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Md. DOT takes over agency’s procurement after irregularities found

Maryland Department of Transportation Sec. James F. Ports Jr. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary James Ports (File Photo/Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — State transportation officials said they are taking more direct control of contracting within the Maryland Transit Administration after the discovery of dozens of contracts that lacked formal approval or instances in which vendors were paid for services for which there was no contract.

The announcement, and presentation of 31 contracts to the Board of Public Works, comes months after the head of the MTA left under a cloud related to the purchase of furniture for the executive offices.

James Ports, deputy transportation secretary, told the three-member panel that Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn has assigned the head of procurement for the Maryland Department of Transportation to oversee purchasing by the agency that is responsible for bus and commuter rail services. Ports called the move “a drastic step” taken to overcome a culture within the MTA, an agency within the larger Department of Transportation.

“People were not getting the message,” Ports said. “We tried to drill down. We tried to send a message, and they weren’t getting it. So now we are taking it over. We’re literally taking it over because we think by doing so, they are absolutely going to get the message.”

The latest batch of issues included payments to 11 vendors totaling nearly $7 million in which contracts had expired but work was continuing to be done.

Additionally, 13 vendors were paid $3.3 million more than their contracts called for.

Finally, in what Comptroller Peter Franchot called “the most egregious example,” seven vendors were paid nearly $5 million for work for which there was no contract in place.

In addition to putting Michael Zimmerman in charge of procurement at the agency, Ports said, the department will also hire an inventory control officer who will report directly to Zimmerman. The agency is also installing new new software to track contracts and payments and will be providing additional training at the MTA.

Ports added that the department has alerted auditors within the Department of Transportation and the Office of Legislative Audits.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chaired the meeting for Gov. Larry Hogan, was at times irritated as he and Ports discussed the issue but said he doesn’t believe corruption is at the root of the issue inside the transit agency.

“It’s sloppiness,” Rutherford said. “This stuff is in the bowels of the organization and it takes time from the leadership, I know. I can fuss at you and fuss at the secretary but it means you’ve got to tell your people to burrow down into the bowels, the basement of your organization, and let them know. I truthfully don’t think it’s corruption. I think it’s sloppiness. I think it’s lack of education and I think it’s not looking out for the taxpayers’ dollars. The people who are doing these things don’t realize they are working with taxpayer dollars.”

Ports told the three-member panel the contracts approved today were part of an effort to clean up the agency’s procurement process and said there will likely be more in the future.

Franchot, who along with Hogan and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp comprises the three-person board, has been critical of poor procurement practices in the past. On Wednesday he called the Department of Transportation’s moves a “breath of fresh air” but asked Ports if he and the board would be asked to approve more retroactive MTA contracts.

“I think you will,” Ports said. “I think as we continue to dig into the procurement issues at MTA and, if you will use the analogy, turn over rocks, we’re going to find a pile of you know what and we’re going to continue to find that and we’re going to continue to bring them forward.”

 

 

 

 


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