Disney conflict issues raised Baltimore Co. schools dealing with employer of former board leader

Timing 'raises eyebrows'

Whiting-Turner gets work as Disney steps down from position

July 21, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

While Calvin Disney was Baltimore County's school board president, his employer, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., was involved in two business arrangements with the school district, documents and interviews show.

This spring, the company, where Disney is a vice president and has a substantial ownership stake, was a consultant for an architectural firm that had a $60,000 contract with the district.

And in recent months, Whiting-Turner has been in discussions ++ with school officials about a contract of its own at Franklin Middle School, estimated at $800,000. On July 9, eight days after Disney's resignation from the board became effective, a committee recommended Whiting-Turner as construction manager for the addition and modernization project. The board is expected to act on that proposal next month.

These events -- coupled with Disney's role as a construction expert who provided guidance to other board members -- raise )) questions about whether he helped set the stage, even inadvertently, for a lucrative relationship between Whiting-Turner and the board.

"Certainly the timing of that scenario raises eyebrows," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a public-interest watchdog group. "It could be just coincidental. But it's the sequence that makes one wonder if everything was done properly and above-board."

Disney says that while on the board he was unaware of both arrangements -- the consulting work for the architects, estimated at $2,700, and the construction management contract being negotiated.

Whiting-Turner is huge, he said -- estimated revenues of $730 million last year made it the nation's 34th largest general contractor, according to the trade magazine Engineering News-Record. And Disney said he has nothing to do with school construction, instead handling projects such as the renovation of Memorial Stadium.

Disney referred other questions to the company's chief executive officer, Willard Hackerman, who declined to be interviewed.

Disney, who had an $835,000 interest in Whiting-Turner last year, according to a disclosure form, said there is nothing unethical about the deals. "Whiting-Turner pursues hundreds of jobs every week," he said. "I'm not involved in that [school construction] arm of the business. That is such a small amount of our business."

Disney does not appear to have violated the county's ethics code, which bars officials from participating in matters in which they have a financial interest.

He did not vote on the deals; board presidents typically do not vote unless there is a tie. Former facilities director Faith C. Hermann and director Gene L. Neff said they had no discussions with Disney about the projects.

But some law professors who specialize in ethics say Disney's presence on the board, his leadership and ideas may have helped Whiting-Turner in subtle ways.

During Disney's 10 years on the board, Whiting-Turner did little if any business with the district, said Disney and school facilities officials. The company bid unsuccessfully for some contracts, he said.

Last year, the district started using consultants instead of employees to oversee projects -- one factor that made the pending Whiting-Turner contract possible.

Disney was a key proponent of the shift to outside construction management, saying the district's work force couldn't keep up with its heavy project load. Others said the move was also designed to stem excessive litigation that has troubled projects in the past.

Generally, construction managers, like architects and engineers, are not chosen through competitive bidding. The district advertises for a service, and companies send in their credentials for evaluation.

Those most suitable are placed on a list of "prequalified" companies and are chosen for specific projects by a panel of school officials. Some board members have expressed concern recently that the process is too subjective.

In October, the district for the first time advertised for construction managers, and in December put all 11 companies that applied, including Whiting-Turner, on the "prequalified" list, according to board documents and Hermann, facilities director until April.

On March 26, the board unanimously awarded a $60,000 contract to the architectural firm Rubeling & Associates of Towson to study the requirements and cost of expanding and modernizing Franklin Middle School.

Rubeling hired Whiting-Turner as a consultant -- allocating $2,700 for cost-estimating services.

Whiting-Turner's name did not appear on the documents submitted to the board for approval, and some board members, as well as Hermann, say they did not know the company was involved.

John J. DiMenna, a vice president at Rubeling, said he wasn't sure exactly when Whiting-Turner was hired. He said his records show that a memo regarding the job went to the company and other consultants March 29, three days after the board vote.

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