The inside outsider - Page 2

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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The firm also has been contracted to train DPW staff to estimate the cost of DPW projects, a contract worth $102,000, which is just below the $114,000 threshold for inviting competing bidders.

The documents also show that in the 2007-08 fiscal year, the department funneled additional money to ECS on top of its initial contract amount for "multidisciplinary construction management services" — essentailly retainer services — when other contractors on retainer had not yet fulfilled their contracted amount. ECS received an additional $500,000 on top of its contracted $1 million when the other contracted consultants (AGS, Inc., CPM/TMI Joint Venture, and PGH Wong Engineering, Inc.) had spent less than 50 percent of its $1 million contracted amount.

It's not that ECS is better qualified or cheaper than these other private consultants. Consulting firms for the four open retainer slots are selected by the city's Human Rights Commission for a two-year period through a competitive request for proposals (RFP) bidding process. For the last two periods, the commission ranked ECS in third place; before that, it came in second, but got a contract anyway.

Yet Petreas continues to be the only consultant who enjoys city e-mail privileges, not to mention a rent-free, roomy office in the city-owned building, with a view from the fourth floor. But if fairness among competing private contractors is an issue, the other contenders aren't complaining, perhaps out of fear of not being awarded future contracts by DPW or other city agencies.

When asked whether the RFP process was even-handed and if Petreas' insider status gives him an advantage, Jack Wang, principal engineer for AGS, Inc., hesitated to speak with us, saying that he didn't want to get in trouble and that he "can't comment on undue influence." He also told us that Petreas' augmented contract amount and time extensions were "not enough for me to be alarmed about." He later added that "the industry is small. It's very competitive."

When the Guardian took a look at all contract agreements between the department and ECS, as well as with Don Todd Associates, we discovered an employment gap that coincided with public scrutiny of the arrangement. Shortly after a September 1999 article by Peter Byrne ("It Ate City Hall") in SF Weekly reporting that Don Todd Associates had been paid $6 million over the course of nine years, some of it in apparent violation of city policies, its contract agreement ended and was never renewed or extended. But Petreas reemerged in 2004 under ECS, where he and his wife are the current owners.

The department offered no explanation for Petreas' ongoing good fortune or his relationship with Eng, who did not return calls from the Guardian. Instead it diverted inquiries to public information officers. Several attempts were made to contact Petreas and other ECS representatives, but our calls were not returned.

So is it fair to say that there are no guidelines or oversight for the length of time a private consultant may provide services to the city and that it is wholly up to the discretion of the department manager? When we brought up this opportunity for cronyism and corruption — a big loophole in city labor law — to Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda, she told us that "there's no prohibition on the city contracting with one entity for a long time."

Earlier this year, ECS completed yet another round of contract negotiations with the city and signed a new master agreement for multidisciplinary services for the next five years, in which it will be paid out $1 million for as-needed services.

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