- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

The D.C. Council is seeking to allow the city to resume contracting with a road-paving company that was suspended for three years after conspiring to bribe public works officials.

Officials for Fort Myer Construction Corp., one of the area’s largest street-construction firms, pleaded guilty in federal court in March to conspiring to bribe D.C. public works engineers and inspectors between 1997 and 1998 in exchange for overstating how much asphalt was being delivered to the city.

In April, the D.C. Office of Contracts and Procurement placed Fort Myer Construction on its debarment list for three years, preventing the company from competing for city contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

The D.C. Council last month approved an emergency resolution to lift the suspension, a measure sponsored by council member Harold Brazil. The resolution does not mention Fort Myer Construction by name but calls for the city to reconsider suspensions and debarments of several contractors, including “a business division whose predominant work is the production and placement of street asphalt.”

An amendment to the resolution provides that a panel of D.C. government executives review the suspension within 60 days, rather than automatically overturning it.

Mr. Brazil, at-large Democrat, said he believes the company is a good employer, that officials involved in the bribery scheme no longer are employed by the firm, and that the debarment could cost hundreds of workers their jobs.

He accepted a $1,000 campaign donation from Fort Myer in May, but said the money played no role in his decision to sponsor the “Debarment Procedures Emergency Declaration Resolution,” which the council approved by a 10-2 vote Sept. 16. Councilman Jack Evans was absent from the vote.

“None of us could take any action, or very little, without benefiting somebody who contributed, because that’s political life,” Mr. Brazil said. “A lot of people contribute to your campaign. Some will benefit and some won’t. I’ve taken actions in the past contrary to the interests of those who have given to me.”

District-based Fort Myer Construction has contributed $5,800 to the campaigns of D.C. politicians since December 1999, including $2,000 each to Mr. Brazil and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Democrat.

Council members Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, and Kathleen Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, cast the only votes against the resolution.

Mrs. Schwartz called the resolution “bad policy” and “an obvious attempt to rescue Fort Myer.”

“How are companies to know that we mean business when they steal our money when doing business with us?” Mrs. Schwartz asked her colleagues in a letter last week. “Where was our self-determination in setting an example that when companies defraud us and bribe our government workers they will pay a price?”

The resolution drew criticism from one competing road-paving company.

“I think it’s absolutely outrageous that the city would reward such misbehavior through special legislation,” said Arnold O’Donnell, owner of O’Donnell Construction. “This just puts it in people’s minds that in order to do business in this town, you have to bribe people.”

Fort Myer attorney Joe Caldwell said two “rogue employees” were responsible for the bribery, which did not reflect how the firm conducts business.

“The company has 700 employees and has been in business for 31 years,” Mr. Caldwell said. “Management never knew anything about this.”

The company undertook several reforms, he said, including hiring an on-site compliance officer and increasing employee training.

Mr. Caldwell said Fort Myer should not be suspended, because without the opportunity to bid for government contracts, its employees would lose jobs and the District would lose tax revenue and pay more for road construction.

When asked how the council’s emergency declaration would affect Fort Myer’s ability to do business with city government, the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement released a written statement:

“Fort Myer is debarred by the federal government, which results in their ineligibility to bid on any D.C. government contracts that contain federal dollars. … For contracts that do not contain federal dollars, Fort Myer may offer bids and their offer will be considered along with all others in the normal procurement process.”

Fort Myer remains barred from doing work for the Federal Highway Administration following the firm’s guilty plea, which resulted in $900,000 in fines, according to federal officials.

Three companies are on the city contracting office’s debarment list, two of which are Fort Myer and an affiliate company, FMC Civil Construction.

Fort Myer oversees 11 active projects throughout the District worth more than $60 million, including reconstruction of Constitution Avenue NW and rehabilitation of the Anacostia Freeway, according to U.S. Transportation Department records.

The company holds contracts for another nine projects worth more than $14 million, including realignment of Shepherd Parkway and reconstruction of Michigan Avenue NE. The firm also holds a $25,000 pothole-repair contract.

Dennis Desmond, representative for Mid-Atlantic Laborers Union Local 657, says the organization opposes Fort Myer’s suspension.

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