NEWKIRK — State auditors have joined the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in looking into allegations of questionable bidding practices involving Kay County commissioners.
Among other things, investigators are looking into complaints that Kay County commissioners have been misusing six-month bid contracts to skirt the intent of Oklahoma’s competitive bidding laws, The Oklahoman has learned.
A six-month bid is where contractors submit bids for the rates they would charge to supply an open-ended quantity of materials, labor or rental equipment over a six-month period.
The process is used to purchase things such as gravel, concrete and bridge materials and to pay for bulldozer work and concrete finishing services, said Kay County Commission Chairman Tyson Rowe.
In a questionable twist that is drawing the attention of investigators, Rowe acknowledges commissioners have sometimes awarded contracts to multiple bidders and allowed commissioners to choose from the list of acceptable bidders, even though their rates might differ.
“Depending on what it is — there’s three different contractors as far as bridge materials go, and a lot of times there might not be a whole lot of difference between the three bidders,” he said. “We may take all three bids just to pay for availability. Sometimes, one might not have it and the other one might. The same goes with a lot of the stuff. There’s some items where we’ll just take the lowest bid — just depending on the circumstance.”
Most of the time, commissioners try to buy from the lowest bidder first, he said.
Rowe defended the practice, even though it doesn’t ensure the county gets the lowest price.
“Normally, if we accept more than one, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of difference between the two bids,” he said. “If there’s one that’s way high, we don’t accept it.”
Gayle Ward, executive director of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, said the award of contracts to multiple bidders is a common practice used by county commissioners throughout Oklahoma.
Availability of materials is often a huge problem, Ward said. By choosing more than one supplier, if the lowest bidder doesn’t have something, commissioners can go to the next bidder on the list and avoid down time. That saves taxpayers money, she said.
Rowe said Kay County was doing it that way before he became a commissioner.
“When I came into office, that’s how they did it and we think we need to do it the same,” he said. “Our DA (district attorney) has been there when we accepted our six-month bids and hasn’t advised us that we’re doing anything wrong.”
“This audit, I don’t know what they’re looking for exactly, but I don’t foresee them finding anything,” Rowe said.
One question that apparently has arisen is whether bidding must be done differently for public construction contracts that exceed $50,000 or purchases that exceed $15,000 ($10,000 prior to a new law signed by the governor in May).
“Auditors have been there. OSBI investigators have been there,” Rowe said. “What they were questioning was the amount of the purchase orders.”
Rowe contends state law places no cap on the amount for which six-month bids can be used.
The investigation was initiated in response to a bidder’s complaints to Kay County District Attorney Brian Hermanson.
Hermanson said the complaining bidder alleged projects were being split up so they would be under the dollar limit for which competitive bids were required by state law.
“It was alleged they were then steered to certain contractors,” Hermanson said.
Hermanson said he immediately asked the attorney general’s office to appoint a district attorney from another county to investigate the complaint, since Hermanson provides legal advice to the commission.
The attorney general assigned the case to Garfield County District Attorney Mike Fields.
Fields said he asked for assistance from the OSBI and state auditor because Fields’ office doesn’t have its own investigator.