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Published: Thursday, 3/23/2006

ODOT suspends area official for rigged bidding

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A manager at the Ohio Department of Transportation's district office in Bowling Green has been suspended with pay for conspiring with area contractors to rig bids for emergency repairs at the district office and at maintenance garages in eight northwest Ohio counties.

John Gordon, the building maintenance supervisor at the district office, admitted to investigators that he set up a bogus bidding scheme to avoid competitive bidding requirements for repair or replacement of garage doors as well as small electrical, plumbing, and drywall work, according to ODOT documents obtained by The Blade.

"In my attempt to use the best contractors, give everyone a piece of the pie, and keep service areas close to the facilities, I have been using five contractors," Mr. Gordon stated in a written response to the charge. "I have provided a list of the contractors to the county managers and to my staff. They know who to call in the event of emergency repairs."

"This process has helped speed up the repairs," he is quoted as saying in an investigation interview transcript. "This was not done to benefit myself personally."

Mr. Gordon acknowledged using similar procedures for plumbing, electrical, and drywall work - though "not as frequently as with the door projects" - at facilities in ODOT District 2, which encompasses Lucas, Wood, Fulton, Henry, Ottawa, Sandusky, Seneca, and Williams counties.

The investigation followed a complaint from a Toledo garage-door company to the Ohio attorney general's office that alleged an individual named "John" was rigging bids for garage-door work for both ODOT and the Ohio Turnpike Commission.

Turnpike investigators found no evidence of such activity at their agency, but ODOT officials conducting a subsequent investigation uncovered a pattern of suspicious bids they traced to Mr. Gordon.

Andrew Gall, a spokesman at ODOT headquarters in Columbus, said department officials now are reviewing all contracts awarded in the Bowling Green district during the two-year period for which Mr. Gordon told them he circumvented the standard state bidding process. The department also still must evaluate whether a criminal complaint is warranted, he said.

Mr. Gordon was notified Monday of his indefinite suspension with pay, and Mr. Gall said an administrative hearing remains to be scheduled.

Mr. Gordon did not respond to messages left at his residence by The Blade last night seeking comment.

ODOT procedure requires at least two competitive quotes be sought for work exceeding $1,000 in cost, and at least three bids for work exceeding $2,500. But when those situations arose for doors at ODOT's county garages, Mr. Gordon instructed garage officials to obtain a price quote from a preselected contractor, who would in turn notify one or two competitors to submit higher bids shortly thereafter.

"The process made it appear ODOT had followed proper bid protocol by obtaining competitive bids," the investigation report said. A closer review by investigators, however, "revealed a suspicious pattern in that the first bid submitted was generally awarded the contract" and the higher bids often came in the same day - sometimes within hours of each other.

James Trissel, a former salesman for Nofziger Door of Archbold, Ohio, told The Blade yesterday that he was in that company's office one day about a year ago when a fax came in from another company requesting that Nofziger submit to ODOT a door-repair bid several hundred dollars above a quote that the other company had already submitted.

Mr. Trissel said his boss was out of the office at the time, so he prepared the required bid sheet, but had a secretary sign it before it was sent to ODOT.

"I knew something was funny. That's why I didn't want my name on this thing," he said.

Bruce Roth, the president of Quality Overhead Door in Toledo, said he later learned about the scheme from Mr. Trissel when Mr. Trissel, who now works for his brother at A.J. Door Co. in West Unity, applied for a job at Quality.

"We've tried to get in with those people [ODOT] and were unsuccessful," Mr. Roth said. "He came in here and applied for a job, and he told me what was going on."

Mr. Roth said "there should be some type of rotation" system for contractors to get ODOT work.

Mr. Gall said as long as contracts awarded to any single vendor do not exceed $50,000 in a year, state procedure does not require public bid advertisements for small contracts.

If a firm qualified to do ODOT work believes it is being passed over, he said, it may file a complaint with the district office or at department headquarters.

According to ODOT's documents, Mr. Gordon assigned work in Williams, Henry, and Fulton counties to Nofziger Door. Staff answering the phone at Nofziger yesterday said no one was available to comment about the matter.

Hans Hartkopf, the owner of Toledo-based Darkinson Doors, said none of the work his firm had done at the ODOT district headquarters in Bowling Green had been expensive enough to require competitive quotes.

Rick Lucius, the owner of Lucius Door in Tiffin, said the ODOT garage in Seneca County where his firm had done maintenance was too new to require work costing more than $1,000 at a time.

"Usually when we're called for bids I just put it in. I've never contacted any competitors by any means," Mr. Lucius said.

"I would never solicit a bid from a competitor. This is the first I've heard about it," said Dick Lano, owner of JVS Door in Port Clinton, which was identified as the contractor for three ODOT facilities in Sandusky and Ottawa counties. Mr. Lano said he had always sent his company's bids to ODOT himself, and could not recall if any of the work was for more than $1,000.

Martin Marinelli, co-owner of Northwood Door in Northwood, which Mr. Gordon listed as the contractor for Lucas and Wood counties, declined to comment when contacted by The Blade.

Mr. Gall said state officials have no reason at this point to doubt Mr. Gordon's assertion to investigators that he set up the scheme for efficiency purposes rather than personal gain.

But Mr. Gordon conceded that because competitive bidding was not used, ODOT may have paid more for work that was done because contractors would have been free to set their own prices they knew in advance competitors would not undercut.

"I don't want to try to justify what I am doing because I understand it's not right," Mr. Gordon is quoted as saying in an interview transcript. "I have done things to try and expedite work here. I don't want to use it as an excuse, but I am one person trying to get the work done. With the amount of calls and work to be done, it is very difficult as I am very short-staffed. I have four trade workers and that is to try and maintain the entire district."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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