Turf contract passes audit

But 'deficiencies' are found in Arundel deal

August 13, 2008|By Julie Scharper and Justin Fenton | Julie Scharper and Justin Fenton,Sun reporters

Anne Arundel County did not err in awarding a $10.8 million artificial turf contract to a politically connected landscaping company with no experience working with turf despite "deficiencies" in the firm's bid, according to an audit released yesterday.

But the report criticized the county for signing contracts with a second company, AmDyne Inc., to oversee the bidding process and supervise the construction, saying that the deals were made outside county guidelines.

County auditor Teresa Sutherland also found that the director of central services, Fred Schram, spoke on his county-issued cell phone 15 times to the president of the winning company, Sunny Acres Landscaping Inc., before, during and after the bidding process.

Councilman G. James Benoit said that the audit brings to light several concerns with the way the county handles contracts.

"I think there are a number of lessons to be learned in this report, and there are things we ought to take a look at in this county," he said, adding that he expects the topic of open-ended agreements will be explored at Monday's council meeting.

County Executive John R. Leopold dismissed the criticism of the arrangement with AmDyne as a "technical recommendation" and said that he has introduced a bill to more clearly allow the type of open-ended agreement the county made with the company for contracts less than $100,000.

"I'm pleased that the audit reaffirms the integrity of the field bidding process and also that my staff provided professional and courteous cooperation," he said. He declined to specifically address the findings involving Schram.

The county awarded an $80,000 open-ended, noncompetitive contract to AmDyne to create bid specifications for the fields at 11 county high schools, although the company "has never designed or developed specifications for an artificial turf field," according to the audit.

The Department of Public Works chose AmDyne, based in Glen Burnie, because its employees had closely observed the construction of a similar field at Broadneck High School.

The county made a separate $75,000 contract with AmDyne to oversee the construction process, which the audit describes as "unusual."

"Typically, the County awards a construction inspection contract to a firm other than the design firm to ensure independence in the inspections and provide 'checks and balances,'" the report states.

According to the report, Christopher J. Phipps, chief engineer for public works, said that his department hired AmDyne because the county had no experience installing artificial turf. He also said that county employees now have enough experience that "they will seek an independent construction management firm to provide inspection services" for the next three fields to be constructed.

The audit was the first time that concerns about the agreement with AmDyne had come to light, although The Sun had reported questions about the deal with Sunny Acres and the relationship between the company's president, Les Belcher Jr., and central services director Schram.

Schram and Belcher have a personal relationship and play golf together. They swore under oath that the phone calls that they exchanged on Schram's county-issued cell phone were not about the bid, according to the audit.

Though Davidsonville-based Sunny Acres was the lowest bidder in a sealed process this spring, some County Council members expressed concern about whether it was qualified to receive the contract. The council voted unanimously to freeze funding and ordered the audit in May.

Among the deficiencies cited in the audit were that Sunny Acres did not submit audited financial statements, did not disclose two lawsuits that had been filed against it and did not provide a list of subcontractors. The audit also noted that before awarding the bid, neither AmDyne nor county agencies reviewed the financial statements that the company later handed over.

After Sunny Acres received approval, it changed the type of turf it planned to install and cut ties with an experienced subcontractor that had guided it throughout the process - a partnership that officials said was influential in the company being selected in the first place.

In addition, Schram contributed to the 2006 political campaign of Belcher's son and Sunny Acres' vice president, Les Belcher III, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly. Belcher III's wife is also the brother of Republican Del. Donald H. Dwyer and sits on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee, whose members include an aide to Leopold.

County officials maintained that the questions were being raised by jilted bidders or political opponents. Schram, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has said the bidding process was "at arm's length" from politics and that he keeps his personal life separate from county work.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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