The base may have violated federal law by agreeing to spend money it did not have, a dispute over the cost of offices shows.
By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published June 25, 2003
TAMPA - As the United States geared up for war in Iraq, MacDill Air Force Base scrambled to provide temporary offices for foreign military officers streaming in from around the world.
Money was no object.
A Brandon firm hired in February to bring in more mobile homes for the Coalition Village in Central Command's parking lot quickly ran through its $111,000 contract. The contractor says he then was told by MacDill officials to keep expanding the village without a written contract or an agreement on price.
In April, the contractor submitted another bill for more than four times the original contract. Resun Leasing Inc. wanted another $467,000 after bringing 14 mobile homes to MacDill and making other improvements.
In its rush to prepare for war, the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill appears to have violated federal law by agreeing to spend money it did not have, according to a review of hundreds of e-mails among MacDill officials, memos and other documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
Dennis Fuentes, a contracting official at MacDill, wrote a colleague in an e-mail April 29: "As of this date, I am outside of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, which is Federal Law. We need to bring this contract back in line.
"Who is at fault is not clear, and not my first concern. Complying with Federal Law is."
The documents also indicate base officials monitoring the construction site were not authorized to negotiate changes to the original contract.
Now the fingerpointing has begun.
The contractor, which has been paid an additional $369,000 since it submitted its first bill, is threatening legal action. MacDill officials ordered the contractor off the base and reprimanded two sergeants who helped supervise the project.
"To be very frank, we lost control of the process early on, and allowed the events to control the project and (its) cost," Fuentes wrote. "I do not believe there is any excuse for this type of contracting."
In an e-mail to Fuentes on May 6, Carl Boudreault of Chugach Management Services, a base contractor which oversees installation of utilities and other projects, agreed.
"I support your efforts to bring closure because you are right," he wrote. "This is not how this, or any contract, should end up."
Former and current officials familiar with base operations say the Coalition Village expansion reflects the way MacDill's contract office sometimes cuts corners as it processes hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.
MacDill's contracting procedures already are under scrutiny. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is reviewing why above-market rates are being paid to house hundreds of military personnel on temporary assignment at MacDill in off-base apartments.
Capt. Ken Hoffman, MacDill spokesman, said Tuesday that the contracts used to expand Coalition Village "are in order" and comply with federal regulations.
At Central Command, Lt. Col. John Robinson said: "Central Command is not aware of any contractual improprieties. If we become aware of any, we will work through the 6th Contracting Squadron and MacDill Air Force Base to get them corrected."
In February, MacDill received three bids to expand Coalition Village, where military personnel from other countries have temporary offices.
Williams Scotsman, which built the original Coalition Village after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, met the Feb. 18 noon deadline with 29 minutes to spare.
The Warrior Group bid came in at 12:07 p.m. and was tossed out for missing the deadline.
The contracting office received Resun's proposal at 12:03 p.m. But MacDill officials determined that Resun still beat the noon deadline.
The reason: MacDill officials knew the time stamped by their fax machine was three minutes fast.
"The official time, for this solicitation was determined by synchronizing (1st Lt. Tracey) Howell-LaPalme's watch to the Nuclear Clock in Colorado, which is synchronized with the MacDill AFB noon siren," wrote Master Sgt. Richard Heidtman on Feb. 24 to Williams Scotsman, which protested the award to Resun.
"When it was discovered that Resun faxed their proposal to Command Section Fax machine we compared the time on that machine to 1Lt Howell-LaPalme's watch and found the fax machine to be three (3) minutes fast. Therefore, 12:03 PM on page one (1) of Resun's proposal was 12:00 PM (noon) by the official time and subsequently timely."
Williams Scotsman dropped its protest.
Writing to his superiors, Tech Sgt. Barry Snyder said, "As expected, our aggressive, thorough, and professional response to Williams Scotsman "made a molehill out of a mountain."'
Problems with the Resun contract started popping up within a week.
Master Sgt. Mark Utz of CentCom alerted colleagues to a series of changes he anticipated in the contract, which later was adjusted to $142,000 because of a math error. Utz sent an e-mail on March 5 to 15 base officials, including Howell-LaPalme, the contracting officer in charge of the contract.
"To all," Utz wrote, "The following Modifications are either currently being implemented or are in need of initiation. I am concerned about when we are going to look at the cost for these changes. I would prefer to know the cost before the work is done rather than after."
Among the changes Utz cited:
- Exchange the singlewide for a doublewide trailer.
- Flag pole requirement has increased from 20 to 26 poles.
- Grounding/lightning protections have changed.
When Resun submitted its new bill to MacDill on April 22, it cited 100 changes to the contract.
"Due to the extremely critical nature of this project, we quickly responded as directed on site (instead of normal procedures of pricing change orders and receiving written approval) and (were) assured that funds were available for these changes," Robert Gillespie, Resun's on-site supervisor, wrote MacDill on April 25.
In response to Gillespie's e-mail, Fuentes, the contracting official, contacted Snyder.
"Barry," Fuentes wrote, "467K. Surprised?"
Snyder responded: "I haven't read through the individual items ... but on the surface, yes. I'll read through this tonight while smoking a cigar and drinking a Heineken."
Fuentes to Snyder: "Better get something stronger. Actually, this is going to be fun. We're all going to learn a lot."
Howell-LaPalme ordered an immediate stop to the work in late April after she was alerted to legal problems with the contract. She also briefed Lt. Col. Richard Fuentes, the 6th Contracting Squadron commander.
Two contracting specialists who helped to supervise the project, Snyder and Heidtman, have since been reprimanded.
Negotiations between Resun and MacDill over payment for the work have grown increasingly hostile.
Michael Aldrich, Resun's regional sales manager, hinted at taking legal action against MacDill.
"I sincerely hope we can work together to resolve this, but the emails I keep receiving from your dept does not give me the feeling of cooperation, but more of an ultimatum," Aldrich wrote Dennis Fuentes on May 11.
"It has always been our intention to work with your dept to finalize this and not to have to go outside for resolution, but I will not accept the position that we created this situation and we will have to accept what your dept decides we should get."
The documents show because of "inadequate documentation," base officials have relied on memory and guesswork to calculate how much money Resun is due.
Writing to Boudreault of Chugach Management in mid May, Snyder asked for help in estimating the cost of Resun's work.
"What I am doing as the contracting administrator is documenting all actions that I agreed to with Resun while they were doing the work," Snyder wrote. "What I need from you is the same thing. If you could dig deep into your memory banks and get the information, that would be a tremendous help in bringing together our (the government's) documentation."
Resun in some cases has been unable to provide a breakdown of its work to MacDill, complicating efforts to reach a settlement. It says subcontractors it supervised submitted bills in a lump sum.
Officials at MacDill want to keep negotiations quiet.
"Do not discuss this figure, or the ongoing negotiations, with anyone who is not a government employee and does not have a valid right to know," Snyder wrote to Maj. Juvenal Salomon at CentCom in an e-mail May 16.
Judy Hall, another contracting official, advised Howell-LaPalme that same day to use the telephone or meet in person to discuss another challenge to the Resun contract by Williams Scotsman, "rather than creating an email file that can be misinterpreted."
Howell-LaPalme replied: "I do not want to open this up to any more discussion."