Charleston airport board members tried to steer business to contractor
At least two Charleston County Aviation Authority board members tried to steer business to at least one contractor for a slice of the $200 million redevelopment of Charleston International Airport, according to an audiotape of a recent airport meeting.
The members were not identified. An executive from a firm that was seeking to become the construction administrator, when pressed publicly by an airport committee, said he had been contacted by “a couple” of board members to add specific subcontractors in its $4.3 million bid.
The issue is expected to be discussed today at the authority’s meeting. Chairman Andy Savage has pledged more transparency for the airport board. Savage also said he is opposed to board members interacting with contractors or vendors unless it’s in a public meeting forum, to avoid the specter of impropriety.
Last week, Savage said, “It could be troubling.” On Wednesday, after reviewing the meeting transcript, he said, “It’s probably not the best way to do business.”
He added, “There is no legal prohibition for a board member to contact a contractor, but the appearance can be misinterpreted. It’s better to do business through staff and through the board. Some board members think they have an individual right to contact contractors. I would hope we would change that.”
The issue arose at a March 11 meeting of the Aviation Authority’s Terminal Redevelopment and Improvement Plan committee. The discussion involved a principal of Michael Baker Corp., the firm hired to oversee management of the terminal project.
The committee is made up of several members of the airport authority and two representatives from outside agencies. Its role is to shepherd the massive makeover of the airport terminal.
According to an audiotape recording from that meeting, committee members, including former judge Larry Richter, questioned Bob Probst of Michael Baker Corp. about the firm’s contact by airport board members over additional work the company was bidding on.
“You said you were contacted by individual members as opposed to the authority as a whole. Is that what you are saying?” Richter asked.
“That’s what I said,” Probst said. “That they were (the) firms that they would like to see on there.”
When asked specifically about one subcontractor, Trident Construction LLC of North Charleston, that Michael Baker Corp. submitted as the firm to handle changes to construction orders, Probst said, “A couple of members of this authority said they would certainly recommend that firm.”
Airports Director Sue Stevens pointed out that Trident Construction was among the original firms to bid on the airport construction project, but was not selected.
“They are a competitor to Austin-Hitt,” she said of the partnering firms the airport chose to do its construction work. “It just does not seem to be appropriate.”
A Trident Construction representative said the firm was not contacted by a board member, but by a member of Michael Baker Corp.
“Noboby from the airport authority has contacted us,” Chappy McKay of Trident Construction said.
No one during the meeting asked the names of the board members involved.
Asked afterward if he would identify the members who contacted his company, Probst told The Post and Courier, “I don’t think that is relevant.”
He said his company picks its subcontractors based on merit.
“Our decisions are based on their ability to perform,” he said in a March 13 interview. “We received recommendations from staff on various firms to use also.”
Probst said the board members only suggested firms to “consider” using. “There is no pressure involved whatsoever,” he said.
Other attempts to find out the identity of the board members were unsuccessful.
Jim Fann, the airport’s deputy director of engineering and planning, said he never recommended any firm, but offered suggestions for possible local contractors for Probst’s company to check out.
Columbia-based Michael Baker Corp. submitted a proposal of $4.3 million for the construction administration contract, but the committee rejected it.
On a 3-2 vote, the redevelopment committee recommended that Fentress Architects of Colorado handle the work for $9.1 million. Those voting in favor were committee Chairman Hernan Pena and members Pat Waters and Mary Graham. Opposed were Spencer Pryor and Richter.
The full airport board will take up the issue at 10 a.m. today.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.