- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

Two federal agencies are probing Metro, the Washington region's mass transportation system. One, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), began its investigation a few weeks ago. The other is the U.S. Department of Transportation, whose probe is nearly complete. Both agencies initiated their probes after The Washington Times questioned Metro spending of $25 million on consultants. The probes are looking into Metro's contracting irregularities in general and one contract in particular.

Seems a Metro official approved a $333,065, no-bid contract without the approval of Metro's board and without the approval of Metro's general manager. The contract involved projects regarding the Branch Avenue Green Line, which is adjacent to the federally owned Suitland Parkway, and the Vienna station in Fairfax County. But the problem is really neither here nor there. It is at Metro headquarters on Fifth Street N.W., where some officials don't appear to be as careful as they should be with your tax dollars.

The Department of Transportation and the FTA are digging deeply into Metro's procurement files, asking for contracts, audits, contract reviews, employee resumes, contract administration systems and employees' standards of conduct. The probes not only include the $333,065 contract, but what appears to be high-priced consultants, such as a clerk who is paid $53 per hour. "This is much more detailed than FTA has done in the past," a Metro worker told Jim Keary of The Washington Times. Indeed, if you look closely at only some of the facts you might want to question Metro, too.

In early February, Mr. Keary broke the news that Metro officials approved the awarding of a noncompetitive contract to a consultant. That contract, initially worth $100,000, was awarded in the fall of 1998 against the objections of Metro's own auditors. Over several months, however, it mushroomed to more than $333,000. While Metro terminated the contract before this newspaper's inquiry, the consultant had already been paid $275,000. Metro, meanwhile, conducted its own probe into the matter and discovered that a letter vital to explaining the chain of events was nowhere to be found. Written in October 1998 by Panagiotis P. "Takis" Salpeas, Metro's assistant general manager for transit system development, the letter urged a high-level Metro official to hire the consultant, a retired federal official who had worked on contracts for the BART system in San Francisco. What followed borders on a cover-up.

Top Metro officials initially shrugged at the contract, calling the problem an oversight and defending General Manager Richard White, who, along with Mr. Salpeas and the consultant, had also worked on the BART system in San Francisco. After conducting the internal probe, Metro officials said there was no wrongdoing, just a loophole permitting increases in no-bid procurement regulations without approval from the board. Metro officials subsequently changed the applicable rules to pre-empt future irregularities. Then a union leader balked, saying public transit officials were laying off scores of Metro workers and replacing them with consultants to do the same work but for more money. Metro officials suspended him.

What is really strange is that while Metro officials cited the loophole for the mistake, they have now put blame on a procurement official and suspended him. One of the District's Metro board members, D.C. Council member Jim Graham, believes there are other guilty parties. "This was not an oversight. This was not human error. It was deliberate." He also asked for a probe and pointed a guilty finger at General Manager White and "some of the highest officials of this agency."

For an agency that receives hundreds of millions of local and federal tax dollars every year, $333,065 is chump change. Yet the dollar amount matters less than how many other times Metro wasted public dollars because of the same or similar loopholes when no one was looking.

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