10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, June 11, 2011

By ALICIA ROBINSON
The Press-Enterprise

A Riverside city engineer said he has been questioned by the Riverside County district attorney’s office about a $10.5 million sewer plant design contract that also is the subject of a city investigation.

Concerns about the sewer plant contract came to light after a deputy city attorney, who has since been fired, sent an email to the Riverside City Council in March alleging city officials steered contracts to friends of City Manager Brad Hudson and threatened the jobs of employees who complained or spoke out on various issues.

City officials have denied any wrongdoing and said an internal investigation found nothing improper.

In response to a May 5 California Public Records Act request by The Press-Enterprise, the city provided background documents from the late March investigation by Chief Financial Officer Paul Sundeen, but a final report has not been provided.

Fired Deputy City Attorney Raychele Sterling’s email to the council raises questions about the sewer plant contract and also more broadly alleges contracts were given to Albert A. Webb Associates, rather than other firms in a group that were all expected to share equally in work.

The city has not produced documents requested May 9 related to the groups of firms, which were pre-approved to do work for the city.

Records show Webb’s portion of the sewer plant design contract was about $1.4 million.

Principal engineer Warren Huang, who oversaw the award of the sewer plant contract in 2009, said the district attorney’s office called him a few weeks ago about the issue. District attorney’s spokesman John Hall would not confirm or deny whether the office is investigating the issue.

A city-initiated probe, launched in May, is ongoing. Led by Rancho Cucamonga-based law firm Cihigoyenetche, Grossberg & Clouse, the outside evaluation and report are expected to be finished by the end of June.

A review of city records shows that in awarding the sewer plant design contract, Riverside officials used an evaluation process that was at best unusual and convoluted, and at worst, may have guided the contract to a specific firm.

The city gave the contract to design a major expansion of its water quality control plant to Camp Dresser & McKee, known as CDM, in September 2009.

Sterling alleged in her email that employees told her they were ordered to fix the scoring process to give the contract to CDM because a top official at one of its subcontractors, Albert A. Webb Associates, is Hudson’s friend. Sterling has declined to comment.

Hudson denied that he ordered contracts steered to his friends and called the allegations “absolutely silly.”

SCORING THE BIDS

In early 2009, the city interviewed four firms that submitted proposals for the sewer plant project. The two firms that scored highest on their proposals and a first interview — CDM, a global firm with an office in Rancho Cucamonga, and CH2MHill, a worldwide firm with a Riverside office — were invited to a second interview.

Based on a staff recommendation, the council voted in September 2009 to hire CDM for the project.

In her email, Sterling said she attended a 2009 meeting with Huang and sewer treatment plant manager Craig Justice to draft a contract for CDM.

But scoring sheets showed CDM was not the highest ranked firm, Sterling wrote. Huang and Justice told Sterling that they were called into Public Works Director Siobhan Foster’s office, where “they were told that ‘she did not like the results of the scoring,’ and that the scoring needed to be ‘fixed’ so that CDM was selected” because Albert A. Webb Associates was to be a subcontractor on the job, according to the email.

Albert A. Webb Associates President Matthew Webb said in April that the company has earned its jobs based on merit and that contracts with Riverside are only a small portion of the company’s business.

Foster did not return calls for comment.

CDM VS. HILL

Documents obtained by The Press-Enterprise through numerous public records requests detail the project scoring.

For example, an undated summary sheet of overall scores shows CDM and CH2MHill were closely ranked in the city’s evaluation, but Hill scored slightly better overall until a final element, reference checks from other projects, was added.

After a four-member panel scored the two firms on their written proposals and two rounds of interviews, scores were averaged, which gave CDM 325.24 points and Hill 340.7 points.

The documents show CDM scored better on references — 94 points to Hill’s 76 points — but each firm’s reference check scores were added four times, once for each person on the scoring panel. Hill would have remained ahead if the scores were added only once.

The final score sheet was not averaged and instead used each firm’s total points. CDM was the leader with 1,352 points, while Hill had 1,326 points.

Had the reference check scores been added just once for each firm, CDM would have finished with 1,070 points and Hill with 1,097.

“That was just my way of doing it,” Huang said of adding the reference scores multiple times. He said the evaluation process was taking longer than expected and he had to make all the reference calls himself in a short time.

In an interview, Deputy Public Works Director Tom Boyd said with projects such as the sewer plant, the basic elements are usually the same — a request for proposals, interviews and reference checks — but there’s no standard for how much weight each element should have in the final evaluation. Boyd also said the city is not required to award the contract to the firm with the highest numeric score.

“When you have two firms that are ranked so closely, I would consider those firms equal,” he said.

CH2MHill officials noted the company has no detailed information about the selection process and they consider the city “a valued client.” They did not file a bid protest at the time.

CDM officials could not be reached for comment.

TIMELINE

The evaluation’s timeline also is confusing.

An email from Justice to Huang that lists discussion points for “moving forward into negotiation with CDM,” including names of the firm’s staff and questions about the project team, is dated May 29 — about two weeks before the reference checks were completed.

Boyd said Justice “may not have picked his words the best,” and was probably thinking ahead about general issues to address, but he said he doesn’t know why that particular firm was named in the email.

Justice, who has since left his job with the city, could not be reached for comment.

In a memo dated June 3, 2009, Huang and Justice wrote to ask Boyd for direction on which firm to pick. They refer to a meeting with Sterling the day before about drafting a contract when she asked if the firms had been scored.

“We explained to her that we felt the top two firms were equally qualified although one firm scored slightly higher than another. Her opinion is that unless the scores are exactly the same, they are not equally qualified. She strongly recommended that we award to CH2MHill, the firm with the higher score,” the memo said.

A handwritten note dated June 4 that appears to be Huang’s says to “do additional reference checks” and that Foster and Boyd would conduct a final interview with project managers from CDM and Hill.

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