractors got jobs because they could do the work, not because they bribed someone or knew someone important at City Hall. He should have done a better job of making sure work paid for was work done. Mr. Henson didn't do that. The no-bid program may not have been his idea originally, but its failures have his stamp.

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