Critics of department say they've paid price

Challenging the procurement department can be hazardous.

 

It is certainly expensive for Augusta taxpayers, costing $423,897 in legal fees in 2007 alone.

Two top government officials were fired after clashing with Procurement Director Geri Sams. Both blame Ms. Sams and sued the city.

A special grand jury drafted to investigate possible waste and corruption in the city government issued a highly critical assessment of the procurement department and its director in August 2002.

The group, made up of a cross-section of the community with white and black members, was branded racist. Its complaints were dismissed by the city administrator and commissioners, who demanded apologies from the special grand jurors.

Commissioners contended publicly that a limited 2003 audit of the purchasing department gave it high marks. But the audit found eight critical shortcomings, and most are still present today.

The last time a business owner complained publicly about a bid process was in 2005. More than one told The Chronicle he wouldn't speak on the record because he wanted to keep doing business with the city.

One business owner interviewed by the special grand jury in 2002 said he was dropped from a notification list not long after criticizing the purchasing department for accepting the highest bids for fire department equipment.

City employees had similar problems after questioning purchasing practices.

"The minute I raised concerns about the (purchasing) department, my life became miserable," said former city comptroller Lon Morrey, whose 2001 lawsuit is pending against the city.

The special grand jury went to Mr. Morrey asking questions. Members had heard about questionable handling of the sale of fire trucks. They also had questions about the double purchase of four vehicles that needlessly cost taxpayers about $150,000 in 1999.

Mr. Morrey said he found himself at odds with the purchasing department over big things -- discovering the same person could bypass built-in checks and balances by filling out a purchase order and approving it with no oversight -- and seemingly little things, such as the purchase of computer memory.

Then-city Administrator Randy Oliver stepped in when informed about the security bypass, but he thought the problem was corrected by the computer technicians, Mr. Oliver said in a December phone interview.

Mr. Morrey said the disagreement over the computer memory was typical. He said he raised a fuss when the computer memory that his employee priced at $110 each came back from the purchasing department with a $455 price tag per unit. The purchasing order was also for 12 when he had asked for only six.

Mr. Oliver agreed to an audit of purchasing, but it was scaled back and then dropped all together, Mr. Morrey said. The idea of a criminal investigation was batted around, but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which assisted the special grand jury with its examination of the fire department, didn't separately investigate the purchasing department, law enforcement officers said.

Mr. Morrey's finance department came under scrutiny after a highly critical audit in which Mr. Morrey was blamed for a number of perceived shortcomings -- including accounts he had no control over. It led to his termination. Cherry Bekaert & Holland, which did the audit, didn't mention the questionable events in the fire and purchasing departments.

Mr. Morrey, whose prior job was senior manager in one of the largest minority-owned CPA firms in the country, said his complaints about the procurement department led to accusations he was a racist. An internal investigation found the charge unwarranted, Mr. Morrey said.

The racist label has also been applied to those who ask questions about the award of city contracts with minority contractors.

But it hasn't just been white critics who found themselves out the door. The former director of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Development Department, Keven Mack, was fired in large part because of the way a contract was awarded, according to court documents.

Mr. Mack, who is black, sued the city. He lost the suit not on the merits, but because the court ruled he could not prove every city commissioner who voted to fire him did so for unconstitutional reasons. Commissioners said they relied on the administrator's recommendation to fire him.

Mr. Mack contended he was fired because he blew the whistle on Ms. Sams' insistence on unfairly awarding a contract. The contract to renovate apartments nearly cost the city more than $400,000 for violating federal regulations.

Ms. Sams worked for Mr. Mack beginning in July 1992. She was responsible for, among other things, the minority business program -- increasing the participation of minorities in obtaining city contracts -- and helping gather the data for a disparity study.

According to Ms. Sams' personnel file, Mr. Mack had a constant battle on his hands trying to get her to do her job. Ms. Sams complained that she was singled out for unfair treatment, and she filed grievances and complaints against Mr. Mack.

Bad job performance reviews and at least one suspension that was upheld by the county administrator didn't keep Ms. Sams from being promoted to purchasing department head. In December 1996, commissioners gave her the job with a 7-3 vote.

PROCUREMENT LITIGATION FEES

Attorney fees in 2007 for representing the city on procurement-related litigation:

LitigationCost
Open Record$28,572
Thompson Building Wrecking lawsuit$66,720
Employee lawsuits$36,395 and $8,369
Disadvantage Business Enterprise$4,154
Procurement meetings$313
Vendor lawsuit$1,117
Atlanta law firm DBE work$69,509
Lawsuit settlement costs$208,748
Total: $423,897

Source: City finance department records