An Oklahoma trade association contends out-of-state contractors are receiving favorable treatment on construction projects at Fort Sill in violation of federal law.
The American Subcontractors Association of Oklahoma alleges out-of-state contractors fail to follow bid specifications, use substandard materials and fail to have their work federally inspected. Many also fail to pay federal-scale wages or state taxes, the association said.
Those advantages, in many cases, make it impossible for Oklahoma subcontractors to compete for projects on the Army post about 85 miles south-southwest of Oklahoma City. The result is hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business and tax revenue for the state.
“It is clear that something is wrong with the way federal contracts are being awarded and implemented at Fort Sill,” the association's executive director, Mark C. Nestlen, wrote in a recent letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, outlining the group's complaints.
A two-hour meeting last week at the Lawton Country Club between association representatives and officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the work at Fort Sill, did little to resolve the group's concerns.
“We're not being allowed to play on a level playing field on these contracts,” association President Gordon Jeney said. “There is preferential treatment being given to out-of-state contractors.”
A corps spokesman attributed some of the complaints to new, more-flexible requirements in some military construction contracts.
“People didn't understand this change,” corps spokesman Ross Adkins said.
“We hope we've clarified that. Frankly, dealing with the government … it's not easy.”
Jeney said it would take “a team of attorneys” to “make sure you caught all the fine print,” in the new bid requirements.
“Most of the subcontractors don't have the deep pockets to go through the 480-page contracts they're sending us,” Jeney said.
A new Oklahoma law set to take effect Nov. 1 is aimed at curbing abuses by out-of-state contractors on state public projects, association officials say, but many such safeguards are lacking in federal contracting.
‘At a disadvantage'
According to the association, out-of-state contractors at Fort Sill often disregard bid specifications and instead design their own in violation of federal procurement regulations.
On one project, a subcontractor installed cheaper electrical conduit than called for in the bid requirements in several Fort Sill buildings, including a National Guard armory, a basic training barracks and a dining hall.
Association members said corps officials told them at last week's meeting that they could have made similar alterations and that it was their responsibility to dig into the bid specifications and ask questions.
But in Nestlen's letter to Inhofe and Cole, he told of an Oklahoma subcontractor who asked an inspector if he could bid for a second phase of the same Fort Sill project using the cheaper conduit and was told no.
“We just felt like we were placed at a disadvantage from a bidding standpoint,” said Bryan Jones, of Lawton-based electrical contractor S.B. Jones Inc.
Inspections are issue
Another association concern focused on inspection of work done by out-of-state contractors.
While Oklahoma subcontractors at Fort Sill are inspected by the corps on a regular basis, the association says it's unclear whether the corps inspects all work done by out-of-state contractors.
An association member reported he was told by a Corps inspector that he was not allowed to perform such work. Nestlen said he was told that in many instances work was reviewed only by quality control inspectors employed by the general contractor.
In another instance, a corps concrete inspector who ordered improper work redone was ignored by the general contractor, according to the association.
“Once the actions of the out-of-state contractor were brought to the attention of the Corps, instead of causing the inappropriate action to be rectified, the Corps inspector was forced to take early retirement,” Nestlen wrote in his letter to the two lawmakers.
Adkins said the corps routinely inspects the work of out-of-state contractors and the quality assurance inspectors they employ. He said the agency sought to investigate the accusation involving the inspector who was allegedly forced to take early retirement but that the association declined to disclose the inspector's name based on legal advice.
“We can't do too much unless they give us specifics,” Adkins said.