- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

A Metro procurement officer has been suspended for two weeks for allowing a consultant to receive a $333,065 contract without the Metro Board's approval, The Washington Times has learned.

Procurement director Francis X. "Buddy" Watson was suspended Wednesday for approving the hiring of consultant Wayman H. "Ray" Lytle in October 1998. It was not clear whether Mr. Watson was suspended with or without pay.

His suspension comes amid a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) review of Metro's procurement practices and after the transit system's own probe into Mr. Lytle's contract found no wrongdoing.

Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann yesterday said he could not discuss whether Mr. Watson was suspended because it is a personnel matter.

But Metro workers said Mr. Watson's suspension is conspicuous in its timing.

"They suspended him to make the FTA believe they took some action on the Lytle contract," said an employee familiar with the suspension. "He was in the middle of this whole thing, but he was not the only one."

Panagiotis P. "Takis" Salpeas, assistant general manager for Transit System Development, hired Mr. Lytle under a $100,000, noncompetitive contract that quickly grew to $333,065.

Mr. Salpeas and Deputy General Manager Gail Charles endorsed the contract by saying Mr. Lytle's participation was "essential" to Metro, documents show.

Mr. Watson approved the Lytle contract, even though two Metro auditors objected to the consultant's $165-an-hour fee and lack of justification for his high rate of pay.

Metro General Manager Richard White ended the Lytle contract in January after The Times inquired about it, saying it was a simple error.

The Metro Board investigated the contract and concluded that no wrongdoing had occurred.

Metro Board members were not told that Mr. Watson had been suspended, but Board member Decatur Trotter yesterday said he was not surprised that Mr. Watson was suspended.

"He's lucky to have a job," said Mr. Trotter, a former Maryland state senator. "It was such a major oversight that cost a great deal of money."

Metro Board Chairman Gladys Mack said she was not aware of the suspension and did not want to comment on it until after she has been briefed.

Meanwhile, the FTA is reviewing Metro's hiring of 108 consultants, including a $53-an-hour clerk and $168-an-hour engineers, while it laid off or reassigned about 100 in-house employees because of a lack of work for them to do.

The Times first reported last month Metro's hiring of the consultants, who are paid two to three times as much as in-house workers, at an annual cost of $25 million.

Yesterday, three Metro Board members questioned the transit authority's spending $770,000 to study a design for building canopies over escalators at outside subway stops.

Mr. White sought board approval for paying a consortium of consultants he formed to conduct the study rather than put the job out for bid.

But Mrs. Mack, D.C. Council member Jim Graham and Mr. Trotter said they could not understand why the money is needed and why the consultants are the only ones who can do the work.

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said he and the others are concerned about all of Metro's work being steered to five consulting companies that are a part of a consortium, rather than receiving bids for each project.

"There are a lot of questions about all the work being earmarked to these five particular companies and the ability of others to participate," he said.

Mr. Graham said the board will hold a special meeting with its Development and Expansion Committee to discuss the canopy issue.

Mrs. Mack said they wanted to find out what work had been done and what needs to be done on the canopy project.

"Our concerns were not so much the size of the additional funds, but just to get a handle on what work had to be done," she said. "We are going to take a look and decide how to go forward."

Mr. Trotter said he was not sure what the consultants wanted to do with the money and thought it was a good idea to defer taking action until Mr. White could provide more information.

"It appeared to be a duplication of effort," he said. "We had hired one architect, and they wanted to hire an adviser to the architect to confirm what the architect was doing. It was confusing."

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