Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn was tight -lipped last week when he announced that he was replacing Paul W. Comfort, head of the state’s Transit Administration. The timing seemed odd considering that the state is fighting to save one major transit project, the Purple Line, and preparing to launch a revamped version of another, Baltimore’s bus system.
But now some are wondering whether the purchase of nearly $70,000 worth of custom designed furniture for Comfort’s office could have played a role.
Documents obtained through a public records request by the Daily Record, found that James Knighton, Comfort’s chief of staff ordered the new pieces, which included a Viper task chair for $550 and a credenza for $792, and that the purchase may have violated state laws because he did not seek multiple bids for a purchase that exceeded $25,000. The total cost of the furniture ordered from Studio Partnership Interior Design based in Cockeysville, Md., was $65,710.
Other items purchased included window treatments and solar shades as well as a meeting table, eight side chairs and two lounge chairs.
According to the paperwork, Knighton designated the purchase a sole-source order. Such orders are generally only permitted if the service rendered or the goods provided are only offered by a single vendor.
“This work and associated fixtures are required to make improvements to the [Maryland Transit Administration’s] Administrator’s office area/27th floor,” the order read. Another page indicated: “The procurement is a sole source at the direction of Jim Knighton.”
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for state Department of Transportation would not say whether the furniture purchase was a factor in either Comfort or Knighton’s departures.
Neither Comfort or Knighton responded to requests for comment. Knighton, who was paid just over $123,700-a-year, was dismissed from the chief-of-staff job he had held since July 2015, on June 6, the same day that Comfort was let go, officials said. He had been with the MTA since 2004.
Henson said agency officials became aware of the purchases in May and that most of the items have been paid for. She said the majority of the furniture in question has been delivered and put into storage.
“We will be returning what we can,” she said in an emailed statement. “As much of it is custom made and cannot be returned, we will be distributing that furniture in public places throughout the [Maryland Department of Transportation].”
Kevin B. Quinn, who is designing the new Baltimore bus system, was named acting MTA administrator.
Reached by The Post shortly after his departure, Comfort declined to offer any specifics on his leaving, saying only that: “It was a pleasure to serve Gov. [Larry] Hogan and the MTA, and I enjoyed my time there. It appears I’m on to the next thing. I’ve got numerous options. … I wish everyone the best.”
Comfort was named MTA administrator in April 2015. Among its work, the agency is overseeing planning for the proposed 16-mile light-rail Purple Line, which has been mired in delays in part because of legal challenges. Rahn has ordered contractors and the state to scale back pre-construction work on the project to save money while an appeal in the case is pending.