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Democrats on BPW criticize state’s handling of emergency contracts

Maryland Board of Public Works, shown in a March 2020 photo, is scheduled to consider state budget cuts Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in response to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. (AP Photo/Brian Witte, File)

Maryland’s Board of Public Works, shown at a March 2020 meeting, reviews and approves state contracts. Two of the three members, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats, have questioned how emergency contracts have been used. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, says the urgent nature of the pandemic understandably caused much of the problem. (AP Photo/Brian Witte, File)

The state’s head of procurement has some explaining to do.

Robert Gleason, Maryland’s chief procurement officer, is expected to appear before the Board of Public Works to explain why one in four emergency contracts related to the COVID-19 pandemic have missed a statutory deadline for review by the panel. The board’s two Democrats said they are also expecting to hear ways in which such delays can be avoided in the future.

“Over the last year, in the last several months especially, we’re seeing a parade of emergency contracts that have been brought before this board months after the 45-day deadline,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot. “And of course, by the time the board has a chance to review it the agencies are months into the contract terms. Any board action to nullify them would be disruptive.”

The state’s top tax collector said claims that the delays were necessary because of the pandemic are being over-used more than a year after the first cases were diagnosed in Maryland.

“There’s simply no excuse, in my opinion, whatsoever for agencies to be skirting procurement laws and denying this board the opportunity to perform its statutory obligation to provide oversight,” he said

Franchot was joined by Treasurer Nancy Kopp in raising concerns about the delays which in some cases approached a year.

Franchot and Kopp, both Democrats, are part of the three-member Board of Public Works along with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The panel is responsible for approving state contracts from each agency.

Those agencies are required by state law to notify the board of emergency purchases within 45 days.

Gleason oversees a recently restructured procurement system that was meant to ensure departments more closely followed state purchasing laws.

“We’re still in the process of transformation and this is maybe a symptom of some of that effort before COVID hit us,” said Gleason, who added that the changes were implemented without increases to the budget or staffing.

“We were pulling this out of our skin to create an entirely new organization,” he said.

Gleason asked the board to consider that departments were struggling to get ahead of the pandemic last year.

“So, yes, we had reports to do, but I would also suggest that during the emergency we were also trying to find materials, set up alternate care sites, hospitals, build a workforce of health care workers,” he said. “So, there was a lot going on.”

Kopp pushed back against what she interpreted as Gleason’s attempt to characterize the requirements of state law as a report that wasn’t completed.

“This is not just some report. This is the way we assure transparency and a good procurement process. I’m afraid that across the departments and not just in (the Department of General Services) that people see this as just one more report. It’s not that,” said Kopp.

“What are we going to do to make people understand that this report is the citizens’ port?” she said. “Through this report, they know where their money is going.”

Since the start of the pandemic the state has spent hundreds of millions on emergency contracts for testing and supplies and additional space for hospitals and storage of bodies as well as consulting contracts.

“There’s obviously no disagreement about the need for the services,” said Franchot, adding his concern was “the timeliness in which these reports are being submitted to the board.”

In all, about 46 of 176 emergency contracts failed to meet the required deadline.

Included in the purchases sent to the board Wednesday was a $19 million contract for lab tests coming to the board 12 months late. That contract was presented so late that the board’s agenda also contained a request for approval of a $5.4 million emergency modification, which adds another eight months to the term of the agreement.

Another item had four extensions of an emergency lease agreement entered into last June and extended in September, October and November.

Hogan called on the agencies to get caught up.

“Frankly, did they drop the ball because they didn’t stop what they were doing to fill out some paperwork?” said Hogan. “Yes, they did but I think they’d argue they just didn’t have time to do it, but they are catching up. Many of these things are from back last spring in the worst part of the crisis, when we were starting from nothing and building an entire infrastructure.”

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