By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland Public Television circumvented state law by concealing $470,000 in building projects from state officials and awarded the contracts to one company without a competitive bidding process, an audit has concluded.
The case has been referred to the Attorney General’s Office by the Department of General Services, which conducted the audit.
To avoid scrutiny by the Board of Public Works and General Services, MPT divided work for two projects into 21 separate contracts, each worth about $24,000. Some were just two dollars short of the $25,000 threshold for contracts that must be reviewed by General Services. The board must approve contracts exceeding $200,000.
Findings from the audit were presented Wednesday to the board, which consists of the governor, comptroller and treasurer.
“This appears to be an egregious abuse of the system,” said James “Chip” DiPaula, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management.
The Attorney General has been asked by the department to investigate the possibility of illegal collusion between MPT and contractors to bilk the state.
“You have to question when each contract was consistently awarded to one company,” said Boyd Rutherford, secretary of the General Services Department.
In his 15 months on the job, Rutherford said he has referred only one other procurement investigation to the Attorney General’s office for a criminal inquiry.
Repeated telephone calls to MPT executives were not returned.
From 2000 to 2002, MPT spent $395,000 to revamp its broadcasting facility to meet federal regulations requiring digital transmissions, and $75,000 to expand office space for its Web site staff at its Owings Mills headquarters.
Senior management at MPT structured the contracts for the purpose of escaping inspection by the board, investigators said.
Board members said the findings of the audit were deeply troubling and requested the inquiry continue.
“(The audit) raises serious questions about how MPT is being managed,” said Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer asked investigators to look at any potential criminal violations done by contractors or MPT.
Following completion of the audit in March, General Services suspended MPT’s procurement authority, except for its $2,500 credit card limit.
MPT President Robert Shuman could not be reached for comment, but MPT officials told state auditors that the projects were divided into multiple contracts because only one area of the building at a time could be renovated to allow enough space for the staff to work.
All contracts were awarded to Ultimate Associates, a Manchester, Md., firm without a competitive bidding process, according to the audit. Equal bids were submitted from other firms, but no reason was given for why Ultimate Associates was selected every time.
The Secretary of State’s online information lists Roland Martin of Manchester as Ultimate’s agent.
MPT also failed to advertise the bids, and the contracts do not include any written scope of work or general conditions for the company to follow.
According to its Web site, MPT provides educational, public affairs and cultural programming. About a fourth of its funding comes from state coffers, the rest from private donations and federal grants.