CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Legislative Auditor is reviewing a state official's decision to award 20 "emergency" no-bid contracts to Premier Construction to repair microwave radio towers after the June 2012 derecho storm.
The inquiry follows a scathing audit released last week that alleged emergency communications director Joe Gonzalez circumvented purchasing rules and ignored a directive to halt construction of towers being built by Premier with federal stimulus funds.
Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred has directed the state Department of Health and Human Resources to turn over all emergency-purchasing contracts that Gonzalez has signed off on since 2007.
In a recent letter to DHHR, Allred commented that Gonzalez's reason for awarding the 20 no-bid contracts -- valued at $27,410 -- to Premier Construction after the storm "does not make sense."
In an August 2012 memo to his superiors, Gonzalez argued that Premier Construction, a Jane Lew contractor, was the only company that could repair the damaged towers "in a timely manner."
Allred told DHHR that Gonzalez's claim didn't make sense because Premier "merely served" as a general contractor on a related $38 million microwave radio network expansion project that included 17 new towers. Premier Construction used subcontractors -- other companies with more tower-construction experience -- to build 16 of the 17 towers as part of a statewide project funded by the stimulus.
"Given that Premier Construction had to use multiple subcontractors to erect 16 of the 17 towers, how could Premier be the only contractor with the ability to do this work?" Allred asked DHHR.
In his memo to DHHR higher-ups, Gonzalez said Premier had to do the work quickly to prevent a "complete breakdown of emergency medical services communications and the potential loss of life."
But Allred found that Premier waited four to 13 days to repair all but one of the microwave radio towers damaged during the derecho.
"If there [is] truly a potential for loss of life, would it not have made sense to use multiple tower companies to get this work completed in a more timely manner rather than waiting almost two weeks for Premier Construction to complete emergency work?" Allred asked.
Under emergency purchasing rules, state officials must solicit three verbal bids from companies for any contracts over $1,000. Fourteen of Premier's 20 jobs exceeded $1,000.
In a December 2012 memo, Gonzalez, who works as communications director for the Office of Emergency Services, wrote to his superiors that he didn't secure verbal bids. He said Premier was the only company he could reach by telephone "due to the interruption of phone networks" after the June 2012 storm.
Allred disputed Gonzalez's statement.