Gov. Ed Rendell called for an investigation of a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board contract awarded to a top PLCB manager's husband, even as more details surfaced questioning the contract bidding process, including suspicions from competing firms that the award was "fishy" and seemed like an inside job.
The PLCB recently awarded a $173,000 contract to Solutions 21, a West End consulting firm whose president is married to a state store system regional manager. PLCB officials said the process was legitimate, but it led to calls from state legislators for an explanation, and Mr. Rendell yesterday agreed.
"All conflicts of interest should be investigated," the governor told reporters, when asked about the matter after a speech at Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview.
PLCB spokesman Nick Hays said, "We agree with the governor. We look forward to a full review."
The contract is to provide customer courtesy training -- including how to interact with state store customers and talk confidently about store products -- to 670 management-level and 3,250 retail-level state store employees statewide.The PLCB awarded it to Solutions 21, which is owned by Buddy Hobart, the husband of Susanne Hobart, the board's Western Pennsylvania regional manager, and one of only three regional managers statewide.
According to the PLCB, Mr. Hobart submitted the lowest bid of five firms competing for the contract, and his firm was selected according to state contracting laws, with no role by Mrs. Hobart in the procurement process.
But owners of two other competing Pennsylvania-based consulting firms questioned the way the PLCB handled the bidding process, saying it was rushed and difficult from start to finish.
The request for proposals for the project was issued Nov. 17 and amended Nov. 25, two days before Thanksgiving. Responses to the 190-page request had to be returned 16 days later, on Dec. 11. The bid documents called on the firms to have a full employee education plan -- including writing lesson plans, printing and distributing them statewide, and hiring a full-time staffer based in Harrisburg -- in place and ready to go statewide by January, just one month after the bid deadline.
"It was ridiculous. ... Thanksgiving week -- are you kidding me? The return dates were absurd. There was no way you could get through it," said Monica Gould, president of Strategic Consulting Partners in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County. "It's looking like [the winning bidder] had an inside track. In retrospect that makes sense."
"There was something fishy about the whole thing," said Joyce Lawson of Lawson Enterprises in Ambler, Montgomery County.
Mr. Hobart has not returned calls to the Post-Gazette and was not available when a reporter visited his Solutions 21 office on Wabash Street yesterday.
Both losing firms produced hundreds of pages of responses to the bid request by the deadline, but neither was brought in for an oral interview. Both firms -- each of them state-certified women-owned businesses -- also asked for formal explanations for why they were rejected. A PLCB official read Ms. Lawson a statement over the phone and Ms. Gould has an in-person session next week.
The owners of both firms also worried about speaking out publicly about the contracting process, but said they did so to air their concerns about the ability of small businesses like theirs to fairly compete for public government contracts. Ms. Lawson has been in business 33 years and Ms. Gould for 15. (The two other firms submitting bids were from Florida and Alaska.)
Mr. Hays said last night that the bid was not rushed, since the contract was "a rather straightforward request for establishing a professional-development program that could be rolled out quickly to 620 stores." Solutions 21 did not have advance notice of the bid requirements, he said.
None of the competing firms, including Solutions 21, were asked to make oral presentations, he said.
Strategic Consulting Partners had bid on the first version of the customer services contract issued in late 2007. The PLCB threw out the contract in May 2008 and chopped it into three separate parts, one of them being the "good manners" contract awarded to Solutions 21.
"Most small businesses don't even go after these contracts anymore -- if I had known so-and-so on the board maybe that would have been another story," Ms. Gould said. "It's frustrating and disheartening. We should at least have a shot to get it."
Criticism of the contract award continued in Harrisburg yesterday, including this statement from state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver:
"Contracts awarded to spouses, cronies and former co-workers are tainted, they don't pass the smell test, and there should be laws and regulations in place to prevent this from happening. ... This latest revelation from the PLCB also bolsters the argument that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board should be privatized."
Tim McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.