A Nov. 20 Metro article misstated the amount of a security services contract Prince George's County sought to award in 2004. It was for $1 million, not $250,000. The article also misstated the age of Robert L. Thomas, former deputy director of the county's Department of Central Services. He is 63, not 40. (Published 11/24/05).
The Prince George's County agency under scrutiny by the state prosecutor in a probe of questionable contracts has been run for the past 20 months by a department director who oversees her own work because she serves in two positions.
Pamela H. Piper, owner of a Riverdale Park computer company, was hired in May 2003 to head the county's Office of Central Services. The agency is responsible for purchasing, managing county buildings and vehicles, and awarding millions of dollars in contracts each year.
Piper is the daughter of County Executive Jack B. Johnson's fourth-grade teacher in South Carolina and a contributor to his 2002 campaign. She replaced Carolyn Scriber, a career county employee dismissed by Johnson (D).
Scriber appeared before a state grand jury last month to answer questions about one of two $100,000 contracts awarded by the county executive's office to Wilbert R. Wilson, owner of a Largo technology firm and Johnson's friend and neighbor for nearly 20 years.
Scriber said she testified that approval of the 2003 contract, to identify regional and global economic trends that might help local businesses, bypassed the usual procedure. Agreements normally go through an administrative review committee, whose three members come from the county attorney's office and the offices of Central Services, Finance, and Management and Budget.
Wilson received another contract in January 2004, when Piper headed Central Services. The county says it has no record of any final report or other work from Wilson as outlined in the contracts.
In March 2004, Johnson named Piper to a newly created position: deputy chief administrative officer for government internal support. That post oversees Piper's Office of Central Services, as well as the administrative review committee and the Office of Information Technology and Communications.
"This move is designed to make government more efficient," Johnson said in announcing her promotion. "Pam Piper is a proven executive, both in the public and private sectors."
The position gave Piper an unusual status in Johnson's administration. The county's five deputy chief administrative officers normally oversee the work of separate department heads. Vernon Herron, deputy chief administrative officer for public safety and director of homeland security, is the only other deputy with dual roles.
Before Piper's promotion, oversight of Central Services and the administrative review committee, which evaluates contracts, were handled by different deputy chief administrative officers. In her new position, Piper reports to Chief Administrative Officer Jacqueline K. Brown, who has been subpoenaed to testify in the probe.
Piper has not been accused of wrongdoing and has not responded to numerous requests for an interview. In an interview Thursday night, Johnson declined to answer questions about Central Services or Piper's deputy position.
Her dual responsibilities have become a source of concern for some county officials, especially as state prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's investigation continues.
"People have raised eyebrows that she's signing her own work," said a senior county employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity while questioning other senior officials' actions. "The sense is even if you do find something wrong, there's no one for you to take it to."
County Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) said the council has little authority over contracts or personnel decisions by Johnson. But he added that a change may be worth consideration by a newly formed task force that will review the county charter.
"What kind of check and balance can be created is a possible question to put forth," Peters said.
Jim Keary, a Johnson spokesman, said Piper has turned Central Services around since her arrival, streamlining the contracting process and reducing maintenance costs for the county's fleet of cars. "This place was a basket case when Pam stepped in," Keary said. "There was no control, no oversight and very little accountability."
Johnson has sought other changes in contracting practices. The council recently rejected a proposal to raise the limit for purchases, which would have allowed the county to avoid the formal bidding process. Johnson sought an increase from $15,000 to $75,000. The council approved an increase to $30,000.
"We just thought the jump was a little extreme," said council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), noting that surrounding jurisdictions had $30,000 limits.
Several current and former employees of Central Services have been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury, according to two government sources with direct knowledge of the proceedings. Piper has been cooperating with state investigators, Keary said.
No charges have been filed against anyone who works for Central Services. Its operations, along with those of the county executive's office, have been part of the inquiry.
Rohrbaugh's probe began this year with an investigation into an alleged attempt by two senior county officials -- Robert L. Isom and Robert L. Thomas -- to receive bribes for the awarding of a $250,000 county security contract to ADT/TYCO and its subcontractor, Interior Systems Inc. It was Interior Systems that first contacted state investigators about the bribery scheme that allegedly ran from Sept. 29, 2004, to Feb. 11, 2005.
Isom, former deputy director of the Department of Environmental Resources, pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to commit bribery. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January. Thomas, the former deputy director of Central Services who county officials said was under investigation by the state, was not charged.
According to court documents, Piper removed two members of the panel assigned to review security proposals and make a recommendation on awarding the security contract. Late last year, she replaced the members with Floyd Holt, a deputy director of Central Services, and Thomas.
Before Piper hired Thomas, 40, he was paid $11,400 a month for five months to provide the department budget analysis and an assessment of accounting practices, budget allocation and financial planning.
Before coming to Prince George's, Thomas worked in the District's Office of Tax and Revenue and the inspector general's office, where he oversaw investigations. In 1997, he was nominated by Mayor Marion Barry to become the District's inspector general, but the financial control board refused to confirm him, in part because of his decision to hire Mitchell Titus & Co., a D.C. accounting firm, to perform the city's annual financial audit. A member of Mitchell Titus was one of Thomas's references for the job at the inspector general's office.
Keary said Piper fired Thomas after she learned of the state prosecutor's investigation of the security contract.
Piper, who donated $1,500 to Johnson's campaign from April 2000 to April 2003, according to state election records, generated controversy when Johnson named her to the Central Services post.
Conflict-of-interest questions surfaced after it was learned that Piper owned Modern Technology Systems, a company that was a subcontractor on a county contract before she joined the government.
The county executive's office at the time issued the following statement: "When her negotiations with the county to become the director of Central Services were completed, she notified ABSS [the contractor] and followed subcontract guidelines and gave ABSS 30 days' notice. Although she retains ownership of her company, she does not receive a salary. Her company will not do any business with the county or its contractors as long as she is employed by the county."