San Diego- ‘no-bid’ Airport Contracts Investigated

December 4, 2005
By Jeff McDonald and David Hasemyer

San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre has opened a criminal investigation into 14 no-bid contracts approved by Tracy Means, the airports director forced from her job last month, The San Diego Union-Tribune has learned. Aguirre also said he will try to recover approximately $218,000 in public funds that were paid to the company that received the contracts over the past five years.

The city attorney launched the investigation after a departmental review of the contracts found that Means had repeatedly violated city rules regarding public contracts. The review also showed that airport employees had major concerns about the quality of the work.

One executive of the consulting firm, called Airport Business Solutions, is Roberta Thompson, who has served on an airport industry trade group committee alongside Means for years.

Each of the 14 contracts awarded to the company was approved by Means at a value just under $25,000, the amount where city guidelines require supervisory approval, according to the departmental investigation. The Union-Tribune obtained a copy of the report last week.

“Clearly there was an intent to circumvent the limitation rule,” Aguirre said Friday.

Means was forced to resign Nov. 14, one week after the Union-Tribune reported that she was under investigation for exceeding her authority by issuing contracts without the appropriate approvals. The newspaper also reported that Means established her own consulting firm last spring without informing her supervisors.

Means declined to comment on the departmental report or on Aguirre’s plans for a criminal investigation. She said she would stand by the statements she had made to departmental investigators for their report. Her home in Chula Vista was listed for sale Nov. 18.

Means had run the city Airports Division since 1997. She oversaw operations at Brown and Montgomery fields, municipal airports in Otay Mesa and Kearny Mesa that serve private planes, executive jets, helicopter services and other aviation-related businesses.<./P>

According to the report, she told the departmental investigators she had done nothing wrong. She said she thought she was allowed to approve all the contracts she had signed.

“Tracy Means also stated that ABS was not treated any differently than the other consultants or contractors,” the report said.

The city’s Department of General Services, which took over administration of the Airports Division on July 1, opened the fact-finding investigation into Means based on repeated complaints from airport users and tenants.

Investigators spent weeks interviewing city employees and reviewing records going back five-plus years.

They concluded that Means repeatedly exceeded her authority to issue contracts despite warnings from subordinates that the work should be put out to competitive bid.

Employees told investigators that when Means was confronted with the rule violations she insisted on splitting purchase orders so the amounts would remain below the $25,000 threshold.

“A competitive selection process did not occur in any of the 14 awards to ABS that Tracy Means requested and authorized,” the report said. “The evidence indicates that Tracy Means violated the competitive bid requirements . . . many times.”

In all, Means authorized up to $310,500 worth of contracts to ABS, according to the report. The company was paid $218,527. Means told investigators she chose ABS because she had worked with the company before she was hired in San Diego.

The investigation found that Airport Business Solutions continued to receive contracts even though numerous city employees had begun questioning the firm’s work among themselves.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, Means rated the company a 10, the report said. No one else interviewed for the report rated the quality of work better than 3.

“The written work from ABS was not that good,” one worker told investigators.

One city employee found that entire sections of a report ABS prepared for an Oregon airport were identical to sections in a report for the San Diego Airports Division.

The investigation also said few people at either airport ever saw anyone from ABS, and virtually no one implemented or even reviewed the business plans or other reports prepared by the company.

“With the exception of Tracy Means, every person interviewed criticized quality and specificity of their work product,” the report said.

Thompson, the ABS executive vice president, declined to discuss the criminal investigation or the pending civil litigation. She directed questions to the company president, Michael Hodges, who defended his firm’s work.

“It was never indicated to us by anybody within the city that our work product was substandard,” Hodges said. “If we had been told it was substandard, we would have done whatever it took to correct any deficiency.”

Hodges said his firm got the contracts because his people are experts in their field. He said there was nothing criminal about the number of contracts he received from the city. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Hodges said.

The chairman of the Airports Advisory Committee, Alan “Buzz” Fink, said the city may have missed out on a variety of development plans for the airports because all the consulting was limited to one company.

“I had serious concerns with the contracts and the way they were being awarded,” he said. “It made me wonder if the airport users and tenants were being served as well as they should be with these contracts.”

The fact-finding review that sparked Aguirre’s criminal investigation was completed Nov. 11, three days before Means was fired.

General Services director Mario Sierra refused to release the documents, insisting it was a personnel matter exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

Aguirre disagreed. He released a copy of the report to the newspaper Friday.

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