The tower industry is growing at a quick pace, which is encouraging people to jump into this business whether they know the ins and outs of the tower business or not. In 2007, the Lewis County Commission of West Virginia was awarded, “a one-time $8.4 million Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for interoperable radio network supplies including mobile tower and microwave radios, and mobile and satellite radio gateways,” according to the Special Report by the WestVirginia Legislative Auditor.
Once the county received the PSIC grant, they realized that the restrictions of the grant made constructing a tower very difficult and the money went entirely to equipment. So in 2008, the Legislature allocated $10 million from the State Lottery Commission surplus to improve the interoperability communications in West Virginia.
“Dave Coffman, Chief Deputy of the Lewis County Sheriffs’ Office (since elected Sheriff of Upshur County) invited Mr. Gonzalez to speak with him about the possibility of constructing a tower in the Lewis County town of Roanoke. Together the two met with the Lewis County Commission about the possibility of the application for a DMAPS grant. The Lewis County Commissioners at that time and Chief Deputy Coffman understood this grant would only be used for the Roanoke tower. The Lewis County Commission applied for a DMAPS sub-grant and was awarded the amount of $307,347 in sub-grant 08-SR-03 to construct the Roanoke tower on July 31, 2009,” the report explained.
So this is when things got complicated. The Lewis County Commission issued an advertisement in the Weston Democrat on July 8th and July 15th of 2009. Three vendors responded to the ad and met at a pre-bid meeting and tower site visit on July 20, 2009. The Lewis County Commission opened the bids and held a bid review at their July 27, 2009 meeting. Mr. Gonzalez, Lewis County 911 Director Bill Rowan, and then-Lewis County Chief Deputy Coffman reviewed the bids for the Commission. The report explains that the Lewis County Commission relied on the experience of Mr. Gonzalez, Sheriff Coffman and Mr. Rowan to help ensure the bidders met the correct qualifications. Mr. Rowan had no previous experience dealing with tower construction bidding and Sherriff Coffman had no technical knowledge regarding microwave or antennas.
After the bid review process, it was decided that Premier Construction had the lowest big and the Lewis County Commission immediately entered into contract with the company. Once the contract was in place, the Legislative Auditor was unable to obtain the bids for the other companies involved in the process. The reason this has become a major focal point is because the local government didn’t bid the contract out as required by the Government Contract Act.
The Competitive Bidding Act requires, in part, that: “The state and its subdivisions shall, except as provided in this section, solicit competitive bids for every construction project exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars in total cost: Provided, That a vendor who has been debarred pursuant to the provisions of sections thirty-three-a through thirtythree-f, inclusive, article three, chapter five-a of this code may not bid on or be awarded a contract under this section. All bids submitted pursuant to this chapter shall include a valid bid bond or other surety as approved by the State of West Virginia or its subdivisions.”
The question is: was this fraud or simply a mistake? Either way, the Lewis County Commission broke the law by not soliciting competitive bids for this project and only placing a small ad hidden in the newspaper.