Quin Hillyer: On new terminal, questions must be aired

Something foul may be in the air.

The biggest, most important New Orleans-area public contract in years, a $546 million project for a new terminal at the Louis Armstrong International Airport, seems on the verge of going to an international partnership over a significantly local bidder. Yet the local bidder’s proposal, by ordinary public contracting criteria, looked substantially better, based on costs.

Indeed, the whole process has been rife with inconsistencies. The New Orleans Aviation Board, which is scheduled to meet Monday to decide on the award, instead should delay the decision for one more month so it, and outside observers, can fully and publicly examine the complex issues involved.

The “international” bidder is Parsons Odebrecht, a partnership between companies from California and Brazil. It would, however, hire several respected local subcontractors — as would the four-way partnership known as Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro, with local firms together owning a 45 percent stake in the consortium while Hunt Construction Group, from Indianapolis, would take the lead.

Without in any way claiming to judge the merits of the competing proposals, New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head told me, “Local ownership and management is an important factor to consider — if all else is equal. It means the profits will be recycled through the community many times.”

A special, 11-person Review Committee originally gave both bidding groups identical scores of 999 of 1,100 possible points, based on a semi-objective assessment formula. Upon a reassessment, the committee docked the locally owned group an additional 43 points, while adding six points to Parsons Odebrecht, thus recommending the international partnership for the contract.

The locals filed a formal protest, which seems to have considerable merit. They say they should have won handily in the first assessment. First, they noted that two of the Review Committee members had awarded both bidders the same score on “cost,” even though the locals would be able to provide some $14 million more in “hard construction” dollars. Crediting the locals with that cost advantage alone — in most bids (but not this one), the decisive factor by law — would have broken the tie and earned the contract.

The bigger issue, though, is that the committee docked the locals a whopping 33 points (compared to the Parsons bid) for lack of proper certification for its “DBEs” (disadvantaged business enterprises). The penalty was patently unfair. The locals did indeed have the certification they had been told they needed, based on specific language in a 2012 letter from Phyllis Ferrand, the airport’s DBE liaison officer, that the “firm’s certification will also be recognized by all DBE programs administered by the city of New Orleans … (and) all entities receiving federal transportation funding within the boundaries of our state.”

That’s rather definitive, but the Review Committee appeared not to understand that the “error” stemmed from the airport’s official herself. It was only after the bids were in that the DBE office withdrew that letter and replaced it with one saying that a second, different type of certification was needed.

The locals quickly thereafter secured the second certification — but only after having already been docked 33 points for a technical error not their own fault.

Oddly enough, in the second assessment round, after the “error” had been clearly corrected and although they were fully compliant with all DBE requirements, the locals still were given back only five of the 33 points they had lost. Meanwhile — and this is where things get really hairy — the committee suddenly deducted from the locals’ proposal an astonishing 48 points for other factors that, on examination, don’t stand scrutiny. Space doesn’t permit a full airing; suffice it to say that some Review Committee members’ judgments about the bidding firms’ relative experience and credit-worthiness run directly — indeed, extravagantly — at odds with the official ratings by the Engineering News-Record, the industry’s gold standard, and with the official “bonding” letters submitted by each bidder.

In all, three committee members alone docked the locals a total of 39 points between the first and second assessments. Those three were Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant and two city employees who report to Grant, Laverne McSwain and William Gilchrist. As The New Orleans Advocate reported days later, Grant 10 years ago actually worked in a key position for Parsons. The Landrieu administration rightly notes that the past relationship breaks no formal ethics law — but the relationship obviously could help stack the deck. When it is those three committee members, and only those three, who graded Parsons’ dramatically higher, well … even individuals honestly trying to do the right thing can have their vision skewed by pre-existing biases or professional friendships.

Meanwhile, it’s also worth looking at some of the other, deep political connections between the administration and some subcontractors working with Parsons.

Landrieu’s spokesman, Tyler Gamble, as part of a larger statement, said, “We are confident in the fairness of this process and we look forward to getting to work on this important project.” His confidence may turn out to be well placed. But the Review Committee’s work is, by law, important but technically advisory. The Aviation Board members actually have the final say. They should take the extra time to do a full assessment themselves, because the Review Committee’s diligent work was nonetheless so fraught with oddities.

Note: Earlier this year, before I began writing a weekly political column for The Advocate, I qualified as a candidate for the Alabama Republican Executive Committee, an unpaid position on a 300-plus-member body that advises party leadership on internal rules and procedures. I was elected to a seat on the committee earlier this week. Recognizing concerns that this small party role might somehow affect my writings on politics, and wishing it not to become a distraction from my commentary work, I will not assume such a committee seat while writing for The Advocate.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com.