The High Cost of Low Bids

The county needs contractors to do its construction work. The contractors need minority subcontractors to satisfy county regulations. And taxpayers need an explanation.

At the investigative hearing, Pro-Built's Shendell told a starkly different version of what happened. Shendell said that in mid-July he and Adkins had reached a "tentative arrangement" to work together on future projects. And by the July 29 bid date, Shendell insisted, they had reached a firm agreement on the exact price and terms of this particular project. Shendell also testified that on July 30 he faxed to Adkins a detailed explanation of the proposed work and fees that had been submitted to Poole and Kent, and to Harry Pepper & Associates, on behalf of Consolidated Techniques. And when he called Adkins later that same day, Shendell recalled, Adkins assured him he would go to Poole and Kent's offices before the end of the day to sign their letter of intent. He never did.

At the hearing, Shendell questioned Adkins's claim that he knew nothing about the bid to Poole and Kent until Monday, August 2. Adkins testified that he received the fax from Shendell detailing the bid terms and price to P&K, but he insisted it arrived not on July 30, as Shendell said, but on August 2 -- only hours before the deadline. He said he felt pressured by Poole and Kent to sign without having adequate time to review the document. But the Shendell fax, it turns out, raises serious questions about Adkins's credibility. The actual document in question -- the three-page outline of exact bid terms and price faxed to Adkins and submitted as evidence at the hearing -- reveals the time and date it was transmitted from Pro-Built's offices to Adkins: July 30, 1993, at 2:15 p.m. "That's my paperwork that was sent to Mr. Adkins so he would know what our arrangement was," Shendell testified.

On that same day, Friday, July 30, the flurry of phone calls between Adkins, Shendell, and various officials from Poole and Kent may have been matched only by the sudden peripatetics of executives from the seeming second-place finisher, Harry Pepper & Associates. According to testimony at the August investigative hearing by Cuy Broome, executive vice president of Harry Pepper & Associates, he and David Pepper, the company's president, flew to Miami the day after the bid opening A Friday, July 30. The reason, he said, was "to get copies of various documents" pertaining to the project bidding. Strange behavior, implied Shendell at the hearing, for a firm whose bid was $2.3 million higher than the low bidder's and who therefore stood little chance of winning the contract. On Monday morning, Pepper executive Broome testified, he and David Pepper again flew to Miami, this time to meet with Adkins. Why the travel itch? To convince Adkins to sign their letter of intent in hopes that their firm would be awarded the contract despite Poole and Kent's lower bid. It worked: Adkins signed -- and Pepper and Associates eventually won the contract.

Under county rules, all contract bidders may submit signed letters of intent after bids are opened, thereby keeping themselves in the running should a lower bidder be disqualified. But in practice, say veteran contractors, this is done only occasionally. Said Shendell at the August hearing: "I find it kind of interesting that Harry Pepper's representatives flew down here, called my office at 8:00 Monday morning, tracking down my minority subcontractor... when they [Pepper] were [second bidders]."

Interesting, indeed. When Broome of Harry Pepper & Associates called Shendell Monday morning to discuss the project, Shendell told him not to waste his time because Poole and Kent was already declared the low bidder, and Adkins was going to sign with P&K A if, Shendell said, he hadn't already. Shendell testified that even up to early Monday afternoon he was unaware that Adkins was unhappy with the bid to Poole and Kent.

Broome and Pepper seized on that unhappiness. Rather than return to Jacksonville, Broome and Pepper testified, they met "for several hours" with Adkins on Monday, the deadline day. And by the end of the day Adkins had signed a letter of intent -- not with Poole and Kent, but with Harry Pepper & Associates.

Officials at Poole and Kent admitted later at the county-led hearing that they were infuriated by Adkins's refusal to sign and they realized they were in big trouble. Without a signed letter of intent, they would likely be ruled in "noncompliance" with county requirements, and the bid would go to the second bidder A Pepper & Associates, at a price $2.3 million higher than P&K's bid. As the 4:30 p.m. deadline approached on Monday, August 2, Poole and Kent vice president Bob Smith realized that Adkins's refusal jeopardized their entire bid. County records show that Smith faxed a quietly desperate letter that day to Al Duffie, a staff assistant with the Department of Business and Economic Development, the county agency that oversees the Black Business Enterprise Program. Smith's letter explained that Adkins had inexplicably refused to sign P&K's letter of intent. Smith also pleaded for a 48-hour extension to locate another black subcontractor and thus, salvage their bid. A copy of the letter was also faxed to the water and sewer department.

County records show that Duffie never responded to the letter, and no one authorized the two-day extension requested by Poole and Kent. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, August 4, two days after the letter of intent deadline, Poole and Kent finally submitted a signed letter of intent A from M.A.R.S. Plumbing Contractors, a black-owned and certified firm that Poole and Kent had worked with on previous projects.

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