- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The D.C. Office of the Auditor is calling for the creation of an independent city contracting office and disciplinary action in the wake of questionable no-bid consulting deals involving the offices of the city administrator, secretary and mayor.

D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols has called on city officials to “enforce provisions of procurement law that require disciplinary actions, including termination, for failure to follow proper procedures,” says a report the office issued this week.

She also has recommended that city officials make the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement an independent agency to keep it “free from any pressure or constraints.”

The report criticizes the hiring of four consultants last year, including three with ties to City Administrator Robert C. Bobb from his work as city administrator in Oakland, Calif., before he came to the District in 2003.

D.C. Council members yesterday said they had not reviewed the report, and declined to say whether they would act on any of the recommendations. Mrs. Nichols’ office does not have the power to make the changes she recommended.

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat, heads the Government Operations Committee. He said the report is likely to surface as an issue during a hearing he plans to hold on city contracting practices later this month.

A spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday said officials in the executive branch would cooperate with Mr. Orange if he schedules a hearing on the issue.

However, mayoral spokesman Vincent Morris said the report found only “very minor, technical things” involving “very small dollar amounts” in the context of a budget of more than $5 billion.

Mr. Morris said the report had been “politicized” because the auditor’s office disclosed its preliminary findings during a hearing last month, before releasing a draft copy to city officials.

Mrs. Nichols has said Mr. Orange asked that she testify at the upcoming hearing.

The auditor probed the hiring of three consultants last year for a trade mission that city officials took to China.

Lobbyists Lily Hu and Melinda Yee Franklin, both of the Oakland area, were hired under a $25,000 contract, and Ira Sockowitz, a Commerce Department official during the Clinton administration, was paid $26,500 for his work on the trip, the report said.

Auditors also questioned the hiring of Oakland City Council member Jane Brunner, a labor lawyer, to help negotiate apprenticeships for D.C. residents during the construction of a new baseball stadium in Southeast. She was hired under a $185-per-hour arrangement.

In all four cases, auditors found “a failure to follow sound procurement policies and procedures and to comply with the spirit, intent and letter” of the law. Among the problems highlighted were contracts without documentation and a failure to seek price quotes from other vendors.

Mr. Bobb declined to comment on the report yesterday, and a spokeswoman referred to a written response he had sent to Mrs. Nichols.

In that letter, Mr. Bobb said his office made “technical errors” and that there were instances in which personnel “acted inconsistently” with city procurement rules. The letter, also signed by D.C. Secretary Sherryl Hobbs Newman, disputed the auditor’s finding that upper-management pressure led to improper hiring decisions.

“The issues you have raised do not present questions of [Executive Office of the Mayor’s] senior management seeking to coerce or distort the judgement of contracting personnel,” the letter reads.

The letter added that the consultants “provided good value to the government at competitive rates.”

Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat who is running for mayor, said if the auditor has found any wrongdoing, the findings should be forwarded to the U.S. attorney’s office for investigation.

“You can’t go around breaking the procurement law and not have any action or accountability,” he said.

D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, said he is concerned about the report.

“I’m always disturbed when the auditor says we have the law being broken,” he said.

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