NOTE: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described Franklin Law Group's ranking in the bidding. The article below notes that the group was ranked first overall and fourth in technical merit.
Gov. Martin O'Malley absorbed a rare drubbing in his personal political playground Wednesday as he found himself on the losing end of a 2-1 vote by the Board of Public Works.
The defeat on the proposed award of a contract for children's legal services came as Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who normally votes with the governor on contested items, joined Comptroller Peter Franchot in voting to send the matter back to the Department of Human Resources with a suggestion that it re-examine how it chooses providers of such services.
O'Malley has not had many cases in which he's lost a vote on the three-member board, which has the final approval role over most large state contracts. Spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said he also dissented at the last meeting in July over whether to defer a decision involving a Frederick County nursing home. But she couldn't recall another case in which he had been outvoted since taking office in 2007.
Wednesday's defeat came on a more substantive matter as the board in effect rejected an executive department's contract award after the procurement process was completed.
O'Malley's loss was a victory for the nonprofit Legal Aid Bureau Inc., which would have seen its share of what are known as Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) cases decrease from its current level.
The bureau's supporters at the meeting contended that the department put too much emphasis on price at the expense of quality of representation -- a contention vigorously disputed by the bidders who were ranked higher.
Legal Aid was ranked No. 1 on technical merit in all of the state's larger counties but made the most expensive offers in each case. For instance, in Baltimore Legal Aid came in first on the technical score but put in the most expensive of the nine bids -- more than twice the cost of the low bidder -- Franklin Law Group Inc., which ranked fourth out of nine in technical merit and first overall.
According to Human Resources Secretary Ted Dallas, the department gave equal weight to technical merit and price in ranking the bidders. Under that ranking, Legal Aid -- the dominant provider in the field for decades -- would have lost its contracts in Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and would have seen its role in Baltimore city reduced.
The department proposed that the board approve children's legal assistance contracts in 14 jurisdictions and extend the contracts for six months while Legal Aid and another bidder took their case to the Board of Contract Appeals.
Legal Aid mounted a fierce counterattack at the board meeting, urging the panel to require the department to exercise a two-year option it had previously declined to invoke.
"A cheap thing is not good and a good thing is not cheap," said Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.
The implication that they were offering inferior representation brought a stinging response from higher-ranked bidders.
Stephanie Franklin of the Franklin Law Group told the board she has just as much experience and passion for the work as Legal Aid lawyers and is offering the state a better deal.
"Legal Aid would like to have everybody in this room believe they are the only ones qualified to do this work," she said. "I don't need to gouge the state to do my work."
Franchot, who usually ends up on the losing side of 2-1 votes by the board, argued that the process the department used to award the contract was inappropriate for providing legal services for children.
"You're putting a square peg in a round hole here," he said. "This procurement process we have right now is just not suited to this situation."
A clearly exasperated O'Malley fought back, telling his fellow board members that "it becomes a mess when you change the rules at the end of the procurement process."
In the end, Kopp came down on Franchot's side as they passed a motion to return the matter to the department with the "suggestion" that it consider a contract extension or some other change to the procurement process.
"I really am concerned that we look at the process of the state obtaining education and social services and that we recognize that it's not the same as (procurement) of commodities contracts," she said after the meeting.
Dallas said it was too soon to say what his department's response would be.
"Our next step is to huddle up and figure out how we can comply with the board's order," he said.
Franklin said she was "completely and utterly disgusted" that the board rejected the contract after she prevailed in the bidding for Baltimore and Baltimore County.
"This isn't about children any more. This is being politically bullied," she said. "Legal Aid is a nonprofit organization that is a huge corporation that is the Goliath and we're the David."
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