State picks builder for UM arena; Construction firm hired top executive of Stadium Authority; 'Glaring conflict'; Hoffman recuses self from final vote on $107 million facility


A company that has hired the Maryland Stadium Authority's top executive was picked yesterday to manage construction of the agency's biggest project, a $107 million sports arena at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The stadium authority said its selection of Gilbane Building Co. had nothing to do with the pending move of Executive Director Bruce H. Hoffman, who is scheduled to resign April 13 and join Gilbane four days later as a regional vice president based in Laurel.

Hoffman recused himself from the unanimous vote, which was conducted by conference call.

However, Gilbane's selection for the no-bid contract was criticized by Common Cause/Maryland, a citizen lobby group that argues for stronger ethics rules.

"You have a glaring conflict of interest that you would have to be dead not to see and no mechanism for accountability," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director.

The contract goes before the Board of Public Works today. If it is approved, Gilbane will manage the arena project in a partnership with Sherman R. Smoot Co. of Virginia, a minority-owned contractor. The fee has not been calculated because it is based on a percentage of future personnel costs.

Hoffman, who oversaw the construction of the two-stadium Camden Yards complex, accepted the Gilbane job in September and has since avoided any internal discussion of the project, he said.

John O'Donnell, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said Maryland law permanently bars a person from working on a project for a private company that he or she began while a state worker. However, the worker is free to pursue new projects on behalf of a private employer, said O'Donnell, speaking generally and declining to comment on Hoffman in particular.

Hoffman said that if necessary, he will line up another executive to oversee building the arena. "I told Gilbane when they hired me that I may not be able to get near that project," he said.

Wes Cotter, Gilbane's director of communication, also said that Hoffman will not be involved. He was hired for his expertise in building sports facilities to help develop that business for the firm. His territory will cover the company's Eastern projects, including Maryland, Cotter said. Gilbane is one of the nation's largest construction companies, based in Providence, R.I.

Stadium Authority Chairman John Brown said yesterday's vote for Gilbane was a natural outgrowth of its earlier work. "Unless they really screw up, you continue with them," he said. "They have done an excellent job."

Gilbane was picked in 1998 to do preliminary management for the project from among bidders by a committee made up of four voting members, two each from the university and stadium authority. Hoffman was one of the stadium authority representatives on the committee.

The contract specified that Gilbane would be in line for managing the construction of the project, if the state chose to fully fund it. Yesterday's vote extended and expanded the contract.

The project has won the support of key lawmakers and is expected to be approved in the coming weeks.

Brown described Hoffman as "beyond reproach" and said, "There hasn't even been the slightest impropriety."

But Skullney, with Common Cause/Maryland, said Hoffman should have resigned from the stadium authority when he accepted a position with Gilbane.

One lawmaker said he was troubled by the transaction, although he was convinced of Hoffman's personal integrity.

The state has given the stadium authority the power "to do just about anything it wants," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican. "These people basically make up the rules as they go along, and this can lead to a lack of public confidence," said Flanagan, a member of the appropriations committee.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee capital budget subcommittee, said, "I don't see where that poses any ethical problems at all."

He said he was more troubled by the steady rise in the cost of the arena. University officials estimated in 1996 that replacing Cole Field Housewould cost about $81 million. A year later, the estimate had grown to $106 million, a figure the legislature said was too high.

Despite efforts to scale back the project, the cost grew to $125 million after detailed plans were drawn last year. Of that, about $18 million will pay for roadway and parking improvements.

Middleton said agencies should come up with firm figures before money is spent in preliminary work. "We've gone down this route with a number of projects where we start out without a firm estimate," he said.

According to estimates developed by the stadium authority, the university is now responsible for raising $47 million. The state will be asked to foot the remaining $78 million, well more than the $35 million once projected.

About $5 million of the additional cost is attributed to the red-hot state of the construction industry. About $12 million is due to revised assumptions and the need to make the arena compatible with the campus.

Yet the project is unlikely to be derailed given its support by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Sun staff writer Thomas Waldron contributed to this article.

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