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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: High-Dollar Highways

Governor Pledges to Clean Up Any Highway Bid-Rigging

(Story created: 5/25/04)

An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation of highway contracts has captured the attention of people at the highest levels of state government. That investigation uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars of your money spent with little or no competition.

And it is now fueling a statewide criminal investigation.

"I don't think there's any question but when investigative reporting like you are doing is looking over the shoulder of everybody, it moves things along and plays into the investigation."

That was the reaction of Gov. Phil Bredesen, speaking to NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Bredesen was referring to the state criminal investigation into Tennessee's road-building industry and allegations of possible bid-rigging on highway contracts.

It's an investigation that's suddenly big news on talk radio and in the newspapers.

"You have very few companies bidding. Everybody knows everybody else in the industry. It just invites that kind of thing," the governor said on the Steve Gill Show on WWTN talk radio

At a Tennessee Department of Transportation news conference to discuss the agency's future, officials were saying little.

"The investigation is statewide, and it's in the hands of the attorney general," said TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely.

But a six-month NewsChannel 5 investigation -- including a computer analysis of hundreds of state contracts over five years -- found a disturbing pattern.

Out of $3.4 billion spent by TDOT on highway construction and maintenance contracts in that period, almost $360 million was for contracts for which there was only one bidder -- $360 million dollars awarded with no competition.

Local road officials say they've been told of secret deals among some highway contractors to divide up the state.

"There's this imaginary boundary line that we don't cross, we don't compete," said Wilson County road superintendent Steve Armistead.

The governor's reaction:

"When I first heard about it, you just think, 'Oh, no, not again.'"

The "again" was another bid-rigging scandal that hit the state two decades ago... sending dozens of contractors to prison.

"Any repeat of this scandal could really be a tragedy for the state and something I would hate to seen happen," Bredesen added.

"There's a lot of companies that do very well working with the state in paving roads. I guess for somebody to even try to take further advantage of that by rigging bids or doing something illegal, it's just outrageous."

The Tennessee Road Builders Association says it believe the investigation will clear the industry.

But, based on what he's been told, the governor isn't so sure.

"If there is a problem here, which the attorney general is looking at and is very concerned about, then we are going to get it rooted out and let the chips fall where they may."

The investigation also focuses on cases where contractors may have actually submitted multiple bids, but where they might have agreed on those bids in advance.

But no company had been named at this point. Every one's being looked at, but everyone's presumed to be innocent.

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