State looks at new allegations of bid problems in Oak Bluffs
File photo by Danielle Zerbonne
The office of the state attorney general is reviewing new allegations of favoritism and improper bidding procedures by Oak Bluffs town officials who, they charge, have awarded lucrative jobs to local contractors.
The attorney general's bid protest division is looking into whether the town complied with strict public bidding and procurement laws when it awarded the work. The state investigators told town counsel Ron Rappaport they received an anonymous complaint naming four local contractors.
The contractors named are Crossland Landscape, the company that maintains Ocean Park; Rebello's Island Hydroseed, which performs a variety of landscaping and construction work; Russell's Excavation/Septic Solutions, which handles work on the town's sewer system and other projects; and Farrissey Telecom, a company that installs underground pipes, conduits, and wiring.
Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. oversees some work done by Crossland Landscape, Rebello's Island Hydroseed, and Russell's Excavation. He said there was no intent to favor certain contractors. But he concedes, after the original investigation by the attorney general's bid protest unit, that some of the work was awarded in violation of public procurement laws. Those laws require public bidding for contracts of $25,000 or more.
"All those added up, we know now, over the threshold, and we should be having them under a contract with a bid process," Mr. Combra said in a phone conversation with The Times. "I know we've done things wrong, but we've never done anything other than in the best interest of the town. Whenever I hire somebody I try to get the best price. I've always acted in the best interest of the town."
Mr. Combra said some of the allegations against the town are untrue, and he attributes the complaint to an organized political effort to oust town administrator Michael Dutton.
"It's a sad day for Oak Bluffs," Mr. Combra said. "I don't know what their game is. Obviously there's a faction out there that is targeting Michael Dutton, trying to push him out. I hope better days are ahead. I can tell you that morale among employees is at an all-time low."
Mr. Rappaport is gathering information on the amounts paid to those four contractors, from town records dating back to 2008. When the information gathering is complete, he will forward the information to the office of the attorney general. The new allegations were triggered by newspaper reports about a harsh reprimand issued by the attorney general's bid protest unit on June 7, for failing to properly procure carpentry and electrical services on several town projects.
In the anonymous letter, a person asked the attorney general for a more thorough investigation of town bidding procedures.
"This town has been giving work to town relatives and friends without putting any of it out to bid," the letter stated. "Please investigate this town going back as far as you can and make them pay for the corruptness [sic] that has been going on. It is so unfair for us little people who struggle to get through each winter. Please understand that I am a born and raised Islander who is in construction and cannot divulge my name for fear of retaliation, but I am very upset that we unrelated people never get a chance to bid on these jobs."
In an e-mail to the town counsel, assistant attorney general Deborah Anderson wrote, "We cannot vouch for the accuracy of the letter, but it is representative of the type of concerns being raised about bidding procedures and appearances of favoritism in Oak Bluffs."
Mr. Rappaport briefed selectmen about the attorney general's notice and how he is responding to it, at their July 5 meeting. He stressed that he is still gathering information, and reserved any conclusions until he has all the figures. He said some of the work appeared properly bid, but other work did not.
"Most of the work done by Farrissey was work done pursuant to a bid, in connection with the wastewater project," Mr. Rappaport told the board. "Most of it, if not all of it, appeared to have been publicly bid."
The work involved laying a sewer main underground as part of a project to install wastewater treatment infrastructure to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the surrounding area.
According to town documents, Farrissey Telecom was the lowest of four bidders for the project, at $347,347. The next lowest bidder was C.C. Construction, at $437,336.
According to town records, Farrissey Telecom was paid $442,963 for the project and other miscellaneous jobs from October 2009 to June 2010. Of that amount, $46,369 was for change orders on the sewer project, extra work the town asked for after the contract was awarded.
"That total project was done properly," wastewater plant manager Joe Alosso said in a phone conversation with The Times. "I'm absolutely sure of it."
The town paid Crossland Landscape $231,555 for 116 separate invoices from July 2008 to April 2011. Mr. Rappaport told selectmen that work done this year appears properly awarded, but before this year, there is no indication that the work was awarded according to public procurement laws.
"This spring, the work done by Crossland was awarded a contract following a public bid," Mr. Rappaport said. "They were the only bidder. In prior years the amounts were considerable."
The town paid Rebello's Island Hydroseed $210,213 for 177 separate invoices from June 2009 to June 2010 2011, according to town records.
"I've not been able to find any information indicating that those were bid, but I haven't completed it," Mr. Rappaport said.
The town paid Russell's Excavation/Septic Solutions $81,464 from July 2008 to March 2011.
Mr. Combra refuted allegations in the anonymous letter that the town has shown favoritism in awarding work.
"I live in Oak Bluffs," Mr. Combra said. "I know pretty much every contractor in this town. I don't think I could hire somebody that wasn't a friend. Rebello is a cousin of mine. I don't believe that rises to the level of any ethics violations."
He said he has no other relatives, by blood or marriage, in any of the other three companies named in the anonymous complaint.
In guidelines for town employees and elected officials, the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission writes, "You may not hire, promote, supervise, or otherwise participate in the employment of your immediate family or your spouse's immediate family."
In each case, amounts paid to the four contractors have fallen off dramatically since the office of the attorney general began investigating the town's procurement practices.
"We haven't hired them since we've gotten that decision from the AG's office, and we don't intend to," Mr. Combra said.
As a result of the original investigation, the attorney general imposed no fines or sanctions, but required the town to organize training on public procurement laws for town employees and required the town to submit detailed quarterly reports on its procurement of goods and services for the next year.