Officials steered contract to Va. firm, lied about it — IG

By Phil Taylor | 06/08/2016 01:23 PM EDT

The former director of the National Park Service’s main contracting office improperly steered an award to a Fairfax, Va., firm in a bidding process that one of his employees called a “sham,” according to a report released yesterday by the Interior Department Office of Inspector General.

The former director of the National Park Service’s main contracting office improperly steered an award to a Fairfax, Va., firm in a bidding process that one of his employees called a "sham," according to a report released yesterday by the Interior Department Office of Inspector General.

The IG investigation concluded that Samuel Whittington, the director of NPS’s Denver Service Center, and his staff gave preferential treatment to a construction manager from the firm McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc. (MBP), even though that firm was offering its services at higher rates than other bidders.

In addition, one of Whittington’s employees gave the MBP construction manager "insight into evaluation criteria and pricing that other bidders did not receive," giving the firm an unfair advantage, the IG said.

Sam Whittington
Sam Whittington. | Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

"We found that the integrity of the procurement process for this contract was compromised," the report concluded.

One contracting specialist at the Denver Service Center told the IG that picking MBP was a "good choice" but not the right one. "On paper, it looked like we had a lot of people that could have done the job at a much cheaper rate," the specialist told investigators.

After issuing the report to NPS, the IG learned that Whittington had retired. The current director of the 250-employee DSC is Ray Todd, according to its website.

NPS spokesman Jeff Olson said the agency "takes seriously" the IG’s report of alleged contract steering.

"We appreciate the OIG shining a light on this issue," he said in an email. "The National Park Service will take prompt action to address the potential violations identified in the report."

DCS is the largest contracting office within NPS, with a Contracting Services Division that awards an average of 580 contracts annually. In fiscal 2014, the division awarded $229 million in construction and services contracts. They included major awards such as the $7.9 million project to replace the water and sewage systems at the Denali National Park and Preserve headquarters building.

The IG found that in June 2014, Whittington and his staff attempted to improperly award a contract to MBP for the senior construction manager’s services.

That award was later canceled after an Interior solicitor expressed concern over the firm’s offered price — $534,262 — which was more than $200,000 above the offer of the other firm that bid.

DSC then re-advertised the contract and received 10 bids.

MBP’s rates were the second-highest of the 10, the IG found. But DSC still gave the firm the award, saying the price was justified because MBP’s employees demonstrated high levels of technical experience and abilities, IG found. The MBP construction manager’s contract was awarded in September 2014, and a contract for his co-worker was awarded two months later.

But the IG found that DSC’s program manager and the MBP construction manager had spoken with each other about the first solicitation before it was made public, which appears to run afoul of federal acquisition regulations that require contracts be awarded with complete impartiality and with "preferential treatment for none," IG found.

But "both the program manager and the construction manager were initially not truthful with us about their contact with each other prior to the first solicitation," the IG report said.

In fact, when the IG interviewed the DSC program manager a second time, she said she "more than likely" told the construction manager before their interviews not to tell the IG that they had talked before the solicitation so that they would not "get in trouble," the IG report said.

The program manager eventually told the IG that she told the construction manager, possibly during their initial conversation, that completing Occupational Safety and Health Administration training would be "important" for the solicitation.

The pre-solicitation conversation was improper, according to an attorney-adviser with the Rocky Mountain Region of the Interior Office of the Solicitor. She stated that she was "not comfortable" with the choice of MBP for the initial contract award, given its "much higher price."

At some point in the process, the construction manager at MBP was given "feedback" that his firm’s initial bid was much higher than the other firm.

DSC inserted language into the second solicitation that precluded MBP’s competitor from receiving an award, the IG said.

MBP’s strategy in the second round of bidding was to ensure that its offer was below $500,000 and didn’t get kicked to Washington, D.C., for a solicitor’s review, the IG found. The DSC program manager acknowledged to the IG that she "might have" told the firm it needed to keep its bid below $500,000 to avoid a solicitor’s review.

In addition, DSC included new provisions in the second contract solicitation that appeared to favor MBP, IG said.

In the July 2014 posting, new criteria asked for a description of experience with federal construction projects, stating that quotes describing experience with NPS projects would be more favorably rated. MBP’s manager had worked for DSC before under an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contract.

The solicitation also listed professional licenses as a criterion, such as certified construction manager, a qualification that DCS’s program manager knew MBP’s construction manager held, the IG said.

The deck was stacked in favor of MBP, according to several sources the IG interviewed.

"Several DSC contracting staff members — including the contracting specialist, the contracting officer, and their supervisor — said that they believed the contract was steered to the MBP construction manager," the IG report concluded.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado declined to prosecute the MBP construction manager and the DSC program manager for any false statements, the IG said. It forwarded the report to NPS Director Jon Jarvis and Interior’s Office of Acquisition and Property Management for action, it said.