Now You're Talking Security!

Art Teele wanted agenda item 6(A)9 dispensed with, and quickly. While his colleagues on the Dade County Commission shuffled through papers at their June 21 meeting, the chairman was already calling for a vote on the item, which authorized the commission to award a five-year, $35 million security contract for Metrorail and Metromover directly to the current provider, Coral Gables-based security giant Wackenhut.

Henry Sturm, district manager of Burns Security, a Wackenhut competitor, could hardly believe what he was hearing. Just six months ago he had felt sure his company would win the contract. This past October, after all, the county had issued a formal Invitation to Bid, which guaranteed that the job would be awarded to the bidder who managed to meet all the county's requirements at the lowest price. And in January County Manager Joaquin Avino had recommended Burns, whose bid not only satisfied the 82 pages of specifications, but beat Wackenhut's price by nearly one million dollars per year.

But the commission had thrown out all the bids this past spring, at the urging of Teele and Miguel de la Portilla, chairman of the transportation committee. A story in the April 21 New Times examined that debacle, in which commissioners had ordered the issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP), over the objections of General Services Administration director Victor Monzon-Aguirre. Unlike the bidding process, an RFP allowed commissioners to choose the firm they believed to be most qualified, regardless of price.

Though Sturm had been furious when the original bids were thrown out, he was still eager to submit a proposal. Not only was the Metrorail job the most lucrative security contract in Dade history, but it had the added benefit of a high profile. At dozens of rail stations, a total of 150 guards were to be deployed, each amounting to a walking billboard for his or her boss.

When he arrived at the June 21 meeting, Sturm was fully aware Teele and his fellow commissioners favored Wackenhut, which had supplied guards for Metrorail since 1989 -- including an extension after the original contract expired in December 1992. But believing the RFP process was still in place, he figured Burns still had a shot. He was wrong. Unbeknownst to him, Avino had that very day issued a recommendation advising commissioners not to send out an RFP at all, but to award the contract directly to Wackenhut. When Teele called for a vote on the motion, Sturm rushed to the podium to address the commission.

"If this contract is awarded to Wackenhut, it will be for political reasons," he sputtered. "Not because there are no other qualified companies."

Lobbyists for two other security companies whose original bids had also been lower than Wackenhut's followed. Luis Rojas, a state representative from Hialeah, represented Command Security; Chris Korge was the lobbyist for Federal Protective Services. Both, in turn, demanded the county compensate their clients. "We spent tens of thousands of dollars preparing bids and now you're throwing all that out," Korge complained.

Nevertheless, the measure passed easily.
Two days later, at a followup commission meeting, Korge again raised objections. "There is no motion to reconsider the issue," Teele said.

"Then I want to talk about damages," Korge answered.
"You can talk about damages with the lawyers," Teele snapped. "We're not going to hold a trial in here."

There may be a trial at some point, however. All three companies that were passed over are considering legal action against the county, and all three are still wondering how the selection process could seem so openly biased toward one firm. "The whole thing stinks," says one executive who requested anonymity, fearing that openly criticizing the county might backfire should his firm bid on future contracts. "You've got the county virtually handing $35 million to a powerful, local firm."

"It's safe to say that we're considering our legal options," adds Ned Lewis, one of Burns's corporate counsel.

The accusations of favoritism toward Wackenhut are not limited to Wackenhut's rivals. Privately, county staffers have voiced the same suspicions.

Teele says such allegations are ludicrous. "I don't even have a close relationship to Wackenhut," he says. The decision to bypass the RFP and award the contract to Wackenhut was the county manager's recommendation, not his, Teele points out, and adds that he in no way influenced Avino in the process. "I never met with the manager or his staff, not once, before or after his recommendation," Teele stresses.

The commission chairman also stands emphatically behind the choice of Wackenhut. "It is possible that another company could have performed the service, [but] what people don't understand is that this contract has little to do with security," says Teele. "It's about public service, and Wackenhut is phenomenal in this regard."

Frank Martin, assistant director of rail operations for the Metro-Dade Transit Authority, is one of the high-ranking county staffers who forwarded the recommendation to Avino. He is vague when discussing why MDTA urged the commission to exclude all bidders besides Wackenhut. "The report [to Avino] was based on the level of service each firm could provide," Martin says. "Wackenhut was the only firm providing that high a caliber of service in the transport industry." He adds that he is unaware of any complaints regarding the awarding of the contract.