On Friday, April 15, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's office of plant maintenance in Silver Spring received bids from three small contracting firms for a fairly simple and not very exciting job.
Metro needed a metal partition wall moved about 10 feet to enlarge an office at the Brentwood subway car repair facility - the modern, yellow brick building one sees between the tracks shortly after leaving Union Station for Baltimore.
The three bids for the Brentwood job, it now seems clear, were typed on the same typewriter. In two of the bids, the word "panel" was used to described the metal wall to be moved. In both bids, the word was misspelled exactly the same way - P-A-N-N-E-L.
Despite the similar typewriting and the same misspelled word. Metro maintenance officials let the contract immediately - without sending the bids to the Metro purchasing department where regulations say such bids are to be processed and a contract drawn up before a job is awarded.
The Case of the Brentwood Panel might over have come to public attention had some Metro bureaucrats not suspected that something funny was in the works. They called The Washington Post. Then, last week, Richard O. Lee of CVM Contractors of Kensington admitted that he and "two buddies" got together to submit the three bids for moving the partition wall.
"I didn't think I was hurting anybody," Lee said in a telephone interview last week.Competition among small general contractors, even for minor jobs, "is keen as hell," Lee said.
John R. Kennedy, Metro's general counsel, said that what Lee and his friends did was a violation of Metro contracting rules and possibly of District of Columbia and federal laws. Metro rules call for obtaining bids from three separate, independent companies that, at least in theory, bid against each other for Metro work under $2,500. The lowest bidder gets the job.
Here is what really happened in the Case of the Brentwood Panel:
Ralph E. Smith is Metro's general supervisor of plant maintenance. Darrol Hackney is Metro's superintendent of custodial services and is Smith's right-hand man. Together, they decide which companies are called to bid on small jobs that come through the maintenance department. When the bids come in, they are supposed to send the lowest bid to Metro's purchasing department.
Questioned about the Brentwood bids received April 15, both men said they had not noticed how similar the bids looked. "I'm going to be honest with you," Hackney told a reporter the other day. He said he "just looked at the dollar figure" each company submitted before he decided, along with Smith, that the Brentwood contract should go to Lee's CVM Contractors, the lowest bidder among the three.
It turns out that Hackneys' son, Marty, works as a carpenter for CVM. His son may work for the company, Hackney said but that had nothing to do with the contract award. "We're not too close," Hackney said of his relationship to his son.
In any case, after receiving the bids April 15, Smith and Hackney acknowledge that they told Lee to start immediately moving the metal partition. CVM did so on Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17. Lee now is awaiting the $1,990 that the Smith and Hackney agreed Metro would pay for the job.
Smith and Hackney waited until Wednesday, April 20, to send the necessary papers to the purchasing department.
This disregard for Metro procedures was defended by Smith and Hackney on grounds that they wanted the work done quickly and that CVM submitted the low bid, but it bothered some lower-ranking Metro personjnel. They photocopied the three bids, the April 20 requisition order and, after a telephone call, brought the papers to The Washington Post.
After talking to Lee, Hackney, Smith and others with knowledge of the Brentwood contract award, a reporter went last Tuesday afternoon to 201 Cedar St. NW, the home of Dave Bestpitch of D&D Decorators.
D&D, CVM and a third contractor, Nelson Hopkins, bid on the Brentwood job. Bestpitch bid $2,248 and Hopkins bid $2,475, according to Metro records.
Shown a photocopy of his April 15 bid by a reporter, Bestpitch was asked if the signature on the copy was his. "No, that's not my signature," he said.
Bestpitche said he was not sure who actually signed the bid but, he said it was typed by Lee after the two men consulted about how much D&D would bid on the Brentwood job.
Bestpitch said he always followed such a procedure when bidding on Metro jobs. He explained that he and Lee were longtime acquaintances and that Lee often gave him subcontract work since Lee is a general contractor and Bestpitch really is a painter.
Bestpitch said he was not angry that he has never received a job from Metro because Lee always underbids him. "I have plenty of work to do" without Metro, Bestpitch said.
Lee, who denied that he even knew Bestpitch a week ago, was confronted with Bestpitch's statements and responded.
"I understand that you found out that me and a couple of my buddies have gotten together on these bids and we're not supposed to. I know I've done something wrong."
Lee said he began submitting his own bid and more or less bogus bids from Bestpitch and Hopkins to Metro about six months ago. So far, CVM and Hopkins have received about $30,000 worth of work according to Metro records. Lee said that when Hopkins wins a bid he usually subcontracts it immediately to Lee's firm.
Bestpitch, Lee said, "is busy. He doesn't need the work. I've been trying to get the work for me and Nelson (Hopkins)." Hopkins, whose N. Hopkins Construction Co. lists post office box 431 in Kensington as its address, could not be reached for comment last week. A reporter left his name and phone number with Hopkin's wife and called several times on three different nights.
Lee said the general contracting business is extremely competitive and that it is not unusual for contractors to get together and split available work. "A lot of them do it," he said. "They help each other."
Ed Turney, a reporter for WMAL-TV (Channel 7), is listed on CVM's stationery as a principal of the firm but Lee said Turney simply allowed his name to be used "as a reference" when Lee began his construction company two years ago.
Lee said Turney does not share in the firm's profits and knew nothing about the Metro bids. The two men grew up together, Lee said, and Turney agreed to help CVM get started.
Turney confirmed Lee's account of their relationship yesterday, adding that he wanted to help Lee because "he's had a real hard life. I felt sorry for him."
Lee said he could not understand why someone had gone to a newspaper to single him out. Told that the Brentwood job came to The Post's attention because some Metro people questioned whether Lee might have improperly influenced Metro officials in return for often being selected to bid - along with Bestpitch and Hopkins - for small construction jobs, Lee responded:
"Oh no, I could go to jail for that."
Getting together with Hopkins and Bestpitch to bid "is wrong," Lee said "But I don't think I was hurting anybody."
Lee then asked a reporter to pass a message to Metro lawyers. "If you have any weight down there," he said, "could you ask them if I could just come in and pay a fine? I don't want to go through all that stuff."
Kennedy, Metro's general counsel, said that he already has begun an investigation of various contracts Lee and Hopkins have received from Metro during the last six months.