The former head of a state transportation program for the disabled testified yesterday that she promoted a politically well-connected lobbyist to a potential service provider on her own initiative and not at the direction of higher-ups in state government.
In her first public comments on the matter, Ruth Silverstone, former head of the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility van and cab service, said she has no regrets about suggesting that the bidder hire Republican lobbyist Lee Cowen.
Her recommendation, which might have violated state ethics law, has been repudiated by her superiors in the Department of Transportation and the governor's office.
"I was passing along information," said Silverstone, who was transferred to a new job Jan. 15.
Silverstone testified during a hearing before the state Board of Contract Appeals on Yellow Transportation Inc.'s claim that the MTA's October choice of vendors for a $43 million transit contract was biased. In particular, Yellow is alleging that Silverstone used her position as chairwoman of the committee that evaluated the bidders' technical proposals to tip the scales in favor of its rivals.
The MTA recommended that the Board of Public Works award the contract to Laidlaw Transit Services of Overland Park, Kan., and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif. Yellow, the Baltimore-based incumbent vendor, contended that the chosen vendors had had inappropriate communications with members of the committees that evaluated them.
Lydia B. Hoover, a lawyer for Yellow, focused on an Oct. 27 e-mail from Silverstone to Laidlaw executive Kim Chin in which she told him that MV had hired a lobbyist and that Laidlaw might want to do the same.
"Lee Cowen is a good guy. You may want to contact him," Silverstone wrote.
The longtime state official said that at the time she made the "suggestion" - which she distinguished from a "recommendation" - she did not know Cowen, a friend of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Silverstone said she arrived at the conclusion that Cowen was a "good guy" based on a phone conversation with Catherine F. Iacobazzi, an employee of Cowen's lobbying firm.
Iacobazzi declined to be interviewed because the matter is the subject of litigation. Cowen would not comment except to note that at the time of Silverstone's e-mail he had been retained by MV and that taking Laidlaw as a client would have been a conflict of interest.
Under questioning from Hoover, Silverstone said she had not talked with Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan or Deputy Secretary Trent M. Kittleman about her suggestion.
The former administrator of the much-criticized Mobility program said there were times when she did not comply with her signed pledge to have no direct contact with bidders during the contract procurement process.
However, she said, "it had no impact on the evaluation process."
Silverstone said that in some cases she failed to report contacts by Chin to the procurement officer, which is required by her signed agreement. In some cases, she said, the e-mails were not related to her role in the evaluation of bidders.
In testimony last week, procurement officer Mark Pemberton testified that dozens of Silverstone's communications with MV and Laidlaw executives were incompatible with the pledge she made as a member of an evaluation committee.
"I would say she would have broken that promise," Pemberton said last week.
Time after time yesterday, Hoover grilled Silverstone about whether she had deleted copies of e-mails that Pemberton earlier called inappropriate. Yellow's lawyers say that in many cases they received copies of e-mails from Laidlaw and MV through the discovery process but not from the MTA under the state public records law.
Silverstone said she didn't recall whether she had deleted many of the e-mails sought by Yellow.
Yellow filed a motion with the board yesterday asking it to hire a computer technician to determine whether deleted messages can be recovered from the MTA system. The agency opposed the motion, asserting that "it is a virtual certainty that no deleted e-mails [from last year] remain available for retrieval."