By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman overruled his chief deputy three years ago to award a $23 million construction-management contract for his new jail complex to a company the deputy rated lower – one that did not meet the state requirement of being a licensed contractor when the bid was submitted, records show.
The contractor, Ozanne Construction Co., of Cleveland, Ohio, also became a generous contributor to Gusman’s political campaign in the prolonged period between when it was selected and when its contract was eventually signed.
That time was unusually long because the unsuccessful rival for the contract threatened to sue Gusman over the selection process, but it eventually backed down. Whether Gusman chose an unlicensed, and therefore unqualified, bidder was never addressed in court. State contracting officials declined to comment on the matter, saying the courts are the proper arbiters of the dispute.
The losing company, Gilbane Building Co. of Providence, R.I., scored better on cost, according to the evaluation sheet of Chief Deputy Bill Short. It’s not clear whether this means it offered a lower overall price because Gusman’s office redacted financial details of the selection process, citing a legal obligation to protect company confidentiality. Nevertheless the sheriff was not required to award the contract to the lowest bidder because the work qualified as a professional service under state law, which grants government agencies leeway in such decisions.
Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying most of the estimated $150 million cost of rebuilding the jail complex, that agency required the sheriff to hire a manager to oversee the work.
Ozanne contributed $2,500 to Gusman’s re-election campaign between the time Gusman selected it, and the time it signed the contract. It has contributed a total of $7,500 to Gusman’s political campaigns since April 2008, according to state records. The company also contributed $7,500 to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, contributing $5,000 to his 2006 mayoral campaign and $2,500 to his 2010 campaign, and $7,500 to then-Mayor Ray Nagin during his 2006 mayoral campaign.
Gusman spokesman Marc Ehrhardt wrote in an e-mail response to questions that Ozanne’s donation to Gusman’s re-election campaign had no influence on the decision-making process. Ryan Berni, press secretary for the Landrieu administration, wrote “don’t know him” in an e-mail.
LICENSE ISSUE AN OPEN QUESTION
When the Sheriff’s Office received bids for the job in summer 2007, Ozanne was not a contractor licensed by Louisiana. Ozanne’s subcontractors, Colorado-based MWH Global, and St. Louis-based Kwame Building Group were licensed in Louisiana at the time of the bid, according to state records.
Another document obtained from Gusman’s office points out that the state contracting law says: “All parties in a joint venture are required to be licensed at the time a bid is submitted.”
The search for a project manager was conducted according to Gusman’s guidelines and state guidelines for receiving and evaluating responses to requests for qualifications for professional services, Ehrhardt wrote.
Gilbane has been licensed in the state since 1977, and its subcontractor, Georgia-based McTech Group, has been licensed since 1993, according to state records.
When Gilbane threatened to sue over the licensing issue, the Sheriff’s Office said a license was not necessary because it was for a project manager. Providing such oversight, as opposed to doing the construction work, removes the need for a license, Gusman’s office reasoned.
His attorneys offered a 1981 attorney general’s opinion to support their position.
However, the law has been amended since, and another attorney general’s opinion from 2002 supports Gilbane’s contention that a license is needed, even for a project manager of a construction effort.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said it could not issue an ad hoc opinion about the apparent discrepancies because the matter might become the basis for a formal opinion request.
Gilbane attorneys laid out their position in a legal memo to the sheriff in February 2008.
Despite the Sheriff’s laissez-faire position that a license was unnecessary, Ozanne secured one the next month. That was eight months after Ozanne made its official pitch to the sheriff.
It’s not clear why Gilbane backed away from filing the suit. Representatives from Gilbane declined comment. Ozanne Construction also declined comment.
Neither city Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, who oversees the award of public contracts in New Orleans, nor the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors wanted to comment on the particulars of this dispute. Quatrevaux’s office declined comment altogether; the contracting board deferred to the courts.
“These things are up to the legal system to decide,” board spokeswoman Kris Fitch said.
EVALUATION METHODS VARIED
Short awarded Gilbane 20 points compared to Ozanne’s 19 points in a scoring sheet as part of the bid process. Short scored Gilbane 5 out of 5 on “cost,” while he only awarded Ozanne 4 out of 5 in that category. But he was evidently overruled.
“Congratulations!” wrote Gusman, in a letter to Ozanne President Dominic Ozanne, on Jan. 8, 2008. “Your firm has been selected to provide Project Management Services for the Justice Master Plan of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office.”
Short’s score sheet was the only one included in the response to our public-records request. Short was joined in the assessment process by Gusman, FEMA contractor Ron Brysinski, who did not help choose a contractor but served in an advisory capacity, Gusman’s maintenance director David Payton, and Gusman’s food-service director Maj. R.J. Beach.
Beach preferred Ozanne but didn’t give any reason except for writing in a letter that he felt they were the “best qualified team for the job.”
Payton was equivocal on the two companies in a letter of his own. The response to the records request did not include a score sheet or written preference from Gusman.
Short’s scoring was taken into consideration with the opinions of the other members of the evaluation team as part of the decision-making process, Ehrhardt said, adding that Short chose to take a more formal approach than other members.
“That was just the way he decided to make his evaluation,” Ehrhardt said.
So far, FEMA said it has paid out $10.76 million of the $23 million contract, although Ehrhardt disputed that figure without providing any documentation.
Gusman has already started work on 400 temporary jail beds and a kitchen-warehouse facility, but is yet to build a planned 1,438-bed intake-processing center, add mental health or substance abuse beds or demolish any of the city-owned jail buildings which his new jail complex is supposed to replace.