DeKalb officials admit error, probe complaints about $61M contract

A DeKalb County Department of Watershed Management traffic cone is placed along the construction site where a water issue caused a brief outage on Mt. Olive Drive in Decatur on Jan. 11, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

DeKalb County officials admitted Friday that at least one error was made in documents related to the bidding process for a $61 million sewer contract, but said it played no role in their ultimate choice of contractors.

Meanwhile, additional allegations surrounding the same contract — and the same, long-troubled county procurement program — remain under investigation.

In late April and early May, a representative from Tucker-based Granite Inliner, Inc. sent a pair of letters to the DeKalb County purchasing office. Jesse Cole said in the letters that the county kept shoddy records or failed to verify basic information about about subcontractors participating in the bidding process for the big-dollar contract, which involves repairing and replacing sewer pipes throughout the spill-plagued county.

Cole’s firm was one of seven that entered a bid but it did not make the cut in the county’s recommendation for awarding the contract, which still must be voted on by county commissioners.

DeKalb officials previously denied an open records request for Cole's letters, citing an ongoinginvestigation. But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the letters this week after Cole distributed them to a number of county commissioners.

His allegations focus on DeKalb’s Local Small Business Enterprise, or LSBE, program, which is aimed at helping small businesses get their share of lucrative government contracts. Under the program, large contractors vying for work with the county can earn extra preference when their bids include smaller businesses as subcontractors.

Contractors often get the most points when listed LSBE subcontractors are based in DeKalb, and a smaller bump when small businesses from elsewhere in metro Atlanta are included.

Cole’s first complaint letter pointed out that a subcontractor for one of the winning bidders was erroneously listed as a DeKalb LSBE on a county document. The business is actually based in Atlanta and registered as a metro-area LSBE.

In a formal response issued late Friday, county officials admitted the error.

But they also said the mislabeling occurred only in a commission agenda item printed after the bidding process ended — and that, regardless, such an error would not have played a role in their recommendation because of the way bids were solicited.

The matter was handled as an “invitation to bid,” which requires only that contractors meet a 20% benchmark for LSBE participation.

Differing preference levels for DeKalb and metro-area LSBEs only come into play when contracts are bid out as “requests for proposals,” officials said.

The county’s response did not address Cole’s additional allegations.

Those claims, sent in a second letter about 10 days after the first, suggest that a subcontractor for another winning bidder on the sewer contract used a DeKalb County address to register with the LSBE program but is actually based out of Newton County.

In her Friday afternoon letter to Cole, interim chief procurement officer Cathryn Horner said the county would respond to the additional claims “once review and investigation is complete.”

To be included in the LSBE program and available for consideration by larger businesses, subcontractors must register with the county and, in theory, be thoroughly vetted and tracked.

Historically, that’s been an issue.

An external audit of DeKalb's overall procurement that was published last year raised significant questions about the LSBE program's management.

In February, Felton Williams, procurements project manager for the LSBE program, was reassigned to the county's facilities management department. At the time, county officials described Williams' relocation as "part of an ongoing process to improve the effectiveness of DeKalb County government."

About a month later, a new internal audit of the LSBE program was released. It found a litany of fundamental problems within the program, including a lack of standard operating procedures, poor oversight, lax or non-existent documentation and potential cybersecurity risks.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said at the time that the county had already begun “working to determine the root cause of many of the issues” identified in the audit.

“I think the LSBE program is always causing problems,” Commissioner Nancy Jester told the AJC on Friday. “This is more evidence that it is still poorly managed and documented.”

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