Large public contracts are seldom awarded without some unhappy also-ran raising a question, if not a stink.
Responding to RFQs, RFPs, SFPs, RFIs and other offerings in the alphabet soup of government procurement costs time and money. So it’s understandable that losing bidders would appeal awards they believe should have gone to them.
But lately, it seems, there have been a lot of questions and controversies surrounding the awarding of fat, government contracts.
More so than usual? It’s hard to say. But it’s worth closer scrutiny and not many people, outside of those in the engineering and consulting sectors, are paying attention.
If they were, they might know that global engineering firm AECOM recently lost its appeal of a $5 million consulting contract that state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson awarded last month to Texas-based Atlas Technical Consultants to advise on the development of a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.
Wilson selected Atlas for the deal even though his own technical selection committee ranked it 12 points lower than AECOM and nearly 10 points behind the second-place finisher, Baker International.
In his reasons for overriding the committee’s selection, which was based on a detailed scoring matrix, Wilson explained that Atlas had a smaller backlog than did the other two firms, suggesting it could give more attention to the job. He also noted the Atlas team included a lot of DBE participation from local minority-owned firms.
What he didn’t say is that another member of the Atlas team, FIGG Engineering, is under fire from the National Transportation Safety Board for its role in a 2018 fatal bridge collapse in Florida. Or that the state of Texas has pulled FIGG off of one major bridge project and suspended it from another.
Wilson also didn’t mention that Atlas is owned by Baton Rouge-based private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners, which is owned by businessman Jim Bernhard. To his credit, Bernhard has been a tireless advocate of a new bridge, campaigning for a local roads tax that will help fund the construction of connector arteries to the span and mulling ways to help finance the new span with a public-private partnership.
But was the consulting contract payback for Bernhard’s support? Wilson says not. In his written reason for denying the AECOM appeal, he claims the technical selection committee didn’t take into account things like the “thoughts and opinions” of regional leaders and those who sit on the Capital Area Road and Bridge District, who “have expressed the desire for interaction with the consultant and project manager that rises to a level greater than the traditional project.”
If that doesn’t entirely make sense to you, you’re not alone.
Over at the Department of Health, meanwhile, controversy has been brewing since the state’s chief procurement officer, Paula Tregre, threw out $21 billion in Medicaid managed care contracts. That’s “billion” with a B.
Tregre says LDH failed to follow state procurement laws to determine which private companies should receive contracts to manage care for some 1.5 million Medicaid patients.
One of the losing bidders on the deal alleges major flaws with the RPF process, including a “disregard for fairness among members of the evaluation committee.”
The process is currently playing out and though we don’t know much about the alleged unfairness, at least we know something.
That’s more than we know about what is going on down in New Orleans, where a deal was recently awarded to a still-undisclosed firm to manage the nearly $500 million renovation of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The program management contract, worth perhaps as much as $20 million, was not publicly advertised or publicly bid. Instead, nine firms were invited two days before Christmas to submit proposals that were due Jan. 10.
Stop for a minute and think about how much work got done around your shop during that two-week holiday stretch and ask yourself how firms that weren’t already clued in managed to pull together proposals for such a massive management contract.
It makes you wonder. But the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, known colloquially as the Superdome Commission, won’t talk about the process or which firm it selected. And it doesn’t have to do so. That’s because the commission contracts with a private firm to manage the Dome—ASM, previously known as SMG—and that firm gets to select its project managers. Which means, since it’s a private company, it doesn’t have to follow public bid laws.
Never mind that two-thirds of the money to pay for the Dome renovation will come from public tax dollars or that the New Orleans Saints, which will pay for the other one-third, are also subsidized by public tax dollars. This is the way things are done at the Superdome and they do not take kindly to questions.
These are just three recent examples. But there are books to be written about the controversies surrounding flood recovery contracts and the way watershed management projects are being handed out.
Some consultants and engineers tell me it’s done this way everywhere. Others say Louisiana is worse. They all agree no one will speak about it.
“They are afraid of being blackballed on future work,” one longtime engineer tells me. “So they suck it up. And that is bad. You have to have honesty in the system.”
There does not appear to be a lot of honesty in our system. Too many deals don’t pass the smell test. That does not mean they are corrupt, per se, but in a state already hamstrung by its reputation for insider dealing and crony capitalism, it’s critical that procurements involving any amount of public money be done more fairly and transparently.