- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

The D.C. Council yesterday voted to overhaul the way city government suspends contractors, a move that could pay big dividends for a road-paving company that pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiring to bribe local officials.

Two dissenting colleagues said the legislation was aimed at rescuing Fort Myer Construction, a District-based company that pleaded guilty in federal court in March to conspiring to bribe city engineers and public works inspectors.

The legislation mandates a panel of D.C. government executives to reconsider actions against city contractors, including a three-year debarment against Fort Myer handed down in April by the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement.

“We have discussed and debated this matter exhaustively and the bottom line is that we are not changing the debarment,” said council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat, who sponsored the legislation. “We’re attempting to change the process from an unfair one to a fair one.”

Fort Myer, one of the largest street-construction firms in the metropolitan region, holds more than $60 million in ongoing road projects throughout the District.

Federal prosecutors said Fort Myer employees between July 1997 and January 1998 drove trucks loaded with asphalt onto scales twice or thrice to make it appear as if the company was using different trucks.

Nine D.C. engineers and inspectors were fired and two Fort Myer employees lost their jobs as a result of the investigation, which federal authorities dubbed Operation Hot Mix.

The suspension would have prevented Fort Myer from competing for contracts in the District for three years. D.C. officials now will review that action because of the council’s decision yesterday.

Mr. Brazil called the debarment process unfair and said agency directors and other government officials should have been included in the decision. Under the old rules, the Office of Contracting and Procurement alone decided whether a company should be suspended.

“We did not get Fort Myer off the hook,” said council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “We created a new review process.”

Although Fort Myer is barred from competing for federal contracts, Mr. Mendelson said, both the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the city of Arlington continue to do business with the company. Officials from Arlington and WASA were not immediately available for comment yesterday.

“We need to look at whether the company is presently acting responsibly, and I don’t think that was taken into consideration when the company was debarred,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, disagreed. “We have a company that defrauded the District of Columbia,” Mrs. Schwartz said in a recent letter to her council colleagues. “The Council responded by rushing in to aid that company.”

Council member Kathleen Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, cast the only other dissenting vote. “I didn’t agree with taking that action,” Mrs. Patterson said last week, “especially given the District’s track record of not being tough enough on contractors.”

Several council members said the debarment might have been too harsh of a penalty. Supporters of Mr. Brazil’s legislation said employees charged in the bribery scheme no longer were working for Fort Myer and that barring the company from competing for government contracts would cost hundreds of jobs for local residents.

“My read on it is that Fort Myer had a disease, learned about it, cut it out and that the senior officials were not liable for what happened,” said council member Vincent Orange, Ward 5 Democrat.

“I think we need to look at whether the company is responsible today,” Mr. Orange said. “I’m also sensitive to the fact that Fort Myer employs 600 workers who could lose their jobs.”

Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, said he voted for the measure only after assurances that Fort Myer’s suspension would not be lifted automatically. “This will be studied closely,” he said, referring to the panel of officials who will review the suspension.

Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, said she voted for the measure to take the decision-making out of the hands of the District’s chief procurement officer, Jacques Abadie III. “That’s an awful lot of power for one person to have,” she said. “In this case, it’s not even the mayor with that kind of power. I’d rather see a broader group making those sorts of decisions.”

Mrs. Cropp said a long-term suspension against Fort Myer could result in higher prices for road construction because other potential bidders charge higher costs.

However, in a July 23 letter to Mr. Brazil, the District’s top transportation official said the suspension could make road work more affordable.

“The District is viewed less as a market dominated by one strong player,” said Dan Tangherlini, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, adding that taking Fort Myer out of the bidding process might attract more contractors.

Mr. Tangherlini also said the scandal and fallout involving Fort Myer struck “at the heart of our integrity and have had long term ill effects on our reputation.”

Company officials say they have assured council members that employees responsible for the bribery no longer work at Fort Myer.

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