ANNAPOLIS — One Maryland agency had $1 million to spend on legal representation and could only find one lawyer interested.
Members of the state Board of Public Works raised questions about the lack of bidders for the contract with the Department of Human Resources representing child and adult welfare cases in Cecil County. They wanted to know if the state could get a better deal hiring an in-house attorney.
“I’m a lawyer, not a great lawyer, I don’t practice but I would love to have a contract if I was in the private sector paying me, I guess it’s up to $200,000 per year,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot.
The comptroller expressed concerns Wednesday during a Board of Public Works meeting. The Department of Human Resources requested approval of a five-year contract with Michael J. Scibinico, II, an Elkton attorney.
Scibinico, who has represented the agency since 1998, was the sole bidder on the contract, which will pay out more than $1 million over five years.
“What’s the problem with competition?” Franchot asked. “Why isn’t there someone else that might be interested, because it seems like it might be a pretty nice arrangement, a lot more money than I get paid. More than the governor, I’ll say. More than the treasurer, I guess.”
Despite reservations, the three-member board of Franchot, Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp approved the contract proposal unanimously.
State officials last year began a search for potential contractors within the Cecil County area to handle cases in Cecil County Circuit Court on behalf of that county’s social services department. The lawyer would work exclusively for the agency as a contractor.
Scibinico represented the agency in about a half dozen cases since 2010, according to online court records.
Department of Human Resources Deputy Secretary Gregory S. James said the agency sent notices to 130 lawyers and firms and ultimately expanded the the area in which the lawyer could live or work to 30 miles.
“We are always troubled whenever we see a competitive bid go out on the street and receive one bid,” James said. “That is very troubling to us.”
But when the agency held a pre-bid conference with potential candidates, only three people showed up, according to James.
“In this case we received only a single bid for this contract, and that is the incumbent,” James said.
“I cannot tell you specifically why we did not receive more bids,” James said. “It’s a standard contract we use throughout the state for these types of services. It may just be the particular nature of Cecil County where the geographic location and small legal community and the specific nature of this work that we only received one bid.”
Since being elected comptroller, Franchot has frequently raised concerns about state procurement, in particular with awards to incumbent bidders and single-source or single-bid contracts. He often has found a partner in Hogan, though the governor Wednesday did not offer any objections or opinions of any sort about the Cecil County contract.
Franchot questioned whether the state would save money by hiring an attorney rather than contracting with one.
“I’m not going to make a big deal out of it, but these things add up,” he said.
James said that in the first three years of the deal it would be more advantageous for the state to hire an in-house lawyer.
“Anything after year three, it’s more advantageous to go with the attorney that we chose but we get the number of years experience,” said James.
Kopp said the agency should attempt to find out why so many attorneys opted not to bid on the contract.
“Is it a normal thing to try and learn about that and go back and correct it? It just slaps you in the face some times,” Kopp said.
Only seven attorneys responded to the agency when asked why they declined to bid on the contract, according to documents provided to the Board of Public Works. Some of the reasons included: “Specifications were unclear or too restrictive (insurance requirements are too prohibitive); the offeror does not provide the services requested; the offeror’s prior experience with the State of Maryland was not satisfactory; the offeror was busy with other commitments; and the offeror did not know about the solicitation in time.”
James vowed his agency would continue to “push and see if we can get an answer” from other attorneys.
“Please know, while we are recommending this contract that does not mean we are satisfied with the outcome,” James said. “We are committed to going back and looking at are there other ways to approach this type of situation that would generate more competition in the future and generate more bids in the future.”