D.C. Contracting, Inc.
The world of big-dollar school construction in D.C. is pretty cozy.
How cozy? Two private firms are effectively awarding school contracts to their partners on other construction projects. That’s like two judges on American Idol having side-gig bands with some of the contestants.
For the next six years, the city is set to spend about $300 million a year on school renovation and construction projects. Two private construction management firms, McKissack & McKissack and Brailsford & Dunlavey, are helping the District government oversee all that spending. The firms’ responsibilities includes evaluating proposals and picking winners for city contracts with construction companies and architecture firms.
The two firms have had this job since 2007, when they won a contract ultimately worth tens of millions from the newly created Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization. That office, headed by Allen Lew, had a virtual blank check to fix up the city’s broken schools. When Vince Gray was elected mayor, he made Lew his city administrator and Lew created the Department of General Services, where McKissack and Brailsford continue in their role as contract pickers.
How does that role work? In one instance last December, a three-member panel met in private to decide how to dole out more than $50 million in school renovation projects. The panel, according to records filed with the D.C. Council, included Philip Artin, a senior vice president at McKissack who is a close friend of Lew’s; Will Mangrum, a senior vice president from Brailsford; and a District government project manager, Eupert Braithwaite.
Among the winners: Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Construction, which received a $19.4 million contract to renovate Stuart Hobson Middle School; Rockville-based Forrester Construction, which won a $6.8 million contract for Nalle Elementary; New-York based Turner Construction, which got a $10.4 million contract to renovate Bruce Monroe at Park View Elementary.
The problem: McKissack and McKissack and Brailsford & Dunlavey regularly partner with those firms on other multimillion-dollar projects.
For example, in 2009, Whiting-Turner won a $133 million contract to build the District’s new forensics lab. One of the project’s subcontractors? McKissack, which says on its website that it’s providing “architectural interior space planning; space programming; furniture, fixtures and equipment services; and tenant improvement services.”
In another partnership, McKissack formed a joint venture with Turner Construction in 2007 to build the $52 million Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. While partnering with McKissack on that job, Turner has been paid more than $310 million by OPEFM, city records show. An employee from McKissack has sat on some of the evaluation panels that picked Turner for that work.
Similarly, Brailsford & Dunlavey have partnered with Forrester Construction on a handful of charter school projects. That partnership was ongoing while Brailsford employees were evaluating Forrester’s bids for traditional public school construction projects, some of which Forrester landed. A Brailsford rep has sat on panels that have awarded Forrester school work that totals at least $70 million, city records show.
Other potential conflicts abound. Smoot Construction won a $10 million contract last year to start the rebuilding of Dunbar High School. On the panel evaluating Smoot’s bid was Artin, the senior vice president at McKissack. Smoot is part of a joint venture with McKissack, according to the company’s website, on the roughly $1 billion CityCenterDC project downtown that’s being partly funded by the government of Qatar.
Clark Construction, one of the country’s biggest construction firms, is also part of the CityCenterDC joint venture and has bid on at least one past school project. In 2009, Clark won a federal contract to build the new $435 million Coast Guard headquarters at St. Elizabeths. A U.S. government website that tracks contracts shows that McKissack has been paid $8.2 million so far as a subcontractor on that project. Smoot and Clark are also working together on the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, where McKissack says it’s doing construction management work.
The potential conflicts don’t just stop at construction companies, but extend to architecture firms as well. Bowie-Gridley just won a $4 million contract for renovations at Ballou High School. The architecture firm has also teamed with Forrester and Brailsford on a $15.5 million renovation project for Meridian Public Charter School on U Street NW. Sitting on the panel that helped pick Bowie-Gridley for the Ballou gig, as well as other large-dollar architecture contracts, was Chris Dunlavey, president of Brailsford & Dunlavey.
Representatives from McKissack and Brailsford did not return multiple requests for comment. Both firms have good reputations, and there’s no indication that they’ve acted improperly in awarding contracts. But the potential for conflicts of interest is hard to ignore.
LL spoke with several smaller contractors who expressed little surprise that there were so many connections between the companies evaluating construction proposals and some of the bigger companies bidding on those projects. “That seems like a very big conflict of interest,” says one contractor who has bid on school construction jobs and says he feels like the winners are determined long before the panel evaluates the bids. The contractor, like others LL spoke with, declined to be named for fear of being “blackballed” from future contracts.
Compounding the potential problem is the fact that much of the criteria for evaluating school construction bids are subjective. On a 100-point scale, cost only counts for 25 or 30 points. The rest of the score includes the panel’s judgements about a firm’s experience, key personnel, and work plans.
Darrell Pressley, a spokesman for DGS, says the city has put “checks and balances” in place to make sure the procurement process works properly. They include: requiring panel members to sign nondisclosure agreements; having the Office of the Inspector General conduct regular audits; and requiring DGS Director Brian Hanlon to sign off on the panel’s picks. Asked if Hanlon had ever overturned a panel’s recommendation, Pressley says, “There’s not been a need for that to happen.” Pressley also says none of McKissack’s panel members has an ownership stake in the company.
It’s worth noting that DGS redacted the names of panel members from several contracts LL obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, saying that information was protected from public disclosure. LL has a hard time buying that explanation, though, as panel members’ names regularly appear on contracts listed on the D.C. Council’s website.
Lew’s spokesman directed LL to DGS for comment on this story. But in a previous interview, Lew said he doesn’t see a distinction between the private employees who work on his team and the public employees. Lew has argued that in order to manage so many projects done quickly and right, he’s had to bypass the traditional city bureaucracy that used to award contracts. Lew’s past success building the convention center and the ballpark (McKissack and Brailsford worked on both projects), coupled with the fast pace of school construction has effectively earned him a free pass from the city’s lawmakers.
And Lew says he wants to expand the model he used on school projects to other parts of city contracting. In other words, get ready for more conflicts.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery