Bidder on Dukes County courthouse work contradicts manager

Bid irregularities surfaced in a contract to repair windows at the Dukes County Courthouse. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated 4:30 pm, February 17

The president of Campbell Construction Group, the original bidder on the project to replace and repair windows at the Dukes County Courthouse, this week contradicted the account that Dukes County manager Russell Smith provided to the county commissioners and the Attorney General about irregularities in the bid process.

In conversations last week with The Times, Mr. Smith said that David Campbell, president of the construction group, was aware that after the county rejected Campbell’s original bid, Mr. Smith signed a contract with Island subcontractor Carlton Sprague.

Mr. Smith portrayed Mr. Sprague as an agent for Mr. Campbell and said he agreed to do the work for a lower price and at a reduced scope.

In an email to county commissioners, Mr. Campbell contradicted that account.

Mr. Campbell contacted The Times on February 13 by phone to say he was referring to the original bid he submitted a year ago, and did not know Mr. Sprague was already at work on the courthouse windows.

“I was completely unaware,” Mr. Campbell said. “I didn’t realize it was half done. I didn’t realize the job was still going on.”

After consulting with the office of the attorney general on February 1, county officials acknowledged a number of irregularities in the bidding process and contract award, including an invalid contract, improper advertising, and improper waiver of fees.

The contract signed with Mr. Sprague, which Mr. Smith attempted to amend after the fact, was declared void, and the county ordered work stopped on the $55,000 project, which is already well behind schedule.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Smith resigned his $63,532 job effective May 1.

Window view

In January 2011, Mr. Smith advertised a request for proposals that included various possible levels of repair, from full replacement to less extensive repairs to 21 courthouse windows. Campbell Construction Group of Peabody submitted a bid of $117,420 by the February 18, 2011.

“I called up Mr. Campbell and said we don’t have that kind of money,” Mr. Smith said in a February 9 phone interview with The Times. “You were the lowest bidder, and the only bidder.”

Mr. Smith said he asked Mr. Campbell if he wanted to go to the courthouse and inspect the windows, to come up with a plan for restoring and repairing some of the windows at a lower cost, instead of replacing all of them.

Mr. Smith said it was Mr. Sprague who came to the courthouse and he consistently described Mr. Sprague as an agent of Campbell Construction Group.

Mr. Sprague, a local contractor who has previously worked as a subcontractor for Campbell Construction, submitted a lower bid for a reduced scope of work. The new bid, submitted one week after the February 18 deadline, was $55,000.

“I called Mr. Campbell and asked ‘are you aware that Mr. Sprague has put in a bid,'” Mr. Smith told The Times.

A copy of the bid faxed to The Times in response to a public records request was undated and unsigned and included no reference to Campbell Construction.

The minutes of county commission meetings reflect brief references to the bid and contract and no discussion among the commissioners.

The minutes for March 9, 2011, meeting state, “the responses to the RFP (request for proposal) did not come out the way we expected.”

The minutes for the April 13 meeting state the “contract is ready to sign.”

The minutes do not reflect that any county commissioner questioned the bid process, negotiations, or the cost of the work.

In a brief phone interview with The Times on February 9, Mr. Campbell initially dismissed the contract irregularities as a paperwork mix-up. He said Mr. Sprague worked for him.

Mr. Campbell contacted The Times on February 13 after reading about the details of the flawed courthouse contract.

Mr. Campbell said that when he spoke to The Times early last week, he thought he was being asked about the original bid he submitted one year ago. He said he did not know that Mr. Sprague was already at work on the courthouse windows.

He said Mr. Smith contacted him shortly after opening the Campbell bid to ask if the company was willing to negotiate a lower price for a more limited scope of work.

“I said ‘yes, I would be interested in that’ and then I didn’t hear another thing,” Mr. Campbell said.

Mr. Campbell said he maintains a working relationship with Mr. Sprague, and he did not want to “point any fingers.”

In the email he sent to Melinda Loberg, county commission chairman, and commissioner and former chairman Tristan Israel, Mr. Campbell said he wanted to clarify the position of his company.

“We did submit a bid to restore the windows on February 18, 2011 for $117,420,” Mr. Campbell wrote. “Subsequent to the bid opening I did receive a phone call from Mr. Russell Smith, wondering if I would be interested in negotiating a more limited scope, as he did not have the funding for the entire project. I did not have any communication with him until January 2012 when he called and forwarded a one-paragraph contract to complete the $55,000 worth of windows restoration work. I had no knowledge that Mr. Carlton Sprague had already entered into a contract with the county and that a large percentage of the work had been completed by Mr. Sprague. At the time of our bid, my intent was to subcontract the work to Mr. Sprague. At no time was Mr. Sprague acting as an agent for Campbell Construction.”

Mr. Sprague did not return phone messages left by The Times.

Surprise in the ranks

Last week, commenting on Mr. Smith’s resignation during the meeting of the county commissioners, Ms. Loberg said that thanks to Mr. Smith a lot of questions about the county “and its competence” had abated.

Tuesday, Ms. Loberg told The Times she was surprised and dismayed to read Mr. Campbell’s letter and suggested that Mr. Campbell might be distancing himself from the controversy.

“It lends another wrinkle to an already difficult problem,” Ms. Loberg said. “Mr. Campbell has sent mixed messages. The only thing I can read into it is he might be concerned with his own culpability.”

Ms. Loberg was asked if she thought Mr. Sprague tried to undercut Mr. Campbell’s original bid.

“Mr. Sprague has worked with Mr. Campbell on a number of projects here on the Island,” Ms. Loberg said. “It’s hard to imagine he would violate that relationship.”

She said Mr. Smith would show a copy of the email to the office of the attorney general.

Ms. Loberg said the developments do not materially change the discussion county officials had with a state lawyer and do not change the steps the county will take to correct the problem.

“We’ve already found that the contract is not legitimate and needed to be rebid,” Ms. Loberg said.

Busted bid

Assistant attorney general Brian O’Donnell highlighted four specific problems with the bid process in a conversation with county officials on February 1, according to a summary of the conversation prepared by Ms. Loberg that Mr. O’Donnell later acknowledged.

According to the summary, Mr. O’Donnell concluded that the request for proposals was improperly advertised because it did not appear as required in the state’s central register, an online list of public projects where contractors look for jobs to bid.

“We tried online to put it on the central register, but it didn’t come up there,” Mr. Smith said. “I can’t prove we did it, but I’m telling you we did.”

The bid was not posted on the county web page where other requests for proposals are listed.

Mr. O’Donnell told the county officials that it was improper for Mr. Smith to negotiate with the lowest bidder, that he was wrong to waive a bid deposit bond, and that payments should have been made to Campbell Construction Group, not directly to Mr. Sprague.

Mr. O’Donnell said the mistakes were common, and would be unlikely to result in fines or penalties by the office of attorney general.

Another irregularity was not discussed with the office of the attorney general.

“I tried to spread the bid to local contractors,” Mr. Smith said last week. “I contacted a half a dozen people directly.”

Contacting potential bidders directly is a violation of the state procurement laws, which are intended to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance to bid on public projects. Only responses to a properly advertised request for proposals are acceptable, according to the law. Mr. Smith said he was unaware of that part of the law.

Mr. Smith was embroiled in an earlier bid controversy in August 2010, in a contract for the joint purchase of heating fuel for Island towns. In the past, only R.M. Packer Company had bid.

In 2010, the county received two bids. The low bidder was Island Fuel. A committee Mr. Smith headed rejected both bids. Mr. Smith wrote new specifications that included a storage requirement. The only bidder who met the new specifications was R.M. Packer.

Mr. Smith could not be reached for comment on Mr. Campbell’s allegations. He was scheduled to attend a class sponsored by the office of the attorney general on how to comply with the state’s complex bid laws scheduled long before the latest bid controversy erupted.

This article was corrected to reflect that some of Mr. Campbell’s remarks came in a phone interview with The Times, not in an email to county commissioners.