Keep in mind, bloggers in Minnesota have broken a countless number of stories that the mainstream media has buried or ignored.
Remember Bachmann and Iran anyone?
I received an email a few days ago from a Tinklenberg staffer pimping the Startribune story titled "Money vs. safety at MnDOT: Flying into Danger Zone".
In April 2004, MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau decided to open up the airport's safety zones, overruling the recommendations of the agency's own experts, who had warned that such a change would be dangerous. Molnau's decision, which reversed the stance of her predecessor at MnDOT, cleared the way for more than $1 billion worth of new commercial real-estate development south of the airport.
I agree, this is a very serious issue and Tinklenberg did the right thing by advocating for the safety of the public.
After the Tinklenberg campaign used this as campaign fodder, Air America radio bit as well. Mark Heaney had Tinklenberg on and proceeded to praise him for his work at MnDOT, citing the Startibune story.
One local blog (gasp, not ANOTHER blog), picked up on this as well.
In 2003, the same Startribune ran a series on the Minnesota Department of Transportation titled "Inside MnDOT".
The first story ran on January 19, 2003 and was titled "MnDOT swerves around the law; Agency flouted rules on consultants."
When the Minnesota Department of Transportation lost a $17-an-hour employee, it quickly hired her as a $100-an-hour consultant and gave her a string of contracts, despite repeated warnings from regulators that others should have been considered for the work.
When MnDOT was in a hurry to clean up a site that was to become a maintenance yard for the state's first light-rail line, it put an engineering firm to work without having a binding contract or money in place, admittedly violating state law.
Gotta love no-bid contracts!
A review of tens of thousands of government e-mails, memos and other documents shows that MnDOT often has avoided competition when awarding consulting contracts, has doubled or even tripled payments without bids and has broken laws by putting consultants to work before deals were approved or even funded.
Behind the scenes, state regulators have criticized such practices for years, describing the agency as a bully running roughshod over efforts to ensure fair contracting. Auditors, too, have criticized the way MnDOT handles consultants.
Where was the accountability? The Startibune articles paint a picture that is in complete contrast with what the Tinklenberg campaign put on this past week, and what AM 950 Air America radio aired on Monday.
Governor Pawlenty appointed former State Senator Carol Molnau as the MnDOT commissioner, promising to reform the powerful state agency.
Pawlenty named Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau to double as the agency's new commissioner. As a legislator, Molnau accused MnDOT of misrepresenting costs for the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail line and resisting scrutiny. During last year's campaign, she promised "major reforms."
Pawlenty failed on his campaign promise to bring forth major reforms to MnDOT.
Molnau has failed as well, as evidenced by the Sonia Pitt saga.
Anyone remember Carolyn Bacon?
MnDOT managers liked Bacon, who worked for them as an employee-development
specialist in the early 1990s. About five months after leaving that $17.25-an-hour job in 1993, she returned part time as a $100-an-hour consultant, running meetings, planning retreats and reorganizing staff. She has received contracts worth $266,270, MnDOT records show.
Minnesota law forbids the hiring of consultants for jobs exceeding $5,000 if state employees are available. In addition, even small contracts are supposed to go through an informal bidding process. Heather Pickett, a contract watchdog for the Minnesota Department of Administration, questioned Bacon's contracts in 2000.
"It appears that Mn/DOT is giving a great deal of this type of work just to Ms. Bacon, especially when there are other people, as well as state employees, who could perform this work. Fair and open competition is the goal when selecting contractors," she wrote in a memo to the agency.Pickett, a lawyer and former MnDOT employee herself, wrote that in the future, MnDOT would need to explain why it chose Bacon and whether competitors were sought.
Soon after, a $66,100 contract of Bacon's was due to expire. The agency wanted her to continue working so she could help in a staff reorganization. Pickett said she told the department to seek proposals from competitors.
MnDOT did. But meanwhile, it hired Bacon on a separate, no-bid, $5,000 contract to lead a retreat for managers who were planning the reorganization. Four days after the retreat ended, the department chose Bacon for a new contract worth $67,000.
The Administration Department, acting on a tip from a MnDOT source, looked into the contract. It found that:
Weeks before the proposal was put out for bids, a MnDOT employee already had described the project in her notes as "Carolyn's Contract."
The story indicates that the problems in MnDOT were evident before Tinklenberg became MnDOT Commissioner. However, the story also indicates that Tinklenberg simply played along with the "good ole boys network". Running on holding someone else accountable is pretty easy, especially after you yourself have not been held accountable.
And about those "no bid contracts".
One type of arrangement criticized by both regulators and auditors is the single-source contract in which an agency seeks to hire a contractor without competitive bids.
The law allows no-bid contracts if state employees cannot do the jobs and the selected firms are the only ones reasonably available for the work.
But Administration regulators have complained that MnDOT frequently has sought permission to handpick its consultants as much as 41 percent of the time in 2000 often with insufficient reasons.
41% of the consulting contracts in 2000 were "handpicked"?
The Startribune cites one example, one of many that they could have cited.
The Star Tribune analyzed two MnDOT databases with nearly 2,100 consulting contracts. The analysis found 150 cases in which the value of amendments equaled or exceeded the amounts of the original contracts. Some involved relatively small deals, such as a $2,590 engineering contract that increased by $11,410. Others were much larger, such as a $750,000 materials testing contract that increased by $2.1 million.
One example involves Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. (SEH) of St. Paul. In 1998, the department signed a three-year, $750,000 contract with SEH for road-design services. Two years into the contract, it tagged on an amendment for $750,000, citing the heavy workload.
It was among eight SEH contracts with supplements exceeding 60 percent of their original value. Taken together, the original contracts were worth $3.6 million, and the supplements added $3.3 million.
Generally speaking, state law allows agencies to amend contracts to order unexpected, related work or to deal with emergencies that involve public health and safety. MnDOT officials say they expand contracts out of necessity, generally to deal with unexpected problems or to avoid costly construction delays.
But regulators and auditors have noted that the practice can be used to skirt competitive-bidding requirements. They also say that supplements can be a sign that firms are allowed to bid low to win contracts and compensate with no-bid amendments.
The story also points out that the total for the 2,100 contracts that were amended was $731 million with the actual amendments totalling $422 million. Amendments to the original contracts more than doubled the compensation.
Something seems wrong with that to me, and surely the taxpayers of Minnesota would feel this way as well.
The series, which I will post the remainder in future posts, paints a much less rosy picture of MnDOT under Tinklenberg than the recent Strib story that the Tinklenberg campaign and AM 950 Air America report.
While Molnau and Pawlenty have failed on campaign promises to "fix MnDOT", the Strib stories indicate that Tinklenberg simply "went along to get along".