The receptionist groans when a reporter appears at the Richmond headquarters of Virginia's state Department of Purchases and Supply. She has that "please-not-again" look as she cringes against her telephone when the reporter asks to see the file of state purchases.
Her reaction is understandable. The Department of Purchases and Supply is now under investigation for allegiedly questionable practices in dispening millions of dollars in state business to some companies but not to others.
The department was shoved into an unfavorable limelight last month with allegations in the press that a handful of contract printers and a major furniture manufacturer had an undue influence in getting state business. And there was the report that a top state printing official had been allowed to resign quietly two years ago following a state police investigation into bidding practices in his office.
Now there is suspicion and apprehension among employes of Purchases and Supply, a department that channels everything from pencils to parts to foot to X-ray machines into the scatered corners of the Virginia government.
The state police, the FBI and a legislative subcommittee have each begun looking into state purchasing. Last week, a Richmond circuit court judge agreed to impanel a special grand jury to join the act. In effect, outside of Kajak or Columbo, everybody who can has jumped on the latest investigative bandwagon.
Beyond the beleaguered receptionist, in a room full of equally beleaguered clerks, are the records. Packed into filing cabinets, folder after folder tells the story of how the state goes shopping, $100,000 worth of furniture here, $10.45 worth of nuts and bolts there. The problem is that there are too many files, and they cover just two years.
A reporter who spends several tedious days going through them can wind up with little but weary eyes, empty notebooks and an intellectual numbness.
If there was bid rigging in Purchases and Supply, or if departmental officials were slipped gifts on the side by prospective vendors, the symptoms of misfeasance are unlikely to surface in a random search that can cover only a few dozen of the hundreds of files.
Reporters look anyway, and find inane things like a weekly bill of more than $30,000 to do 71,000 pounds of laundry for the Medical College of Virginia. As dirty laundry goes, that is a substantial lot, but not the type reporters would expect to find in purchasing contracts involving millions of dollars worth of furniture and printing contracts.
The furniture? It is there, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, in bid package after bid package. Take, for instance, the state legislature, which requistioned about $100,000 worth of sofas, chairs and end tables for its newly refurnished offices.
What is striking is that InterRoyal Corporation, a New York company accused by one of its former Virginia salesmen of undue unfluence with state purchasing officials, got little or none of that particular business. If you have been following the stories about allegations against InterRoyal and the state bureaucrats, your first assumption might have been that InterRoyal won every job it ever bid on.
It didn't. Not even close.
Then there is the printing, a nightmarish series of small purchases that add up to more than $15 million. Where are the abuses if they are not in the files?
Beyond all this - or perhaps beneath it - is the simple question of whether Virginia's purchasing procedures tend to benefit one party or another.
In the files of one college, for instance, the architects for new dormitories last year drew up specifications for thousands of dollars worth of beds, tables and chairs.
Their request, a common one in purchase requisitions, was that the goods they wanted come as close as possible to the style of a particular manufacturer. Narrowing the specifications, in effect, may have ruled a number of manufacturers out of the ballgame before the first pitch was thrown. But the architects apparently were willing to settle for something else if the bid price was right.
The lesson in the files is that the bidding system is not well-defined in Virginia, a state with a traditional abhorence of more laws and regulations.Dredging through voluminous files may produce few indications of violations of regulations, since there are few regulations to violate.
If that is so, perhaps Walker Cottrell, a Richmond businessman who testified before a legislative subcommittee last week, hit the nail on the head when he called for a more formal procedure for soliciting bids and deciding on how specifications are to be developed.
"We need a bureau of standards," he said. That, as much as anything, might be the revelation from the files.