Procurement officer says e-mail to bidder violated state rules

Transportation official recommended lobbyist

February 05, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A state procurement official said yesterday that the former chief of the Baltimore region's transportation program for the disabled violated the Maryland Department of Transportation's rules last year when she sent an e-mail to a potential vendor in which she recommended a lobbyist.

Mark Pemberton, the procurement officer for a $43 million contract to provide van and cab rides for disabled Marylanders, said Ruth Silverstone's exchange of e-mails with one of the chosen bidders came at a time when neither she nor the vendor were supposed to be in contact with each other.

"One of the instructions is that she should not have been communicating with the [bidder]," Pemberton said.

In the Oct. 27 e-mail, Silverstone recommended that Laidlaw Transit Services consider hiring Lee Cowen, a Republican lobbyist with close ties to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Department rules strictly limit communications between members of bid evaluation committees, such as Silverstone, and potential vendors.

Pemberton's testimony came at a hearing of the state Board of Contract Appeals, which is hearing incumbent contractor Yellow Transportation Inc.'s protest of the contract award to Laidlaw of Overland Park, Kan., and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif. The department has declined to make Silverstone, who has yet to testify in the matter, available to comment.

Yellow has alleged that the procurement process was tainted with bias and that the state failed to follow its own rules for awarding contracts. The department insists the procurement process was valid and that any missteps did not affect the outcome.

However, the hearing has shown that the procurement was handled in an unusual manner and that representatives of the chosen vendors were included in the department's internal strategy deliberations.

Pemberton was questioned by Yellow Transportation attorney Scott Livingston yesterday about e-mails showing that Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan planned to expedite the contract award to Laidlaw and MV Transit in order to change vendors in only 61 days - despite the fact the state's contract solicitation called for a 120-day transition.

An Oct. 27 e-mail from Pemberton to an MV Transit official showed that Flanagan ordered department officials to prepare to bring the contract to the Oct. 29 Board of Public Works meeting on two days' notice and without listing it on the board's agenda.

Pemberton said the board discourages departments from bringing such "walk-on" items to its meetings.

He explained that Flanagan wanted to ensure that the state could provide service to the disabled after Yellow's contract expired Jan. 1.

Pemberton said department officials decided by "consensus" after a preliminary meeting with board officials Oct. 28 to abandon the walk-on plan.

Livingston questioned Pemberton about an Oct. 29 e-mail to Flanagan's chief of staff in which the procurement officer gave the secretary advice on a strategy for speeding the award. A copy was sent to Cowen, who was lobbying for MV Transit, and company executives.

When the public works board considered the contract Dec. 3, it deferred action until after Yellow's appeal is resolved.

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