Roemerman on the Public Works scandal

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Steven Roemerman is not only a blogger, he's also a member of the City of Tulsa Sales Tax Overview Committee, which is charged with keeping tabs on how the city spends the "Third Penny" sales tax for capital improvement projects. In that role, he's had opportunity to hear representatives from the Finance Department and the Public Works Department speak about the federal indictments for fraud and bribery involving two now-former Public Works employees and several contractors that do business with the city.

Steven has collected his notes and reflections on the Tulsa Public Works indictments here.

One section raised several questions in my mind:

I sat in a meeting with Paul Zachary from Public Works and he said, "We do not award contracts over here, we advertise them from here." The awarding of contracts happens downtown at City Hall through the City Clerk's office with representatives from Finance, Legal, and the contract administrators.

In one allegation, there was money taken to influence the awarding of a contract, but the individual who took the money could not have influenced who won the contract. As previously stated, Public Works does not award construction contracts, they only advertise them.

The second allegation regarding bribes for contracts has to do with the professional services selection committee. In that committee, one of the decisions they make regards who will perform the inspection each project once it is complete. It is preferred that the firm that designs a project also performs the inspection. Money was given to influence the PSSC to award the designer of a particular project the inspection job. I asked what would have happened if no money had been exchanged? Would that firm still have gotten the inspection, would anything different have happened? The answer was no because in the preferred process, the designer does the inspection.

If this particular set of indictments did not make any sense to you that is probably because it does not make any sense. It was really pretty dumb for money to exchange hands because the person who took the money really did not have the power to make anything happen.

First, it surprises me that Public Works would have no involvement in the award decision. At the very least, wouldn't Public Works be involved in evaluating proposals for technical compliance? The City Clerk's office can tell who the low bidder is, but they wouldn't know whether the proposed low-bid solution will accomplish the task and whether the company has the competence to carry it out.

Second, even if a Public Works employee didn't have sole authority to award a contract or hire an inspector, it would be valuable for a contractor to "own" a trusted insider who would have influence over the selection. You wouldn't necessarily need to bribe the entire committee, just one person with a seat at the table where decisions are made and with the credibility to persuade the rest. If Public Works were involved in some way with evaluating proposals for compliance -- and I take it from Steven's report that this is not the case -- then it might be valuable to "own" a PW employee in a position to disqualify competing bids or to ensure that your bid wasn't disqualified.

Another possibility is that the bribes were offered based on a misunderstanding of the process by the bribers. Perhaps the contractors made assumptions on the City of Tulsa process based on the process in other cities. Or perhaps the recipient of the bribes depicted the process in a way that made himself seem more important and influential than he really was.

MORE: I wrote two columns related to the Public Works scandal: The February 4 column, about the value of an independent audit of Public Works, as advocated by former City Councilor Jim Mautino, and the February 11 column, about the role of and constraints on the City Auditor's office in acting as a fiscal watchdog.

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The project is split up into two phases. Design and construction. I'm 90% sure that the bids for the construction phase are not advertised until after design is complete.

Perhaps they don't need a lot of technical input because the construction contractor is going to be constrained by the design any way. Also I think they are all pre-approved to do work for the city. Nevertheless, I was not aware that they had no impact on who got the contract until we were told because of the corruption charges. It was a surprise to me.

Yogi Author Profile Page said:

I agree that it doesn't make any sense for public works not to have any input on the awarding of the contract. My experience has been is that some contractors despite all the specs in the world may miss a key part of the project and bid too low. Going ahead and awarding the contract who somebody who doesn't fully understand the project can have disastrous results.

TCB said:

I think it's a gross oversimplification to say Public Works has no say. You're absolutely right about the ability of one credible person to influence everyone else in the process. Plus, they decide who gets on the 'certified' list of contractors in the first place. Also, who draws up project specifications, sometimes so narrowly that only one company can meet them?

And of course, field engineers approve (or in this case allegedly, inflate) invoices for payment.

TCB said:

And who signs off on change orders (or draws up spec. with "quantities" that can be added without change orders), who influences the sum and substance of capital improvement plans and programs, who establishes the policies that say we won't maintain and fix streets, we'll wait for them to disintegrate and then do a multi-million dollar "right-of-way to right-of-way" rebuild?

There are a hundred ways, small and large, that Public Works engineers influence and direct transactions. Remember, one of the alleged bribers (is that a word?) is a former Public Works engineer. He knew the system as well as anyone, and he wasn't paying for nothing.

I'm not a Public Works dept. basher. I don't think these two were typical. But don't think PW engineers are just floating along without any control over their processes.

Bob said:

Wasn't the indicted former Public Works field engineering manager Albert Martinez in charge of field INSPECTIONS?

Wonder if he tolerated substandard construction techniques or inferior materials from those favored contractors and engineers he was being bribed by all those years?

Maybe this will help answer why our roads fall apart only a few years after we pay for a major re-build......

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