In June 2003, the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement auctioned off a used city firetruck for $100. Later, the buyer listed the truck for sale on the Internet for the market price, $35,900.
Auditors from the city's inspector general's office, who investigated the auction and released a report last month, said yesterday that nine of the 11 firetrucks were sold to one dealer. After the auction, at least two of those vehicles were put up for sale on the Internet.
During testimony before the D.C. Council's Committee on Government Operations, the auditors said they are trying to determine whether city employees did anything improper. Auditors estimated that the city lost $369,775 on the firetrucks.
Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the committee, criticized the way the city handled the sale of its surplus property.
"In my mind that's criminal," Orange said. "There is a glaring problem here, and someone is benefiting at the expense of D.C. taxpayers' dollars."
Orange held the hearing to examine the city's contracting practices and said the sale of the equipment was among several "extremely perplexing and troubling" management problems in the procurement office. Jacques Abadie III, the head of the office since 2000, resigned a week after the release of the inspector general's report.
During yesterday's hearing, Orange also asked why the procurement office had approved the expenditure of $6.4 million for a computer project that handles citywide personnel functions. City agencies have to seek council approval if expenditures for a single contract exceed $1 million.
Chief Technology Officer Suzanne J. Peck testified that the procurement office made a mistake when it approved the expenditures. She said that procurement officials had wrongly informed her that if her office did not spend more than $5 million a year per vendor, it was not necessary to seek council approval.
"We didn't know we were doing anything wrong," she said in an interview. "It's not that we didn't have the money. It's not that we didn't pay the money. It's just when we paid the money, we didn't have specific permission from the council to make the payments."
Peck also said that her staff had found 10 invoices totaling $3.1 million in unapproved expenditures for the same project in the desk drawer of a former employee.
Yesterday, Peck asked Orange and Linda W. Cropp (D), the council chairman, to appeal to the whole council to approve emergency legislation next week to retroactively authorize the $9.5 million, which would include the unpaid invoices.
If the legislation is not approved Tuesday, Peck said, the project, which has been halted, will not be completed by the December deadline. If that deadline is not met, she said, the project will cost the city an additional $2.6 million.
Orange and Cropp said they were not satisfied with the explanation and said the council would have too many questions to approve emergency legislation in five days.
"We have negotiated a horrible, horrible contract," Cropp said. "That's the travesty to the citizens of the District of Columbia."
After Abadie resigned, Herbert R. Tillery, deputy mayor for operations, became the interim director for the procurement office. He said the office will respond to the council's questions about the computer contract in a hearing to be held later this month.
Meanwhile, Tillery said, the agency's auctions of surplus city property were suspended last Friday.