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Gonzalez rebuked over tower contracts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For months, West Virginia homeland security chief Jimmy Gianato and emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez butted heads with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's aides and Purchasing Division officials over a $38 million tower project that was spotlighted in a scathing legislative audit released last week, records show.

The disagreements boiled over last March, when Gonzalez fired off an email to Tomblin's former chief of staff, Rob Alsop, and other state officials, saying "people will die" if the state didn't move swiftly to award a contract to design five additional microwave radio towers for the existing 100-tower network.

"If we do not put this in place all of the States [sic] public safety communication systems will fail, and people will dye [sic]," Gonzalez wrote.

In response, Alsop scolded Gonzalez and Gianato, accusing them of trying to use "scare tactics" to award a contract for tower design work without soliciting bids, as state law requires.

"Let me be clear," Alsop wrote to Gianato and Gonzalez in an email. "You have been told for months that this needed to be re-bid. And after being told once again that it needed to be re-bid, there is still nothing in process."

Alsop went on: "The fact that someone has not done their job in getting this bid out does not mean you can come in with scare tactics about people dying and expect us to ignore the law so that you can get your way."

The state solicited bids for the tower design work, awarded a new contract and completed the project last month.

"Rob Alsop's email speaks for itself," Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Goodwin told the Gazette-Mail on Friday when asked to comment on the contract flap.

The West Virginia Legislative Auditor released a report last week, finding that Gianato and Gonzalez mismanaged the $38 million tower project, circumvented state purchasing laws and ignored directives to stop construction.

The audit spotlighted the state's decision to award the tower construction contract to Premier Construction of Jane Lew, alleging that Gonzalez and Gianato improperly used a Lewis County contract -- instead of a state contract -- for the 17-tower project. Gonzalez and Gianato have declined to comment on the audit, and they didn't respond to a request for comment on the tower design contract.

Gonzalez's "people will die" email and Alsop's response didn't make the auditor's report. The Governor's Office released those documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Gazette-Mail.

In 2010, West Virginia received $126.3 million in federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed Internet access across the state.

The Tomblin administration set aside $38 million to upgrade the state's microwave radio tower network, which is used by police, firefighters and paramedics. The improvements included new radio equipment and satellite dishes for existing towers, and 17 new towers.

At the time, the state Bureau of Public Health had a contract -- awarded in 2008 -- for tower design with Texas-based Alexander Utility Engineering. Gianato and Gonzalez authorized the firm to design the towers.

In October 2011, the company hired Gianato's son, Adam, as a $60-an-hour contract employee. Gonzalez has said he recommended Adam Gianato for the tower inspector's job.

The state used stimulus funds to pay Adam Gianato, while his father and Gonzalez oversaw the tower project. The West Virginia Ethics Commission gave a green light to the arrangement.

Adam Gianato continued to work for Alexander Utility Engineering -- which was acquired by TRC Companies Inc. -- through February 2012, when Gonzalez hired him as a full-time tower inspector in the Office of Emergency Medical Services. As a state employee, Adam Gianato is being paid about $45,000 a year.

The state's contract with Alexander Utility Engineering expired in August 2012 but was extended through the end of last February.

As of Feb. 28, the contract was "no longer considered" legal, according to documents Tomblin's office turned over to state auditors. Yet, Gianato "kept insisting" that the state continue to use the expired contract, saying, "... it was the only way to get the project done on deadline," according to a statement administration Purchasing Director David Tincher gave to auditors.

Five of 17 towers hadn't been designed at the time. Gianato was told the state would have to solicit bids for design work on the remaining towers.

Gianato also wanted the Purchasing Division to issue an "open-ended" contract that would allow the state to contract with TRC/Alexander Utility Engineering for additional towers -- not just the five paid for by the stimulus. However, administration officials rejected his request, according to Tincher's statement.

"Jimmy Gianato did not want to prepare a bid for the Purchasing Division, probably because it would have been easier and less time-consuming to continue to use the old contract," Tincher commented to auditors.

Alsop "eventually had to force" Gianato to bid out the engineering contract, state officials said.

TRC/Alexander Utility Engineering was awarded a new $1.3 million contract for the five additional towers in late July. Gonzalez served on the five-member committee that selected the company. Workers finished building the towers last month.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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