Until a new offical put a stop to the plan last month, the General Services Administration was about to buy more than $100,000 worth of scissors and wrenches without competitive bidding.
William F. Kelly Jr., who recently took over as commissioner of GSA's federal supply service, confirmed that GSA had set prices through negotiation rather than by inviting sealed bids. The bidding procedure had been bypassed on the grounds that the "public exigency" demanded immediate action.
"I said there was no way in the world you could convince me you have to buy scissors and wrenches on the basis of public exigency," Kelly said.
Kelly was appointed by GSA Administrator Jay Solomon to clean up allegedly shoddy contracting practices. He said the companies that had been awarded contracts without bidding were Kingshead Corp. of Hackensack, N.J., which makes scissors, and American Kal Enterprises Inc. of El Monte, Calif, which supplies wrenches.
Kingshead's representatives in its dealings with GSA is Arthur S. Lowell who also represents Art Metal-USA Inc., a Newark manufacturer that supplies GSA with three-quarters of its metal desks, file cabinets and bookcases.
Lowell, who has refused to comment on any of this, also represented Dr. Laszlo N. Tauber when GSA leased Tauber's building at Buzzard Point in Washington for $2.5 million a year. The building later remained largely vacant for two years as a number of government agencies resisted being moved there.
Investigators from the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal spending practices, headed by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), were in Newark last week looking into Art Metal's manufacturing methods and records. The subcommittee is trying to determine why much of Art Metal's office furniture arrives at government agencies in poor condition.
John J. Collins, vice president of American Kal, said his firm was asked by the agency to supply open-end wrenches without competitive bidding because GSA needed the item quickly. "They negotiated because of the need of the commoity," he said.
While his firm manufactures another type of wrench itself, Collins said most of the tools he supplies to GSA - including the open-end wrench GSA wanted to buy without competitive bidding - are made by other companies and resold by American Kal to GSA.
GSA decided against awarding the wrench contract, he said because his firm employed a former GSA official as its government representative. "Because GSA is under the gun, they don't want to take the chance of having any impropriety," he said Collins said he has since fired the former GSA employe.
The Washington Post has previously reported that GSA routinely buys such items as television sets, calculators, and typewriters, often through middle men such as American Kal, without obtaining sealed, competitive bids, and pays more for the items as a result.
In one example reported by The Post, GSA paid $622.06 for large quantities of 21-inch, Sony color television that sell for $597.75 each at W. Bell & Co., a local catalogue sales GSA buys for $612 is purchased by the state of Maryland, using sealed, competitive bids, for 541.94.
In addition to stopping the wrench and scissor puchases, Kelly has halted a planned purchase of more than $17 million in office chairs previously supplied by Art Metal and other firms, he said.
He said he is considering changing the way GSA buys furniture to obtain greater competition among manufacturers who normally sell to other consumers. Art Metal sells almost exclusively to GSA.
Toward that end, Kelly said, he has been consulting with trade associations to determine how to go about getting offers from other firms.
In any case, GSA already has a four- to six-month supply of chairs, said Kelly.