West Virginia's legislative auditor is investigating a state official's decision to award 20 no-bid emergency contracts for microwave radio tower repairs because the reasons he's given so far apparently don't hold up. Auditor Aaron Allred has asked the Department of Health and Human Resources to turn over every emergency contract that emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez has approved since 2007 for review.
After a violent 2012 summer storm, Gonzalez approved an emergency deal with Premier Construction of Jane Lew. The Charleston Gazette says Gonzalez told his DHHR supervisors he had to work quickly to prevent a complete breakdown of emergency medical services.
DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler told the newspaper that Gonzalez followed emergency rules because the state's "emergency communication system was compromised."
But in an audit released last week, Allred found that Premier waited four to 13 days to repair all but one tower.
If lives were really in the balance, Allred asked, "Would it not have made sense to use multiple tower companies to get this work completed in a more timely manner?"
In December 2012, Gonzalez sent a memo to his bosses saying Premier was the only company he could reach by phone because networks were down. Allred, however, said in letter to DHHR Purchasing Directory Bryan Rosen, that "While power outages were widespread, phone service disruption was not. The statement that 'due to the interruption of phone networks, his ability to contact vendors was severely impaired' simply cannot be accurate."
The audit also concluded Gonzalez had a "professional relationship" with Premier's owners since 2006.
Gonzalez has declined comment on the audit.
Under emergency purchasing rules, state officials must get three verbal bids for any work worth more than $1,000. Fourteen of Premier's 20 jobs exceeded $1,000, and in all, the audit said, emergency contracts totaled $27,410.
Premier was general contractor on a related $38 million radio network expansion that was funded by federal stimulus money and included 17 new towers. But Allred said it used subcontractors with more construction experience to build 16 of those.
"Given that Premier Construction had to use multiple subcontractors ... how could Premier be the only contractor with the ability to do this work?" Allred asked the DHHR.
In a response obtained by the newspaper, Gonzalez said realigning satellite dishes was different than building the towers they're attached to.
West Virginia adopted emergency purchasing rules in 2002, after former state schools Deputy Superintendent G.A. McClung awarded Oak Hill businessman Phillip Booth a $2.4 million no-bid contract to repair flood-damaged schools in southern West Virginia.
McClung was sentenced to six years in federal prison. Booth died of a heart attack before his sentencing.