TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: School, college contracting practices are a rich vein for FOI data mining

When a government agency, including a state college or a school district, goes into the market for anything from legal services to canned tomatoes, ethics laws normally require shopping around. That may include a formal bidding process or a less formal “request for proposals” process, but the essence is the same: Taxpayers get cheaper (and more honest) service if contracts are open to competition.

The unfortunate reality is that, through dishonesty or just plain laziness, government officials sometimes don’t play by the rules. Over the years, some tried-and-true end-runs around competitive bidding have emerged, which a vigilant reporter armed with a calculator and some patience can uncover. Patterns to look for include:

  • Awarding a contract to a company that is not the lowest-dollar bidder, by disqualifying the cheapest provider as unqualified to perform the work.
  • Single sourcing” a purchase without bids by claiming that only one supplier is capable of providing it. Sometimes, the product the agency needs can be strategically defined so that only one provider can possibly meet the description or the deadline.
  • Breaking up contracts with the same vendor into bite-sized pieces that fall beneath the threshold for mandatory bidding — for instance, signing three $35,000 contracts instead of one $105,000 one.
  • Contracting with “double dipping” insiders, recent agency retirees who may be brought back as “consultants” to do the same work they were doing on the government payroll — while also collecting a pension at the same time.

Of course, none of these practices is by themselves proof of an illicit motive. At times, the best strategy is to simply throw the facts out for public scrutiny and wait for the phone to ring with insider whistle-blowers who can fill in the missing motivation. Or secondary documents — such as emails — may furnish the back-story that the financial statements and contracts by themselves do not.

Reporter Tracey Loew’s award-winning work at Oregon’s Statesman Journal provides an especially compelling road map, not just for investigating purchasing irregularities but for presenting them online in an easy-to-read way.

Loew spent 16 months documenting the web of insider dealing plaguing the Willamette Educational Service District (WESD), including real estate deals that benefited school district officials’ family members, unexplained cost overruns in construction projects, unwritten side agreements made on handshakes, uncontrolled use of school district credit cards, and more.

The newspaper made this dense, technical subject matter accessible by embedding links to original source documents throughout Loew’s online series, and by creating a graphics-intensive “web of deals” that lets readers navigate through the story in a non-linear way.