There's a lingering discomfort in town about the awarding of the city's first gambling contract. It's not the smell of anything illegal or underhanded or even suspicious. The unease can be summed up in one word: process.
The procedure by which the D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board selected Scientific Games Development Corp. of Atlanta for the $10 million contract seemed, well, casual--almost cavalier for such a high-stakes decision. This is serious business that demands the utmost of openness, yet this board won't even tell us why it selected one bidder over another.
Gambling has its own bad odor. Even though the referendum authorizing city-sanctioned gambling passed overwhelmingly in 1980, suspicion persists among those who fear that legalized gambling invites organized crime. If there is going to be organized gambling here--and a few of us still don't think there should be--it is in the interest of the progambling forces to be as open as possible. This board, by contrast, seems hell-bent on being just the opposite.
To begin with, the bids came in T not too long before the contract was to be awarded. Two of the three groups competing for the contract made special requests for oral presentations, fearing that the board would not be able to read the voluminous proposals thoroughly before making its decision. The board held no orals.
On the day that the selection of Scientific Games was announced, board chairman Brant Coopersmith not only refused to give the board's reason for selecting Scientific, but also made it clear that the board would not entertain questions on the decision until later that day. After the meeting, an employe of one of the losing companies said their lawyer tried to ask questions but was told to put them in writing. He did. That was more than two weeks ago. The answers still have not come forth.
The two unsuccessful bidders lodged formal protests with the board, alleging that members selected the winning firm improperly and asking that the award be set aside. Still no word from the board. The word got out that Scientific was not the lowest bidder but won the contract anyway. The board stayed mum, stubbornly refusing to discuss its deliberations on grounds that lawyers had advised keeping the rationale private until after the contract was signed.
Finally, earlier this week, the board signed the contract with Scientific--without resolving the complaints from the two losing bidders and without answering very many questions. Coopersmith's explanation for not waiting was that a delay could cost the city an estimated $150,000 a week in lottery revenues and again promised a fuller explanation later. Later has come. The explanation has not.
All this secrecy in the name of A following the advice of counsel is not reassuring. The contract awards process needs to be citizenized and the cloak of secrecy cast aside.
The closest parallel in the contract awarding business is the District of Columbia's urban renewal agency, which awards its coveted sites after fierce competitions that often pit many of the city's best known development interests against one another. Over the years, these competitions have taken on a life of their own, with community groups squabbling with big-time developers for the right to spend the thousands in annual profits the development projects net. These competitions don't guarantee the lack of skulduggery. But at least more people are involved and the process is more open to public view.
Unlike the development game, which well-organized neighborhood planning groups watch with a keen eye, legalized gambling has yet to spawn an organized constituency here. It desperately needs one, and one that includes more people than those who benefit from it directly.
Next time around, the contract process must be more open, for the losing companies and for the public. People should step up to ask questions--church people and computer people and corner grocers--and transform the competition into a more public process. The board should realize that what they consider following advice of counsel looks very much like stonewalling to others.
The public has questions that need answers, and, after all, it's their money that's involved.