Jonetta Rose Barras: Waste and abuse in plain sight

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council,Mary Cheh,Vincent Gray,Muriel Bowser

Contracting and procurement. Show those words to average citizens and their eyes glaze over. Yet, each year the District spends billions of taxpayers' dollars purchasing goods and services.

Many transactions escape scrutiny. Contracting and procurement is the place where waste and abuse hide in plain sight.

Consider the $12.7 million contract that Mayor Vincent C. Gray forwarded last week to the D.C. Council for its approval. The two-year agreement with Huron Consulting Group is to "turn around" the United Medical Center in Southeast, dramatically reducing the full-service hospital to an ambulatory care facility. That change, recommended in a 2011 "strategic review," is supposed to entice a buyer.

Calling the UMC contracting process a mess would be understatement. Three council members, including Vincent Orange and Muriel Bowser, initially introduced a resolution to disapprove the agreement. It appears the Gray administration may have violated procurement rules, ignored a possible conflict of interest and exceeded the stated $10 million budget.

Similar problems were associated with the controversial 2008 and 2009 lottery contract. They also surfaced during the administration's attempt to issue a contract to install credit card machines in taxicabs; the Contract Appeals Board ruled that process was flawed.

Interestingly, Gray pledged during his State of the District speech to "tackle procurement reform," streamlining purchasing and contracting practices while eliminating confusing and outdated rules. He said he wanted to "increase faith in the process while minimizing meritless protests, and [reducing] the time it takes to complete procurements."

It's not the law. It's the implementation.

Consider, for example, the law required a certified District small business be included with the original bid. Huron had submitted the name of a company that was not certified. Instead of that bid being kicked out, contract officials permitted Huron to submit the name of another small business after the fact, according to published reports.

Moreover, contracting officials altered the scoring system days before bidders submitted their best and final offers. That change, which provided more points for intimacy with the current operations of the hospital, may have given Huron an advantage; one of its team members reportedly helped with that 2011 strategic review.

Former City Administrator Robert Bobb, who was part of the Quorum bidding group, said it appeared staffers "knowingly did not follow the procurement law; literally hijacked" an open competition; and "willfully manipulated the selection process to deliver a contract worth 30 percent more than what other qualified bidders proposed."

Quorum submitted a $9 million bid. Another group offered $6 million.

"The concern for me is the difference in the amount of money. Why are we paying that many millions more?" asked Councilwoman Mary Cheh last week before the legislature's vote on the UMC contract. "Maybe we need a turn-around specialist for the [OCP]."

Despite serious and legitimate concerns, the majority of the council rubber-stamped the executive's flawed contracting process, including paying nearly $3 million more than the budgeted amount and $6 million more than the lowest bidder.

Who cares? It's only taxpayers' money being wasted.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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