In a move that's been called unprecedented, USC canceled all bids to hire an architect for its new $90 million Moore School of Business so a donor could pick a design firm of her own choosing.

While no state spending rules were broken, four Columbia firms and their national partners spent months of labor and an estimated $100,000 each hoping to win the project before the school abruptly canceled the bids in a two-sentence memo sent April 2.

Instead, the business school's private foundation will pay an estimated $4 million or more to a New York firm chosen by the school's benefactor, Darla Moore.

Moore, a Lake City financier for whom the school is named, sits on the foundation board. The firm chosen, Raphael Vinoly Architects, was a finalist for the contract but was not going to win it, a source close to the bidding told The State newspaper.

The architect's fee will be a gift from the foundation, which is allowed under state procurement rules, according to the S.C. Budget & Control Board.

But the head of the S.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects called the last-minute canceling of the bids "unprecedented."

And one frequent critic of the university called it "an end run around the procurement process."

"People shouldn't deal with the university if they don't play by the rules," said Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council.

If private money is mingled with public money, the project should have to follow public rules, Landess said.

"There will be public money involved in this project," she said. "And a lot comes from other government sources. It's a symptom of a bigger problem: the university blurring the line between private and public money."

Moore, among the school's biggest donors, declined comment through a University of South Carolina spokeswoman.

A member of the USC Board of Trustees, Moore's donations to the business school -- $45 million in 2004 and $25 million in 1998 -- are the largest ever made to the school. Together, university officials said in 2004, the two donations constituted the largest private gift by a single donor to a U.S. business school.

In July, USC announced a $30 million match to Moore's 2004 gift.

A portion of those donations is going to build the new business school building on Greene Street near Colonial Life Arena in Columbia's Vista. It is expected to provide a much-needed boost for the USC's Innovista research campus, which has had construction and tenant recruitment struggles.

Former Gov. Jim Hodges, president of the business school's private foundation, said the foundation considered Moore's request to chose the building's architect reasonable.

"It's pretty straightforward from my standpoint," he said. "She gave $60 million for a world-class, iconic building that will bear her name. So we thought her request was pretty modest."

Hodges wouldn't comment on whether the process of choosing a firm was fair, saying he was not privy to it.

"I was just involved in the solution part of this," he said.

As for how the architectural bids compared, USC said it would not release details of the bidding process because "the deliberations of the selection committee are confidential," spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said.

"Canceling (bids) in general is not unusual," she added.

But Adrienne Montare, president of the South Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the architects expected one of them to receive the contract at the end of the day if they played by the rules.

"In the history of the AIA, it is a rare event that a project is advertised and that our members go though the process of trying to get shortlisted and to have that pulled from the public process," she said "I'm not sure there is a precedent in the state."

Montare said that while project bids have been canceled in the past because of funding problems, it is highly unusual for a project to be abandoned because of a donor's wishes.

She estimated the firms would have spent about $100,000 each preparing their proposals.

"It can be very, very expensive," she said. "And it's all done in hopes that you will be short-listed and the state procurement process will be adhered to."

Montare is married to Tom Savory, a principal in Watson Tate Savory, one of the firms vying for the project. She also once worked at the firm.

Michael Watson, another principal at Watson Tate Savory, declined comment last week.

The other local firms competing for the contract were LS3P Associates, The Boudreaux Group and the Garvin Design Group.