TDOT Contracts Bring 'Potential for Abuse' - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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TDOT Contracts Bring 'Potential for Abuse'

Nicely, Jones Nicely, Jones
Governor with Cathy and Bobby Thomas Governor with Cathy and Bobby Thomas
(Story created: 2/27/07)

A NewsChannel 5 investigation first revealed how a Capitol Hill lobbyist is pushing for toll roads in Tennessee.

Now, it turns out, this lobbyist may be using her inside connections to also go after millions of dollars in state contracts.

Which raises all sorts of questions about the process that the Bredesen administration has used to spend more than $200 million for highway consultants.

Among them: why would a company feel it needed to hire an insider to get state contracts?

Even Tennessee Department of Transportation officials admit that, if they wanted to, they could legally steer your money to their friends.

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When it comes to highway construction in Tennessee, road builders have to compete to see who can give taxpayers the best price.

But when it comes to the engineers and other consultants who design the roads, they've got to compete for the transportation commissioner's favor.

"Is there the potential for abuse?" NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams asks TDOT commissioner Gerald Nicely.

"There is the potential for abuse," Nicely replies, "but there has been no abuse."

Last March, TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely's chief of staff, Velma Jones, left his office and took a job trying to help engineering giant, CTE-AECOM, get contracts from her old boss.

"To my knowledge, she's asked me for no favors involving any consulting firm," Nicely says.

Still, TDOT figures show Nicely gave $2.7 million in state contracts to CTE in the first three years of the Bredesen administration.

But after CTE hired his chief of staff, the commissioner gave them more than $4.1 million in contracts in just nine months -- something Nicely says is just coincidence.  (See TDOT Spokesperson Responds to CTE Contract Amounts.)

"The fact is that she has not been lobbying me for specific consulting jobs for anybody," he insists.

SOT

But tax watchdog Drew Johnson of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research says it says something about how the state hands out tens of millions of dollars in consulting contracts.

"Obviously, this person is well-connected through their previous job -- and there's some value in that to this company," Johnson says.

Here's how it works:

When a contract becomes available, TDOT staff -- in this case, Jones' former colleagues -- evaluate and score the firms to see who might be best for the job.

Then, a consultant selection committee meets and comes up with a final list -- in most cases, a list of three -- to recommend to the commissioner.  Jones sat as an ex-officio member of that committee when she was at TDOT.

Finally, the commissioner picks the winner, and he doesn't have to give anybody a reason.

Nicely: "I do have quite a bit of latitude, you're right."
Williams: "So if a firm ticks you off, you don't have to choose them?"
Nicely: "Well, I would hope that I would base it upon something other than ticking me."

Johnson says that "without him justifying who he selects, it proves the system is ripe for corruption."

In fact, on several road contracts, Nicely checked Jones' client -- CTE -- as his number one choice, even though the company had been ranked number three by TDOT staff.

On one, his staff scored CTE very low on its capability to handle the job.

Nicely: "I didn't see the technical evaluation. All I get is the final list."
Williams: "Would it be helpful to see the technical evaluation?"
Nicely: "I frankly haven't asked for it. I think I would prefer just to be able to have -- if you're going to have some discretion, you're going to have discretion."

Which bears a certain resemblance to the Highway Patrol scandal that Nicely was asked to help clean up last year.

In that case, candidates for promotions were scored, but the commissioner didn't have to pay any attention to the scores.

And, like those who wanted trooper jobs, those who want TDOT contracts have opened up their wallets for the governor's campaign.

In fact, Nicely says those running Bredesen's re-election campaign asked him to participate in several fund-raisers -- including events attended by those who wanted TDOT business.

Nicely: "I attended a handful."
Williams: "Does that send a signal that if you don't contribute, you might not get work?"
Nicely: "I don't think so. Again, I wouldn't think that."

Still, Nicely admits that hasn't stopped two of Bredesen's top fundraisers -- Cathy and Bobby Thomas -- from putting in a word for companies that wanted him to give them state contracts.

"I would get a call occasionally to say will you look at somebody or will you have a meeting with so and so," he acknowledges.

"That is pretty common, I think."

Nicely denies that such contacts had any effect on his contract decisions, but Johnson questions whether there might have at least been a subtle effect.

"You're going to be more likely to give them these contracts than you would someone who you don't know," Johnson adds.

Nicely says, "I guess my reputation and integrity are either established by now or they're not."

But critics says it's not a question of this commissioner's reputation.

It's a question of the reputation of a system where TDOT contractors might feel that having the right connections could be their roads to riches.

It turns out, Ms. Jones' clients were contributing to the Bredesen campaign and she was in contact with T-DOT officials -- all while they were considering her clients for contracts.

But everyone that we talked to said they did not recall her ever discussing those contracts with them.

As for what can be done, the commissioner says he needs to be able to spread the work around based on workload or to bring in minority firms.

One option used by the federal government would require him to go with the firm that scored the highest -- unless he provided written justification for why someone else would be better.

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