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Board of Public Works Pulls Controversial Transportation Contract from Agenda

A contract to oversee a massive transportation project was pulled from Wednesday’s Board of Public Works agenda, hours before a vote, after questions were raised about a top official’s relationship with the winning bidder and the process that was used to determine who should get the work.

The decision to pull the $68.5 million contract follows two days of media coverage and criticism of the proposal to have three firms — HNTB Corp., Parsons and JMT — jointly oversee the Hogan administration’s $9 billion plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn worked for HNTB for five years, as senior vice president, before entering state government. Rahn, a non-voting member of the panel that chose the three firms, signed a waiver of the state’s traditional procurement practices, including of a requirement that materials be made available to the public.

The Daily Record first reported on the proposed Maryland Department of Transportation contract on Monday.

“MDOT has withdrawn the contract from tomorrow’s Board of Public Works meeting to ensure that any questions members of the board have about the project are fully addressed,” Erin Henson, director of public affairs at the agency, said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters on Tuesday evening. “This project and the process involved is extremely complex, and the department is committed to working with the Board of Public Works, elected officials, and all stakeholders to make sure this transformative traffic relief initiative moves forward.”

Rahn’s ties to his former firm, which was slated to be the lead for the consortium, and the expedited process for selecting from among four bidders, had led to criticism of the agency.

“It is concerning that Secretary Rahn and MDOT waived the formal bid process and then apparently pushed Rahn’s former employer to the top of the application pool,” said James L. Shea (D), former chairman of Venable, the state’s largest law firm, and a candidate for governor.

“When this much taxpayer money is at stake, the public deserves to know whether the state has unethical and costly conflicts of interest,” added Shea, a former chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Said state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and another gubernatorial hopeful: “I am appalled by the ethical cloud surrounding this whole thing. … An enormous project like this needs to be carefully reviewed and debated before being voted on.”

Amelia Chasse, communications director for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), said “asking probing questions about procurements is why the Board of Public Works exists.”

“We support the department’s commitment to ensure that the state’s chief fiscal officers get all of the information they need to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely,” she said.

The Board of Public Works consists of Hogan, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

Rahn has cast the decision to be aggressive in pushing the highway contract through the approval process as a necessity, given the Washington, D.C., region’s notorious traffic backups and Amazon’s search for a second national headquarters, for which Montgomery County is a finalist.

In February, a top Hogan aide was forced to admit that Rahn “misspoke” when he said the state would be willing to write Amazon “a blank check” if it chooses Maryland for its new headquarters.

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Board of Public Works Pulls Controversial Transportation Contract from Agenda