- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

D.C. government officials have moved toward resuming business with a road paving firm that conspired to bribe city highway inspectors, even though officials in Maryland, Virginia and the federal government are refusing to contract with the company.

The D.C. Contract Appeals Board last week overturned a decision by the city’s chief procurement officer, Jacques Abadie III, to bar Fort Myer Construction Corp. from doing business with the District for the next three years. In his ruling last April, Mr. Abadie cited the firm’s guilty plea in federal court in March 2003, in which Fort Myer admitted conspiring to bribe D.C. Department of Public Works officials.

In exchange for cash bribes from Fort Myer, city engineers and inspectors overstated how much asphalt the firm was delivering to city job sites from 1995 through 1998, according to federal prosecutors.

Fort Myer won a big victory in its bid to resume contracting with the city last week when Contract Appeals Board ruled that Mr. Abadie didn’t have enough evidence to tie company owner Jose Rodriguez to the bribery scheme.

“The hearsay and somewhat inconsistent information about Mister Rodriguez’s involvement in the criminal conduct should be more fully explored and addressed,” wrote Administrative Judge Matthew S. Watson, of the contract appeals board.

“There is no indication in the record that any individual currently associated with Fort Myer has been charged, indicted or convicted of any criminal conduct,” Judge Watson wrote.

The appeals board’s decision vacates Mr. Abadie’s ruling and remands the case back to the city’s contracting and procurement office for “further consideration.”

But other public agencies disagree with the District’s decision. The Virginia Department of Transportation cited the firm’s conviction in September 2003 when it banned the company from doing business with the state for the next three years.

VDOT officials declined to comment yesterday on that decision. But state officials provided a copy of a Sept. 8, 2003, letter outlining the decision from state Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet to Mr. Rodriguez.

“Your firm pled guilty … in connection with its role in multiple schemes to defraud [federally funded] highway paving contracts,” Mr. Shucet stated. “Therefore … your firm and affiliated firms are being debarred from doing business with the Commonwealth of Virginia for a period of 36 months.”

The Maryland Board of Public Works, at the request the state Attorney General’s Office, also took action against Fort Myer last month.

The board voted to suspend Fort Myer from doing business with the state pending formal debarment hearings set to begin next week. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, voted in favor of the suspension. The third member of the board, state Comptroller William Schaefer, a Democrat, abstained.

“Because of the bribery conviction, there clearly is a reasonable basis to suspend the company,” Assistant Attorney General Andrew Levine told the board at its Dec. 17 hearing.

“The reason we would suspend the company is because it would protect the state and public bodies that may do business with Fort Myer while the debarment proceeding is pending,” Mr. Levine said.

He said the Attorney General’s Office is recommending debarment because the company’s employees bribed D.C. Department of Public Works officials.

“The Fort Myer people — they padded and falsified invoices for asphalt which was never supplied to the District,” he said. “Bribery is considered the most serious offense under debarment laws.”

But Kevin Vincent, an attorney for Fort Myer, told Maryland officials at the same hearing that the firm plans to fight the debarment.

“The employees in the case who were involved are gone,” Mr. Vincent said. “The company has implemented a very extensive compliance program. The company was liable for their wrongdoing and that’s why they pled guilty, but this is a past event,” he said.

The Federal Highway Administration also cited the crime last year when it barred Fort Myer from competing for any federal contracts for 18 months.

Dissatisfied with Mr. Abadie’s handling of the case, D.C. Council stripped the chief procurement officer of most of his powers to debar city contractors in October.

Only council members Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, and Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, voted against a measure that created a panel of government officials to decide debarment actions instead of Mr. Abadie.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed members to the panel last month, but it has yet to rule on any cases.

The council legislation also temporarily lifted suspensions against Fort Myer and two other road paving firms that were convicted in a similar bribery scheme. Fort Myer, which holds more than $60 million in contracts with the District, has not won any new contracts from D.C. government since Mr. Abadie’s decision, according to the city’s contracting and procurement office.

The District is not the only locality to rule in favor of the firm. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority awarded projects worth nearly $5 million to Fort Myer weeks after the firm’s guilty plea. WASA officials said they decided against debarment because the company has instituted reforms. Arlington also decided against debarment.

The bribery scheme involved Fort Myer employees — including one superintendent, Antonio Bras, of Olney — who drove company trucks loaded with asphalt onto scales that city inspectors used to determine how much to reimburse contractors for materials.

Prosecutors say the employees drove the same trucks two or three times onto the same scale to make it appear as if the company was using different trucks.

Nine D.C. engineers and highway inspectors were fired and two Fort Myer employees lost their jobs as a result of the federal investigation.

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