The General Services Administration yesterday transferred a division director whom it described as the focus of an investigation into alleged corruption in GSA's awarding last year of telephone contracts worth $55 million.
A GSA spokesman said that S.L. Soni, who until yesterday was head of GSA's network engineering division, would be given duties outside of telecommunications procurement until the investigation is complete.
The spokesman said a lawyer retained by Soni notified GSA that Soni would, on the lawyer's advice, invoke his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent if investigators attempted to question him. The GSA said it had filed the lawyer's letter with the Board of Contract Appeals, a federal body that adjudicates contract disputes.
The transfer "is not to be taken in any way as an indication that Mr. Soni has engaged in wrongdoing," said the GSA spokesman, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "He has the constitutional right, which he is exercising, and we obviously are drawing no definitive conclusions from it."
American Telephone & Telegraph Co. has alleged that an official or officials at GSA leaked proprietary information about the company's bid, including the price it was asking, to one or more of its competitors in the bidding. The contracts were for switching services to upgrade the federal government's long-distance telephone network.
According to the GSA, Soni is alleged to have taken a "limited amount of gratuities" from one of AT&T's competitors in connection with leaking the data. He was described by the GSA as a midlevel manager who assisted in technical analysis of the bids but had no control over the award.
Soni's lawyer last night declined comment on the case.
The contract has drawn wide attention in the telephone industry. It is being investigated by the GSA's inspector general, the Justice Department and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The GSA spokesman said that to the best of his knowledge, Soni had played no role in contract proceedings for FTS-2000, an all-new federal telephone system that the agency is in the process of contracting out. With an estimated cost of between $5 billion and $10 billion over 10 years, it will be one of the largest civilian contracts ever let by the federal government.
The spokesman said that the investigation appeared to focus on Soni alone among GSA officials. "As of today, we are aware of no information that would lend any substance to allegations against other employees" at the agency, he said.