The inside outsider

Why does a private contractor have a free city office space and inside access to top officials who keep extending his contracts?
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A private-sector engineering and construction consultant has worked for years out of the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) offices for free, using public resources and having inside access to top department officials, a status gained through a questionable competitive bidding process, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

Andrew Petreas, senior project manager for Environmental and Construction Solutions, Inc. (ECS), which has done contract work for DPW since 2004, has a city e-mail address. Petreas and his assistant both work on the fourth floor of DPW's Bureau of Construction Management (BCM) building on Mission Street, in close proximity to bureau manager Donald Eng.

According to documents obtained by the Guardian earlier this year, ECS is providing construction and consultation services for various DPW projects, including repairs to the building where he works, trying to bring it in line with the city's Green Building Ordinance, a project that is still going three months after its scheduled completion date of June 2009.

Because of the city's competitive bidding process for using outside consultants on DPW projects — such as construction, repairs, and construction management on all city-owned buildings and maintenance of city streets and sewers — Petreas' inside access raises questions of fairness among competing bidders and could pose a conflict of interest. DPW officials confirm the working arrangement, but deny that there's anything improper about it.

DPW spokesperson Christine Falvey told us that Petreas' occupancy is necessary to "improve the flow of communication between staff and consultants" and "deliver the project more efficiently." She also said Petreas will vacate the premises once his contract has expired. But insider sources and department documents indicate that Petreas has been in the department for many years, beginning as an employee under Don Todd Associates, which first began consulting for DPW in the early 1990s. And because of questionable contract extensions, there seems to be no end in sight for the department's relationship with Petreas or his great deal on office space.

No other contractor appears to receive this kind of advantage, and all are subject to the same competitive bidding process for obtaining contracts. City Attorney's Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told the Guardian that "it makes sense in some cases to co-locate," but he couldn't provide specific guidelines that regulate such arrangements.

When the Guardian requested all correspondence directed to and from Petreas' city e-mail account, we were given e-mails dating only as far back as July 2008. We were further stonewalled by DPW when we asked how long Petreas has had a working relationship with the department.

Frank Lee, executive assistant to the director of the DPW, told us via e-mail: "I do not know the exact length of time that Andrew has worked for our department, but the e-mails that were forwarded to you were the only e-mails that we currently possess." He further told us that five e-mails were withheld in accordance to California Evidence Code Section 1152, which essentially states that public records can be withheld if it contains information about a money dispute between the city and a contractor. Lee would not say if the disputing contractor was Petreas or his firm, but did tell us that the matter is in litigation and the content is about "litigation strategies."

Earlier this year, ECS completed work on the department's Materials Testing Lab, a project that initially began in March 2008 with a two-month timeline, but was given a 15-month extension.

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