Contractors, campaign contributions and questions about Broward’s big money runway expansion project

By Dan Christensen

As Broward commissioners prepare to publicly debate the merits of a proposed new ethics code, a county contractor is accusing county officials of unfairly playing politics when handing out multimillion-dollar contracts.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport

CH2M Hill, the international engineering giant, says it ran into a buzz saw last year when it sought the lucrative job of lead designer for the $810-million expansion of the south runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“I have personally never witnessed such a politicized selection process,” said CH2M Hill President Mark Lasswell in an unusually frank letter to commissioners and staff. CH2M Hill has several other contracts with the county, including a general services contract at Port Everglades.

In September, the county chose Florida-based engineering companies PBS&J and Reynolds Smith & Hills to lead a 15-member design team for the controversial runway expansion. The job includes figuring out how to construct a bridge to extend the south runway over Federal Highway.

The design contract, which has yet to be finalized, is expected to be worth $15-$20 million.

The PBS&J/RS&H team was selected by a committee made up mostly of elected commissioners. The selection was made against a backdrop of infighting lobbyists, political fundraisers and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Four incumbent commissioners up for re-election this year have raked in campaign dollars from both sides. But PBS&J/RS&H and their subcontractors outspent the CH2M Hill team, campaign records show.

Sue GunzburgerCommissioner Sue Gunzburger, who’s in a bitter race with former State Sen. Steve Geller, got the most. PBS&J’s team gave her campaign in excess of $11,000 – or seven times more than she received from CH2M Hill and its subcontractors.

The PBS&J team spent about half that amount on the campaigns of Mayor Ken Keechl, Kristin Jacobs and Diana Wasserman-Rubin. Still, those contributions were about twice as much as those made by CH2M Hill’s team.

The committee’s vote for PBS&J/RS&H was lopsided, but not unanimous. Commissioner Lois Wexler walked out on the vote. She says she felt rushed, and that things “didn’t smell right.”

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” said Wexler. “I felt that there was something inappropriate that had occurred in the process and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

Broward’s proposed new ethics code would curb the commission’s role in handing out such lucrative government contracts by barring – as a conflict of interest – commissioners from serving on county procurement committees.

Denver-based CH2M Hill protested the county’s selection of its competitors with claims that the process was tainted by misinformation, conflicts of interest, and the improper demands of commissioners/committee members – but lost.

CH2M Hill did not appeal. Instead, Lasswell wrote county purchasing director Brenda J. Billingsley in late December to rebut her denial “lest our silence be interpreted as acquiescence.”

Lasswell accused Billingsley and the county of ignoring “grave and verifiable” defects with the selection process identified by CH2M Hill in its formal protest. He said those flaws “called into question the integrity of the selection process.”

Billingsley did not respond to Broward Bulldog’s request for comment.

But a spokesman for PBS&J said Broward’s procurement system worked well.

“Broward County’s response to CH2M Hill refutes that the process was flawed and confirms that the selection process was done properly,” said Jorge Martinez of The Conroy Martinez Group in Coral Gables. “It is PBS&J’s position that the county, after a very careful process, chose the most qualified team to do the work.”

CH2M Hill contends it lost the south runway job after being made a scapegoat for the botched construction of an airport taxiway that began to rut shortly after it was finished in 2008. Repairs will likely cost several million dollars. 

The company says that while the selection process was underway, county airport expansion director Greg Recht improperly influenced a pair of county inquiries into what went wrong on the taxiway project, and then forwarded misinformation about CH2M Hill’s responsibility to the selection committee that would pick a designer for the south runway. It also claims the county has turned a blind eye to the matter.

Recht declined to comment.

CH2M Hill designed the taxiway. Triple R Paving – which is suing the county and CH2M Hill – handled construction. URS Corp. was the program manager responsible for quality assurance, hiring Bureau Veritas NA to do the job.

In a written protest, CH2M Hill officials said fingers began to point their way when they sought the design contract for the south runway, and that the county stacked the deck against their company.

CH2M Hill says, for example, that while the south runway design contract was pending the county retained Bureau Veritas – the company that handled quality assurance on the taxiway – and another firm to find the cause of the taxiway pavement problems.

Likewise, a senior project manager from PBS&J – its competitor for the south runway project – was allowed to assist in the taxiway evaluation. The manager, Joseph Duarte, was URS’s construction project manager on the problematic taxiway before he joined PBS&J.

That evaluation blamed CH2M Hill for a poor design and specifying an inadequate type of asphalt.

A second evaluation by another company was ordered in apparent response to CH2M Hill’s complaints. It found no “significant” fault with CH2M Hill’s pavement design, but did conclude its specified asphalt binder was a contributing cause of the rutting, according to CH2M Hill’s protest letter.

CH2M Hill contends that as the selection process on the new runway neared an end last September, county officials demanded it indemnify the county for the cost of taxiway repairs.

“There is simply no denying the county’s position: pay the entire cost of fixing the problems at Taxiway C even though you did not cause them, and you will get favorable treatment in the selection process,” Lasswell wrote.

“Conduct like this is unprecedented in our experience,” Lasswell told commissioners. “It is our hope that the county’s citizens will demand a complete overhaul of the current flawed process for selecting county contractors.”

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5 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Valigator says:

    I am very curious as to who and how the contract of the new Broward County Courthouse is going to be handled…citizens will go thru this one with a fine tooth comb. Many of us are not savvy when it comes to these contracts. It sure would be nice if the Broward Bulldog would help us watch this project. Broward Residents are intent that this project be handled to put the carpenters, electricians, painters etc..back to work. We also dont intend to be drained by delays and cost over-runs…the runway expansion project was the “poster child” for how NOT to do business. We want “citizens” involved in this project not a high rise of illegal workers. If they cant come in on a budget that puts the residents and TAXPAYERS back to work..this is a project that doesnt need to be funded..

  2. Truth Speaker says:

    Two words: SOUR GRAPES. If the PBS&J team contributed more to campaigns than CH2M Hill, too bad. CH2M Hill had the same opportunity. By the way, contributing to campaigns is NOT illegal. To imply that PBS&J “bought” this job is just plain ridiculous. PBS&J/RS&H were selected for this work because they were the most qualified team. They’ve successfully completed runway assignments just like this one all over the country. The reason PBS&J was selected was because THEY COULD BUILD IT FASTER AND CHEAPER THAN CH2M HILL! Period.

  3. Valigator says:

    Oh yea..well I beg to differ..Build it faster and cheaper? surely you jest. How can a worker with a backhoe “accidently” bust up the fuel lines in a parking garage and shut the entire thing down for days and call out hazmat teams? I’ll bet that cost the county plenty..you fail to mention the never-ending design changes and cost over-runs..or the CEO being indicted for fraud …what you think if you say it enough times people wont notice what a debachle this project as been? I dont care who’s campaign they contributed too..but why would they have to if the company was as stellar as you say it is? Campaign contributions and Contract awards stink from the neck down..one should never be aligned with the other..

  4. CH2M - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde says:

    CH2M is now offically schizophrenic and just plain hypocritical. Instead of fessing up to their own errors and mistakes, they blame not being hired because of politics. Come on CH2M – look in the mirror. Fix your own house CH2M. Robert Card of CH2M was on the infamous Dick Cheney Energy Task Force Committee which exchanged CH2M’s political contributions for being able to influence the US’ debacle energy policy and obtain DOD contracts in Iraq. Even locally within its Colorado headquarters, CH2M blackballed one of its own executives of 25 years (Huntsinger) when he refused to unethically influence the award of a huge design/build contract. CH2M got caught and instead of fessing up, they purposely stretched out the case until the main players were dead and Huntsinger’s estate was drained to fund legal fees. CH2M’s argument was that even though they attempted to unduly influence the award of a public contract, what they did was not illegal in Colorado (although industry experts called it blatantly unethical). CH2M – a house of cards or a glass house? – Either way, stay away.

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