NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — What happens when a company charges taxpayers for work it can't back up?
In the case of one Nashville engineering firm involved in city construction projects, a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered, they have continued to get more of your money under sometimes questionable circumstances.
That company, Collier Engineering, has faced two critical audits in the last two years that have questioned its ethics and its billing practices.
“Process is paramount. Here, the process as it is presently is just, it's not kind of meeting the smell test," said Angie Henderson, a Metro Council member who previously served as chair of the council's public works committee.
Audits question Collier ethics, billing practices
During March Madness 2018 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Collier executives were caught on hidden cameras using the company's luxury suite to entertain Metro officials who could steer contracts their way.
A month later, as the Predators took on the Avalanche in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Collier Engineering was again trying to score with Nashville city officials, invited to enjoy the much-anticipated game in that same suite.
In 2019, Metro's internal auditor concluded that “the allegation that there is an appearance of preferential treatment being given to Collier Engineering … in exchange for entertainment and gifts is substantiated.”
The auditor also confirmed that Metro business had been steered to Collier outside the scope of its own contracts in situations where there were other vendors who actually had contracts to provide those services, although there was no direct evidence that those decisions were driven by the entertainment and gifts.
“When there is the perception that we have kind of cronyism and that there's a preference for certain folks, it's bad for everyone,” Henderson said.
Then, a second audit, released at the beginning of the pandemic, uncovered even more questions about how Collier Engineering billed the city for the work of its employees.
Out of just 23 selected invoices, auditors found every single invoice “contained some billed hours that could not be tied to time sheets,” the audit said.
Auditors found some $145,000 in billings where the employees’ time sheets didn’t match the invoices. The company says most of that was for services provided through a temporary staffing agency.
There was another $275,000 in billings for the time of top Collier executives, who were not required to keep separate time sheets.
Total questionable billings: $421,000.
“That might sound like, 'Oh well that's not that much.' It absolutely is — and that's only on selected invoices," Henderson said.
"That's not on all the work that they have done. And so, it's a red flag.”
Metro Council member Freddie O'Connell, who chaired the public works committee before Henderson, agreed.
"I'm not an auditor, and that raises red flags," O'Connell said.
"If they cannot demonstrate that they performed services to the level of the billing, then they owe us money in my opinion."
Collier officials blamed an antiquated timekeeping system and insisted there was no fraud.
Metro internal review raises more billing questions
But, following that second audit, an internal review by Metro officials also concluded top Collier officials had billed the city for huge blocks of time that just didn't make sense.
"To bill 4,160 hours over two years, a person would have to work on billable time for eight hours every weekday, take no sick days and no leave or vacation for two years," Metro attorney Lora Barkenbus Fox wrote in a letter in late March to Collier's attorney.
Fox noted that Collier executives had billed the city for as much as 5,215 hours between January 2017 and December 2018.
She also questioned Collier's billing taxpayers on days when company executives were entertaining Metro officials and participating in a paving workshop in Jackson, Tennessee.
The Metro attorney suggested that Collier settle the matter by writing the city a check for $267,921.
That came after NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking questions about Collier's contracts.
In response, Collier Engineering attorney Saul Solomon argued that the city was penalizing the company for not having records that it had never been required to keep.
"To claim that Metro is owed money based on a lack of paper, signed time sheets that were not required under any Metro contract and were, where they existed, never used for invoice purposes, is absurd." Solomon wrote on April 12.
Collier gets $25 million in new contracts
Still, that dispute did not stop Mayor John Cooper's administration from giving the company new contracts totaling more than $25 million.
For one of those contracts — for construction and engineering inspections, overseeing city projects — Collier almost didn’t get the job.
Documents show Collier scored sixth out of the eight firms that bid for the job, and the city appeared to be ready to give contracts to the top four.
The top four competitors scored between 90 and 97 out of a possible score of 100.
Collier scored 87 -- 10 points below the highest competitor.
But, at the last minute, the decision was made to give contract to the top six, which meant Collier made the cut.
That despite findings by evaluators that Collier “failed to demonstrate capacity to perform” the work.
O'Connell said, "Not even to single out Collier, but let's say this is happening across the board: why is the Metro procurement process this broken?"
A finance department spokesperson said in an email, that "it was the advice of the purchasing agent that only awarding to four, when less than three points separated the next two vendors, would seem arbitrary, providing offerors with grounds for appeal."
O'Connell said it's the job of purchasing officials to give city business to the most qualified firms.
"The whole point of this process is to find the person who can do the job the best at the sweet spot of also the lowest cost. That's what we ought to be talking about," he added.
Metro purchasing rules specify that as few vendors as possible should be awarded contracts.
Metro finance officials never responded to a request for documentation showing that purchasing officials had established a plan for selecting the winning vendors before seeing how the scores turned out.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Henderson, "A company gets caught engaging in questionable practices, not only does nothing happened but they get more city business. Is that the way taxpayers expect the city to behave?”
"It's not, and rightly so,” Henderson answered.
After the story aired, the Metro Department of Finance provided the following statement:
Metro Legal is pursuing reimbursement for past Collier billings (see attached letters). At the advice of Metro Legal, we respectfully decline an on-camera interview to discuss Metro’s relationship with Collier. However, we believe the following information is informative and may be helpful to someone not familiar with the purchasing process.
During the last three (3) years, the department of finance has worked with the Mayor’s Office, Metro Water Services, Public Works, General Services, and Metro Parks to implement a number of changes around how architecture and engineering (A&E) contracts are awarded and managed. These changes are detailed in a presentation to council available HERE. Some highlights include:
- Updated ethics rules for both Metro employees and vendors;
- Established performance metrics for A&E vendors;
- Streamlined the award process to remove political/outside influence.
- Standardizing invoicing process across departments.
Each of these changes was made in consultation with departments, guided by best practices, and vetted by industry and state regulatory bodies. Taken together, these changes have made the process more transparent, more aligned with best practices, and more accountable to the tax payers. We believe the full scope of these reforms improves our internal controls and provides Metro with needed tools to improve vendor and employee accountability.