- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The D.C. Council chairman will hold a hearing to look into concerns about the legitimacy of a contract award to overhaul a troubled city-owned hospital before a Feb. 19 vote on the deal.

Chairman Phil Mendelson on Wednesday confirmed that, in light of recent news reports, some of his colleagues raised questions about the contract award while they were at a breakfast meeting before Tuesday’s legislative session.

“I agreed to hold a public roundtable, in effect a hearing, and it will be open to the public,” Mr. Mendelson told The Washington Times, adding that a representative from the D.C. Office of Contracts and Procurements and the contracting officer’s technical representative will be asked to attend the 3 p.m. hearing Feb. 13.

The $12.7 million contract award to Chicago-based Huron Healthcare to “turn around” United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River, was challenged by competitors last week, The Times reported. And although they missed a 10-day deadline for filing a contract appeal, their claims that Huron was allowed to change subcontractors midstream after failing to include a certified local firm in its original proposal, among other irregularities, persuaded council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, to announce his disapproval of the award and call for an investigation.

After wavering, council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat and chairwoman of the Committee on Health, said last week that she supported the contract award.

A spokesman for council member Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat, said Tuesday she likely would support the award, and on Wednesday council member Marion Barry, the Ward 8 Democrat in whose district the hospital is located, said that he too was satisfied with the award, which exceeds the original budget by $2.7 million.

“It’s not unusual for losing parties to cry foul,” Mr. Barry said, noting that the proper recourse is to file an appeal. But he said he also believes the council has a “100 percent responsibility” to ensure fairness and that he supports looking at all the facts.

‘I am alarmed’

Government accountability analysts have taken note of the hospital contract controversy.

Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight, said the upcoming contract review is good news, “as the reported process appears to be at odds with D.C. procurement law and the contract’s requirements.”

“Additionally, I am alarmed that the winning bid exceeded the project’s budget,” he said. “The D.C. government is often a target of criticism, and it is deals like this that feed the public’s distrust in government. Let’s hope that the council can restore some of that trust.”

Yet in spite of the reputation Mr. Amey referred to and an announcement by Mayor Vincent C. Gray during Tuesday’s State of the District address of his intent to champion government procurement reform, most council members have been loath to answer questions about the fairness of the hospital contract award or the council’s role in approving contracts in general.

After a visit to all 13 council offices Tuesday and follow-up emails, The Times received less than a handful of replies. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, introduced legislation last year that would remove the council from the contract approval process, but his office did not respond to questions about that legislation or the hospital contract award.

A spokesman for council member David Grosso, at-large independent, said he had no comment on either question.

“Is it the council’s role to ferret out local contracting disputes?” asked one council staffer. “It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Who are we to second-guess the process? It should be examined, but is the council the place to do that?”

A ‘broken’ system

The hospital contract is merely the latest controversy to emerge from a system that Mr. Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro this week called “broken.” But Mr. Gray’s name has surfaced more than once in connection with contracts within that system.

Mr. Gray has been vocal about restoring United Medical Center for sale to a private entity. He appointed new board members — including developer W. Christopher Smith, his lifelong friend — to replace those selected by his predecessor, former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Last week, after Mr. Orange opposed the hospital contract award, he said he received a late-night text message from a Gray administration official that he interpreted as coercive. The mayor’s office has denied any attempt to influence the award.

In 2010, The Times reported on the D.C. Lottery contract approval process overseen by Mr. Gray, then the council chairman, prompting then-Attorney General Peter J. Nickles to call for an investigation by the D.C. inspector general.

The lottery contract saga led U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. to convene a grand jury.

Sources familiar with the council and the hospital contract say council members want to avoid scrutinizing the recent award because of the lottery contract and others that have become controversial.

“The problem is, the council is still responsible for approving these contracts,” said one veteran of D.C. government and private enterprise, skeptical of how Huron won the hospital contract. “You would think that with the lottery fiasco they’d be more forthcoming. I’d want to know if the [hospital] contract was awarded correctly before I voted it up or down.”

Perhaps the most perplexing reaction has come from Ms. Alexander. On Jan. 29, she said she was not familiar with the award but said it sounded “pricey.” The next day, she said she would join Mr. Orange in opposing it. By Jan. 31, after also reportedly being contacted by the mayor’s office, she withdrew her disapproval of the award.

“I’m not instructed by anyone on what to do,” she said this week.

• Jeffrey Anderson can be reached at jmanderson@washingtontimes.com.

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