Thursday, August 30, 2007
Gov. Halts DOT Project Negotiations
By Thomas J. Cole
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
Gov. Bill Richardson, saying he wants to avoid any possible taint, announced the suspension Wednesday of contract talks for the Transportation Department's headquarters redevelopment project in Santa Fe.
Richardson said negotiations between SCS Development and the Transportation Department would be put on hold pending the outcome of two investigations he has ordered of the $400 million project.
The Journal reported last week that the Transportation Department and SCS, a company affiliated with Richardson supporter and friend Gerald Peters, were discussing a headquarters of about 170,000 square feet down from the 300,000 initially called for by the department.
In general terms, SCS is to build a headquarters and provide a Rail Runner station for the state free of charge in return for the right to develop the rest of the Transportation Department property.
The Journal also has reported that defendants in the Metropolitan Courthouse construction scandal in Albuquerque were linked to the early stages of the planned redevelopment on a 25-acre tract near downtown Santa Fe.
One of them was hired as project manager for the DOT redevelopment and two flew on state planes to out-of-state meetings about the headquarters redevelopment.
A new federal indictment alleges the same defendants in the courthouse case also conspired to corrupt another DOT project, which state officials have identified as the proposed redevelopment of its District 5 regional office on Santa Fe's southside.
Richardson said he also directed the Transportation Department to work with SCS on an agreement for public release of as many documents as possible about the project without divulging proprietary information.
The Journal reported last week that DOT has maintained the redevelopment isn't covered by the state Procurement Code but has repeatedly cited a secrecy provision of that law in refusing to release project documents or discuss negotiations with SCS.
Peters said he urged DOT officials in a meeting Tuesday to lift the confidentiality restrictions.
"We need a process that accommodates the input and involvement of key legislators," Peters said in a written statement. "Secrecy just feeds the rumor mill and leads to inaccurate conjecture that has ended up in the local newspapers."
Citing the secrecy provision in state law, the DOT declined to talk about the possible headquarters size reduction, leaving Peters alone in the uncomfortable position of explaining the cut.
He said the 300,000 square feet in the original request for proposals was a department "fantasy number" and that the agency decided before selecting SCS that it didn't need that much space.
Richardson has ordered the Transportation Department's inspector general to review how the agency has handled the contracting process for the headquarters and District 5 redevelopments and to examine whether the DOT has the basic structure in place to handle such projects.
The governor also said he will retain outside legal counsel to review the legality and integrity of the redevelopments, including whether any undue influence or fraud activities have played a role.
Richardson said that while he believes the headquarters redevelopment "is a worthy project that can and should move forward in the future, it is prudent to put negotiations on hold while we take an in-depth look at every facet of it."
"I don't want this project to be tainted in any way. If it moves forward, taxpayers should be confident that they are getting the best deal possible," the governor said in a written statement.
'Expertise and merit'
Toby Martinez, the former Metro Court administrator who has been indicted in the construction scandal in Albuquerque, became the Transportation Department's manager for both its redevelopments after leaving the court.
Another defendant in the courthouse case, engineer Raul Parra, traveled on state planes with Martinez and other DOT officials to meetings on the headquarters development in 2005 with an architectural and engineering firm in Dallas.
In his statement Wednesday, Peters said he received no requests for anyone to be hired on the redevelopment or experienced hints of impropriety.
"Had anyone made such an inappropriate request, I would have walked out of the room and withdrawn the bid," Peters said. "I hire people based on expertise and merit. Period."
He said the results of the investigations ordered by Richardson "should serve as a Good Housekeeping Seal of ethical conduct ... and (show) that this bid was selected on the merits."
The relationship between Richardson and Peters also has raised questions about the project.
Peters is a friend and a major campaign contributor to Richardson and has made his jet airplane available to the governor for political trips.
Peters last week co-hosted a fundraiser for Richardson's presidential campaign at his home in Jackson, Wyo.
The administration has repeatedly denied any favoritism toward SCS.
Saying it couldn't reach a satisfactory deal, the Transportation Department earlier this year canceled negotiations with Jaguar Development Group II on the District 5 redevelopment.
The plan was for Jaguar to build a new district office on other property at no cost to the DOT in exchange for getting ownership of the 42 acres where the office is now located.
Jaguar Development was the sole bidder. The company and a Chicago developer associated with it also have made significant campaign contributions to Richardson.
According to a new indictment handed up last week in the Metro Court case and administration officials, Martinez and Parra also allegedly conspired on the District 5 redevelopment.
Parra and his engineering firm made substantial campaign donations to Richardson. And after taking office, the governor reappointed Parra to a seat on the state Information Technology Commission. His term on the board expired at the end of last year.
Martinez and Parra, along with former Senate President Pro-Tem Manny Aragon, have pleaded not guilty to charges they skimmed more than $4 million off the Metro Courthouse construction.
Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught has said Aragon recommended that she hire Martinez.