Board defers action on paratransit deal

Bidders in 2 cases accuse officials of rigging process

December 04, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The provider of van and bus services for Baltimore's disabled won an apparent victory yesterday as the state Board of Public Works deferred action so the company can appeal the award of a $43 million contract to two rival companies to take over the work.

The board refused to award the contract after a marathon meeting dominated by accusations from two disappointed bidders that high Ehrlich administration officials rigged the procurement process for the transportation service as well as another lucrative contract to serve vulnerable Marylanders.

The officials denied the accusations during a meeting chaired by their boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The two cases involved transportation services provided by Baltimore--based Yellow Transportation/Connex and management of Baltimore's child support enforcement program by Virginia-based Maximus Inc.

In both cases, the bidders got some of what they wanted as the board declined to award the contracts as recommended by the Transportation and Human Resources departments.

Yellow Transportation/Connex won its request for the board to defer action on the transportation contract to Kansas-based Laidlaw Transit Services and California-based MV Transportation so that it could take its case to the Board of Contract Appeals. The deferral was a defeat for Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who urged the board to award the contract.

No vote was taken, but Ehrlich apparently could not win the support of the two Democrats on the panel. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer openly opposed the award and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp expressed misgivings about the process.

The governor adjourned the meeting after a recess without saying how long a vote would be deferred. But Flanagan, who emerged from the closed-door session grim-faced, said the delay was to give the appeals board time to make a decision.

The outcome was less clear-cut in the second case, where the board decided to delay a decision on Maximus' challenge of the child support contract award for at least two weeks. The contract, which covers Queen Anne's County and Baltimore, is worth an estimated $10 million to $15 million a year over the next four to six years.

Maximus asked board members to refuse to award the contract to Denver-based Policy Studies Inc. despite a strong opinion by the contract appeals board upholding the Human Resources Department's choice.

The decisions were made after a meeting that lasted more than 6 1/2 hours - without a lunch break. It was the longest meeting of the board in recent memory.

The board - composed of the governor, comptroller and treasurer - reviews large contract awards by state agencies and generally approves them with at most mild grumbling. But yesterday's session was dominated by the two lengthy and contentious appeals - both marked by accusations of official misconduct and both involving longtime supporters of Schaefer.

In both cases, Schaefer came down hard on the side of his old friends. He did not turn his wrath directly on Ehrlich, with whom he has conducted a cross-party political flirtation, but he vented his anger at Flanagan, Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe and other administration officials.

"You already made up your mind that Yellow was out" before the procurement process began, Schaefer told Flanagan and Deputy Secretary Trent Kittleman.

Mark L. Joseph, president of Yellow, said that Flanagan had called officials of Connex, Yellow's French parent firm, in what they interpreted as pressure to withdraw their contract appeal and to wait for "future opportunities" to do business with the state.

Connex is one of the world's largest providers of "bus rapid transit," an advanced transportation technology that Flanagan has expressed interest in bringing to Maryland. Flanagan said he placed a call to Connex officials to protest the tone of a letter sent by Joseph criticizing Kittleman. He denied asking officials of the French company to force Yellow to drop its appeal.

Bruce C. Bereano, Maximus' longtime lobbyist, directed his strongest accusations against Brian D. Shea, director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration, accusing him of tilting the process to PSI because he wants privatization of such services to fail.

Shea called the charge "outrageous."

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