Judge issues order blocking award of crime lab contract

Pact OK'd hours earlier by public works board

May 06, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Board of Public Works gave the go-ahead yesterday for state officials to begin building a $23.8 million state police crime lab in Pikesville, but the project was blocked later in the day by a Baltimore County judge.

Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. issued a temporary restraining order at the request of a Baltimore company that has appealed the state's decision to disqualify its bid on the job to the Board of Contract Appeals.

The three-member Board of Public Works took the unusual step of awarding the contract in the face of a protest after hearing a plea from Col. Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, the state police superintendent, to let work on the long-delayed project proceed.

"Vital records are being stored in hallways," Hutchins said as he recounted the inadequacies of the current crime lab, which was built in 1971.

The move would have left Roy Kirby & Sons, a well-known Baltimore contractor that offered to build the project for $3.1 million less than the chosen builder, with no guaranteed remedy even if its protests to the contract appeal board are upheld.

William M. Huddles, Kirby's attorney, said Bollinger's temporary order runs through May 15. The lawyer said his next step would be to seek a preliminary injunction to block the award to P.J. Dick of West Mifflin, Pa., which was given the work after General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford disqualified Kirby.

The Baltimore company was twice notified by the department that it had been chosen as the recommended vendor by contract proposal evaluation committees. But last year Rutherford refused to bring the recommendation to the public works board and ordered a new round of bidding, saying the procurement process was flawed.

Kirby, whose protest of that decision is pending before the appeals board, again prevailed in a new competition early this year. This time, Rutherford disqualified the firm, alleging that company President Roy Kirby Jr. had inappropriate communications with state officials after the first contract award was held up.

Huddles told the public works board yesterday that Rutherford's actions were "illegal" and that the justifications he gave for his decisions were untrue.

"The real reasons are more sinister," Huddles said. He added that the contract appeals board is the proper place to decide who is right.

Huddles contends that department officials, including Rutherford, are biased against Kirby because the company had made multiple claims against the state after changes were made during the construction of another large project.

The public works board is generally reluctant to award contracts when award decisions are being appealed - even when agency heads are eager to begin work on a project. In December, the board rejected a bid by the state Transportation Department to award a $43 million contract for van and cab service for the disabled while the decision was under appeal.

In that case, brought by Yellow Transportation Inc., the appeals board eventually ruled that the procurement had been tainted by bias as a result of improper communications between one of the winning bidders and the department's evaluation committee.

Two members of the public works board, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, said they voted to award the contract only because of Hutchins' insistence that the new building is urgently needed.

The superintendent told the board the current building is crowded and has antiquated facilities that could contaminate or invalidate evidence in criminal cases.

Schaefer said he went against his personal policy of waiting for appeals to be heard before awarding a contract because of Hutchins' plea. He expressed doubt that the appeals board could deliver a ruling within the next two months.

Kopp agreed, saying, "Time is of the essence." Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, sitting in for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., cast the third vote for the contract award.

Huddles said he didn't hear any arguments from the superintendent that were particularly "compelling" - particularly because the project has been delayed for months by the state's actions.

"The urgency that we're hearing about has been brought on by them," he said. "It's a self-inflicted wound."

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