Bowie State rejects food services pact University reverses decision to award contract to bid winner

September 02, 1998|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Bowie State University, under fire for misspending nearly $182,000 from its fund-raising organization, is embroiled in another controversy -- one that could hurt efforts to keep a $4 billion food services and facilities management company in Maryland.

At issue is Bowie State's reversal of a decision announced on Aug. 3 to give Bethesda-based Sodexho Marriott Services Inc. a $1 million-a-year food services contract. The company had won the contract in a competitive bid against five other firms, but on Aug. 19 Bowie told Sodexho Marriott that because of unspecified "recent developments," it would retain its current food services provider.

The decision has brought threats of a lawsuit from Marriott, and has alarmed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- both of whom want to keep Sodexho Marriott and its 250 headquarters jobs from moving to Northern Virginia.

The fight over the contract pits two of the state's top lobbyists against each other -- one representing a food services giant with deep Maryland roots, the other a certified minority-owned business.

The issue is expected to be discussed today by the state Board of Public Works, which consists of the governor, state comptroller and state treasurer.

"Marriott had been told they won the contract," Duncan said. "Then they were told they didn't. It didn't send a very good message." He fears the reversal "would hurt the relationship" between the state and Sodexho Marriott if it is allowed to stand.

The awarding of the contract to Sodexho Marriott has been stalled by a protest from Maryland GSI Inc., which holds the university contract. Maryland GSI contends that Sodexho Marriott, which had been hired by Bowie State to evaluate the school's food services, had an unfair advantage in the bidding process.

Alan M. Rifkin, a high-powered Annapolis lobbyist whose firm XTC represents Maryland GSI, says Sodexho Marriott was part of an evaluation team that had criticized the university's food services operation. "We find that to be troublesome," and possibly a violation of state law, he said.

In addition to protesting the contract award, Maryland GSI -- a division of Atlanta-based Gourmet Services Inc. -- is seeking a contract extension, though it placed third in the bidding.

Gerard E. Evans, another influential Annapolis lobbyist who represents Sodexho Marriott, called Rifkin's allegations "nonsense," adding that the company made a legitimate bid. If the problem isn't fixed, he said, it could strain relations between the state and Sodexho Marriott.

"It certainly would be a terrible omen of things to come in the state of Maryland," Evans said. "Two letters to Marriott said they won. We had people then on campus beginning to work."

In a letter to university system officials Friday, Evans said he would be "forced to exercise whatever means necessary to rectify this injustice, which would include pursuing a breach of contract action."

Richard N. Dixon, the state treasurer, said he will vote to reverse Bowie State's decision and give the contract to Sodexho Marriott -- not because of the controversy, but because the company won the bid. "My decision was not based on any veiled threat," he said.

The governor would not comment on the case because the decision is pending, a spokesman said. But Ray Feldmann, the spokesman, added, "Obviously, the governor is very concerned about economic development in the state. And obviously, the governor is very concerned about Marriott."

The controversy comes at a bad time for Bowie State. An audit report released last week blamed President Nathanael Pollard Jr. for the misspending of nearly $182,000 in scholarship and campus activity money from the school's fund-raising foundation.

University spokeswoman Loretta Hardge said she would have no comment because the matter is before the Board of Public Works. And after repeated requests for a copy of Bowie State's last food services contract, Hardge failed to provide it yesterday.

Sodexho Marriott was formed in the March merger between Marriott International Inc. and Sodexho Alliance SA of Paris. It employees 250 people in Montgomery County and plans to expand by more than 100.

This summer, state and county officials worried that Sodexho Marriott would move its headquarters, so they put together a $1 million incentive package to keep the company in Maryland.

On Aug. 17, company officials confirmed that they had chosen to stay in Maryland and put their headquarters in Gaithersburg. Two days later, however, they got the letter from Bowie State, saying they would not have the food services contract.

Jacqueline Lampell, a spokeswoman in the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said the state continues to negotiate with Sodexho Marriott to keep the company from moving.

"Governor Glendening has directed our department to work closely with Sodexho Marriott to retain these jobs in Maryland," she said. "Sodexho Marriott is very important to Maryland."

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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