Questions delay $21 million contract award for cleanup work at airport 3-year BWI pact was to go to group for the disabled

July 18, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In a July 18 article, The Sun incorrectly reported the name of the state agency involved in a contract dispute with PHP Health Care Corp. The controversy involves the Department of Public ++ Safety and Correctional Services.

The Sun regrets the error.

The Maryland Aviation Administration was forced to delay a $21 million airport cleanup contract with an organization for the disabled after the deal ran into skeptical questioning yesterday at the state Board of Public Works.

Agency officials withdrew the item from the board's agenda after members demanded information on why a contract of that size would be awarded without competitive bids.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The three-year contract for custodial service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was tentatively awarded to the Chimes Inc., a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that provides employment opportunities for developmentally and physically disabled people.

Such organizations are known under Maryland procurement law as "sheltered workshops" and are given preference for certain state contracts. But all three members of the board balked at the size of the BWI deal.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening called the contract the largest award to a sheltered workshop he had seen in his four years on the board. Treasurer Richard N. Dixon said any contract of that size should go through a normal bid process.

The board's cross-examination of the officials responsible for the contract came at its first meeting since the July 3 death of Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a member of the powerful body for four decades.

In his old seat at the governor's right hand sat Robert L. Swann, the former deputy comptroller whom Glendening named last week to fill out Goldstein's term.

Swann, who observed that he was still looking over his shoulder anytime someone called him "Mr. Comptroller," wasted little time jumping into one of his former boss's favorite roles: griller of bureaucrats.

When aviation agency official Joseph Nessel defended the Chimes contract, Swann demanded to know how he could be sure the state was getting the best price if there was no competition with other sheltered workshops.

Nessel asked board members to approve the contract despite their reservations so the contract could go into effect by the scheduled Aug. 1 starting date. But Glendening rejected the request, instructing transportation officials to provide better justification for the award at the board's next meeting three weeks from now.

Under Maryland law, most large contracts for goods and services must be put up for competitive bidding. One exception is contracts for work that can be performed by prison labor, the blind or certified sheltered workshops for the disabled. Most of these contracts are relatively small.

Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator of the aviation agency, said last night that the work that goes to sheltered workshops is distributed through a quasi-governmental clearinghouse called Maryland Works.

He said the clearinghouse's decisions are reviewed by a committee in the Department of General Services to ensure that the price is not excessive. The committee found that the Chimes contract was "reasonable," he said.

Schaus said the agency has been paying about $7 million a year for custodial services at BWI -- roughly the same amount it will pay to the Chimes.

Albert Bussone, chief operating officer of the Chimes, said he had not been informed of any problems with the contract as of last evening. Officials of Maryland Works could not be reached for comment.

In other matters, board members deferred action on a $20.4 million contract with EMSA Correctional Care Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to provide medical services to prisoners in Baltimore.

The contract is at the center of a dispute between the Department of Juvenile Justice and the previous vendor, PHP Health Care Corp of Reston, Va. The department declared PHP in default in June amid a dispute over how much money the state owes the company.

After hearing a plea yesterday from a top PHP executive, Michael D. Starr, Glendening and other board members urged the department to reopen negotiations to avoid a legal battle.

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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