The much-maligned art of stonewalling resurfaced in Annapolis this past week. We have not seen much of this art form in recent times. But officials from the Maryland State Lottery Agency gave a fine example of this age-old technique.
State officials don't usually try to zip their lips when speaking before legislative committees. They know it's unwise, that lawmakers can easily get back at them by slashing their budget (or a more recent vendetta tactic -- deleting an offending bureaucrat's personal identification number from the budget, i.e., firing the poor soul).
What transpired before the Joint Task Force on Maryland's Procurement Law -- a high-powered panel of House-Senate leaders -- would have been termed a "modified, limited hangout" in the Nixonian Watergate days. Rather than discuss the uncomfortable controversy surrounding the Lottery Agency's award of a keno contract to the GTECH Corp., agency officials essentially said "no comment."
They produced a letter from the lottery director (who had been told by the governor's office not to attend) claiming collective amnesia.
Because records relating to lottery contracts were subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's office, the director said the agency was "unable to provide substantive comments" or even discuss a factual analysis of these contracts by a legislative analyst.
The three blind mice at the hearing conformed to the director's guidelines. Though at least one of them had first-hand knowledge of the contract controversies, they all clammed up.
Deputy Director of Marketing Martin Goldman did what little talking there was. He claimed, as did the letter from his boss, that the process was valid because keno is an "on-line game" and that the agency, by regulation, had legalized such "on-line" games.
It was the equivalent of taking the Fifth Amendment before Congress -- "I refuse to answer on the grounds it may tend to incriminate me" -- only this time it wasn't an individual who stood to be incriminated but the Lottery Agency itself.
These keno and lottery contracts were highly controversial and highly politicized. Yet agency officials, in essence, maintained their collective memory of events had been wiped out by the federal subpoena.
Sen. John A. Cade pretty much summed up how committee members felt when he noted in disgust, "I think the whole thing stinks."
Del. Joseph F. Vallario suggested the Lottery Agency had taken upon itself more authority than the legislature had delegated to it.
House Majority Leader Bruce Poole said there'd be another round before the committee because, "I just find it hard to believe" lottery officials "can't explain" why they made the keno contract an "emergency" and "sole-source" contract so they could strike a deal immediately with GTECH.
The stonewalling worked in frustrating task force members. But lawmakers could gain the last word. If anything, the intransigence of the Lottery Agency reinforced the determination lawmakers to crack down on the way the state doles out contracts.
An impartial inspector general's office could be created to oversee all contract awards. Some of the fancy legal footwork used to avoid the normal competitive bidding process could be outlawed. Some of the politics in these big contract awards could be removed.
The keno and the lottery awards are by far the most controversial contracts of the Schaefer years but certainly not the only examples of a procurement process run amok.
Officials told lawmakers they don't even have an accurate count of the total number of state contracts for goods and services. The Board of Public Works handled 1,200 procurement awards last year worth $1 billion. Countless others bypassed the board's scrutiny.
There is no monitoring of contracts, no uniform training of procurement officials and no consistent supervision. There isn't even a uniform internal auditing law for all state agencies (the governor has twice vetoed such a law).
Here's another recent example. In awarding a $10 million contract to replace the government's telephone switchboard system, officials used such bizarre procedures that an appeals board overturned the award.
The winning bidder didn't even meet the specifications laid out by the state. The computation of the bidders' monetary proposal was so flawed that when the appeals board requested a revised tally of the "best price" rankings, the state couldn't provide one that satisfied the board. And the state ranked the bidders based on such odd criteria as their addresses, telephone numbers and federal identification numbers.
In a "do it now" administration, the tendency to rush through a contract so a project can get moving right away is tempting. If a controversy arises over a contract award, the tendency is to circle the wagons and defend to the death what has been done -- even if errors clearly have been made.
Legislators are beginning to recognize the damage that such manipulation does. As Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg told the committee last week, "if there is a perception of something wrong, it is detrimental to the public's view of government. We have to protect our credibility and integrity."
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.