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Auditor critical of county’s choice for courthouse consultant

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Travis County’s efforts to hire an outside firm to help it determine how to construct a new downtown courthouse have hit a snag.


On Tuesday, County Auditor Susan Spataro raised questions about the procurement process behind the selection of that consultant. Responding to a question from Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Spataro told the court that she didn’t think that the effort, conducted by Travis purchasing officer Cyd Grimes, was fair.


In addition to her statement, Spataro produced a minority report from members of the committee charged with selecting the construction consultant. In it, interim county executive for Planning and Budget Leroy Nellis detailed his concerns about the conclusions offered by the committee.


Spataro and Nellis, the county’s two top financial officers, each voted against the bidder that was ultimately selected, multinational accounting firm Ernst and Young. KPMG was the other finalist.


Grimes told the court that she had already begun final contract negotiations with Ernst and Young. Should they continue, the company would help the county figure out which construction process it will use when building its new Civil and Family Courthouse. It would also assist with the pending decision about whether or not the county can utilize a public-private partnership to help pay for the project.


In his statement, Nellis argued that Ernst and Young lacked the appropriate set of qualifications. “I felt very strongly that the firm performing the analysis should have a local real estate component to evaluate the potential…of the local commercial real estate market’s ability to absorb additional retail space over the next twenty-five years,” he wrote. “In my opinion, this requirement separated the two firms since KPMG had a local real estate component and Ernst & Young initially proposed using client confidential information and later revised their proposal to utilize a California based employee to provide the analysis.”


It is generally considered unethical to use confidential information in the manner described by Nellis without client approval.


An evaluation of the bidders by Spataro was attached to Nellis’ letter. In it, she notes that her staff went over the information assembled via Grimes’ process. They then weighed the responses against “initiatives important to the Commissioners’ Court or to the usefulness of the final report to the Commissioners’ Court.”


Spataro’s office ranked KPMG above Ernst & Young in six of nine categories. They tied in another. Spataro declined comment about any further specifics, or what portion of the process she found unfair.


Grimes seemed struck by the development. She told In Fact Daily that the process was “absolutely” fair. Grimes added that she was surprised by Spataro’s statement. “I’ve been the purchasing agent for 18 years. I’ve never been accused of not having an open and fair process,” she continued. “I’ve never had the county attorney, or the DA, or the FBI over in my offices. I’m very confident that the process was fair, open, and transparent.”


Grimes asked the court for a public airing of the details. “I would like it discussed in open court,” she said. “If (Spataro) is implying that the process was (unfair) under my supervision, I want the public to understand that I disagree with her opinion and if we have to talk about it in executive session and come out and discuss in open court, I’m fine with that.”


County Judge Sam Biscoe moved the matter to executive session. The court did not discuss it further in public.

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