E-mails raise questions about MTA contract

Officials' communications with bidding executives hint of possible favoritism

January 29, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

An official of the Maryland Transit Administration steered a company seeking a lucrative transportation contract last year to a prominent lobbyist who is a friend of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The official's recommendation came in one of a series of e-mails that point to a less than arms-length relationship between MTA official Ruth Silverstone and other agency employees with contractors during a disputed procurement of transportation services for the disabled.

The e-mails obtained by The Sun show that MTA officials worked extensively with executives and lobbyists for the winning bidders on strategy for persuading the state's Board of Public Works to approve the department's contract award last October despite an appeal filed by a losing bidder.

Suzanne Fox, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said an official's recommendation of a particular lobbyist "could be read as an abuse of the person's prestige of office."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee, said he will call a hearing to look into the contract and other Transportation Department procurements: "A lot of questions have been raised about political bias and other biases being applied to the procurement process."

In one of the e-mails, nine days before the official notification of a contract award, another MTA official involved in the procurement, Joyce Callahan, hinted to an executive of a winning bidder that his firm had been chosen.

The official added: "Please make this note disappear!"

It is a violation of procurement rules for an official to tell a potential vendor about the progress of a bid prior to the official notification.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, one of the three members of the Board of Public Works, called the matter "very serious."

"Ruth Silverstone's a good lady. She just doesn't know you're not supposed to do things like this," Schaefer said.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the recommended lobbyist, Lee Cowen, is a friend of the governor. But, she said, "It's not the job of a transportation employee to recommend a lobbyist."

Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said senior officials, including Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, were not aware of Silverstone's recommendation. Cahalan said Flanagan had ordered the department's audit team to conduct an investigation, independent of the MTA, of why the e-mails were sent.

Silverstone has worked for the state for 26 years. At the time she wrote the e-mails, she headed the MTA's Mobility transportation for the disabled and played a key role in choosing the winning vendor.

She was transferred earlier this month to a new job, assistant to the MTA general manager for training.

When the note was sent, Callahan was serving on a committee evaluating the merits of the competing companies' proposals.

Cahalan said Callahan remains employed as a compliance officer on disability rights. He said it would be inappropriate for her or Silverstone to comment because they are expected to testify before the contract appeals board.

The e-mails raised concerns among legislators about possible favoritism in the awarding of contracts.

"I hope this is not the tip of an iceberg where the administration is trying to steer special interests to their favorite lobbyists," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The e-mails came to light as part of a case before the state Board of Contract Appeals in which Yellow Transportation Inc., the current vendor, is challenging the MTA's decision in October to award the $43 million contract to Laidlaw Transit Services of Overland Park, Kansas, and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif.

Yellow President Mark Joseph said the company obtained the e-mails from the winning vendors through the discovery process. He said the Transportation Department failed to provide the same e-mails when Yellow sought them under the state's public records law.

Failure to provide such documents upon request could be a violation of that statute - as Yellow has alleged in court - but Cahalan said MTA officials have complied with the law.

One e-mail shows that Silverstone suggested to Laidlaw executive Kim Chin that his company consider hiring a lobbyist.

The Oct. 27 e-mail - sent five days after the official notification of the winner - begins with Silverstone thanking Chin for a "lovely celebration lunch" a few days earlier. "You do everything soooooo well," she wrote.

The e-mail goes on to note that MV had already hired a lobbyist - presumably to lobby the Board of Public Works, which has final say on the contract award.

"Something you may want to consider. Lee Cowen is a good guy. You may want to contact him," Silverstone wrote. The e-mail goes on to provide contact information for Cowen, a Republican activist who set up shop as an Annapolis lobbyist in the wake of Ehrlich's 2002 election victory.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.