Our NewsChannel 5 investigation of Tennessee's high dollar highways first exposed questions about possible bid rigging by the state's highway contractors. Now, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is preparing to cut off any contractors who are caught doing anything illegal.
What TDOT is talking about is giving itself a big hammer.
That hammer is a procedure called "debarment." It essentially would let TDOT prohibit companies from bidding on taxpayer jobs if they engage in any questionable conduct.
Right now, federal and state investigators are trying to determine IF any highway contractors may have conspired to rig bids on hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts.
Wednesday, TDOT began hearing public comments from highway contractors and others about some proposed rules.
Those rules would let it cut off any contractor who engages in antitrust activities -- including price fixing and bid-rigging -- as well as fraud, environmental crimes or a general "lack of business integrity."
They could also be cut off for unsatisfactory performance on state contracts or if they were debarred by an federal agency.
Which is a big change from current procedures that require contracts to be awarded to the lowest bidder, says TDOT spokesperson Kim Keelor.
"No matter what their record or reputation, we had to accept bids from them," Keelor tells NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
"Now we don't."
But Bill Penny, a lawyer for three highway contractors, says "the question is, how is it going to be applied, how fairly it will be applied."
Penny and other contractors say they applaud efforts to make sure the industry is clean.
TDOT officials will review their suggestions on ways to make the process fairer. They hope to have the final rules in place by the end of the year.
While TDOT says it was already working on the rules before this all came up, officials add that the procedure will be a useful tool if investigators do find anything.