Thursday, May 13, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — State officials have tightened restrictions on Maryland Public Television (MPT) contracts after an audit found that two contracts had been awarded in violation of procurement rules.

“We recently told them, as we work through this, we wanted to work with them on all their procurements over $2,500,” said state Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr.

Mr. DiPaula said MPT procurement limits have been reduced from $25,000 to $2,500 because an audit found that public-television officials broke up two contracts worth nearly $500,000 into smaller contracts, apparently to evade state regulators, from 2000 to 2002.

He said members of his budget team and MPT officials on Monday had a “productive” meeting, at which the new terms of procurement rules were detailed.

MPT contracts were fragmented so that they fell below the $25,000 threshold for review by the Department of General Services and the Board of Public Works, according to a legislative audit.

The audit found that one $394,373 project was fragmented into 18 contracts. A second project, worth $74,950, was broken down into three contracts. In some instances, contracts were just a few dollars below the state limit.

The state’s Attorney General’s Office is investigating.

Mr. DiPaula said the new contract guidelines, which would regulate spending on items as minuscule as equipment for offices, most likely are temporary.

“I think that we will very quickly work with them to enhance their procurement process,” he said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has assigned his press secretary, Greg Massoni, to oversee MPT reform.

“I am communicating with them to see what they did, to see if there are any efficiencies that can be made in the future,” Mr. Massoni said.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he wants those responsible for mishandling state money to be held accountable.

“Obviously, there are some legitimate questions,” the Republican governor said. “I think it needs to be done.”

Boyd Rutherford, secretary of General Services, has called the audit results “very troubling.”

“This appears egregious and an abuse of the system, something that is intolerable for state government,” Mr. Rutherford said, adding that it appears managers at the station intentionally tried to evade state procurement rules.

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat, agreed, saying, “This raises serious questions about how MPT was managed.”

Larry D. Unger, MPT executive vice president, did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

MPT is a quasi-autonomous agency that operates public-television stations in Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick, Hagerstown, Oakland and Salisbury with a mixture of state funds and public donations.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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