The way Miami-Dade County went about selecting a firm to manage $1.6 billion in federally mandated sewer repairs was flawed, the head of the county’s ethics watchdog opined Tuesday, calling the high-profile bid into question.
Joe Centorino, executive director of the Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, said allowing one of the two bidders, CH2M Hill, to directly contact members of a selection committee to submit more than 400 pages of additional documents “contributed to a serious public trust problem with this solicitation.”
But Centorino did not accuse CH2M of any wrongdoing, laying the blame on ambiguous county guidelines. And he stopped short of saying that the county throw out the bids.
The question now is: What will Mayor Carlos Gimenez do?
The mayor said Tuesday he’s not inclined to recommend that county commissioners hire CH2M, which the selection committee ranked first over AECOM Technical Services. But he also said he’s hoping to save the bids and avoid going back to square one — though he wouldn’t say how.
“The ethics opinion confirmed our concerns that the process, while not illegal, was irregular,” Gimenez said. “I’m working on a way of leveling the playing field.”
The mayor requested the ethics opinion in September, after his office put together a draft memo to restart the bid because CH2M may have had an unfair advantage. The memo was never sent. Both firms have hired lobbyists close to the mayor.
In May, the county entered into a federal agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix Miami-Dade’s crumbling sewer system. The consent decree, as the agreement is known, helped the county avoid a lawsuit over the decrepit pipes.
The county must meet project deadlines set in the decree — the clock begins ticking in December — according to the water and sewer department. County staff can manage the projects in the beginning if an outside construction manager hasn’t been selected by then, Doug Yoder, the department’s deputy director, said last month.
Another bid to design the sewer repairs is moving along separate from the one to select a construction manager, so the repairs themselves should not be held up, Yoder said.
Both companies vying for the lucrative construction management contract claimed victory from Tuesday’s ethics opinion.
Al Dotson, an attorney and lobbyist for CH2M, emphasized that Centorino did not accuse the company of breaking any rules, including one that prohibits bidders from contacting county officials.
“The ethics commission has confirmed that CH2M Hill did not violate the cone of silence, did not violate any county ordinances and actually acted in good faith,” he said. “We feel vindicated.”
Miguel De Grandy, an attorney and lobbyist for AECOM, highlighted that Centorino concluded that there were problems with the solicitation, as the company had argued.
“We agree that the integrity of the process was compromised,” he said.
He maintained that CH2M was at fault, citing an analysis by an expert witness hired by AECOM, Anthony Alfieri, a law professor and director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami. AECOM has contended CH2M should be disqualified, and AECOM, which had received a higher ranking before CH2M’s additional submission, be awarded the contract.
“We strongly believe, as Professor Alfieri concluded, that it was the direct result of intentional misconduct by CH2M Hill,” De Grandy said.
At issue were two emails CH2M sent selection committee members: one after the committee met to evaluate the two firms’ qualifications, and another before the two firms made their final presentations to the committee. The second time, CH2M’s email included more than 400 pages in additional bid materials.
CH2M said it followed county rules by copying the clerk of the board on the emails, sent by attorney and lobbyist Mitch Bierman. CH2M also let the county attorney’s office know in advance that the firm’s additional submission would be coming.
Assistant County Attorney Hugo Benitez said the submission was permissible. On the day of the presentations, the county gave AECOM the opportunity to also submit more materials, which AECOM declined.
AECOM, which turned in all of its documents up front, said it was unfair that CH2M was able to review its competitor’s bid before adding to its proposal.
While the additional submission was not illegal, Gimenez noted when he asked for the ethics opinion that it flouted county practice of having staff review submissions — and take out any trade secrets or confidential information — before passing them along to selection committee members.
In his non-binding opinion, Centorino agreed. He interviewed county staffers, who told him they thought the hefty submission was surprising, inappropriate and unfair.
He and Interim Miami-Dade Inspector General Patra Liu, from whom Centorino requested comment, concluded that a vague county solicitation document was at fault, because it did not specifically prohibit direct contact with selection committee members or the additional submission.
“The guidelines themselves are imprecise and offer little in the way of useful guidance,” Liu wrote.
As a result, Centorino wrote, “The decision-making process as a whole, on a project of great significance to Miami-Dade County, has raised substantial issues regarding the integrity of the process and the fairness of the outcome, which could have a negative impact upon the public trust in County government.”