Maryland Democrats have called on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to release any communications between his administration and one of the companies included in a $68.5 million consultant contract related to a traffic relief plan on Interstate 270 and the D.C. beltway.
State Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews said more than $100,000 in donations to Hogan administration officials and Republican Party groups demonstrated a “pay-to-play” culture surrounding the proposed contract with several companies on the project including HNTB, the former employer of Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.
A vote by the Maryland Board of Public Works on the contract was postponed Wednesday after questions arose relating to the contract.
The Daily Record first reported last week that Rahn approved a waiver to expedite the contract approval for his former employer. Since, other questions have arisen about Rahn’s involvement in the process, including that he sought state ethics officials’ clearance for his involvement in the contract negotiations only after the contract decision was made and that he’d dined with company representatives.
A Democratic Party press release on Thursday detailed three dinners with HNTB that Rahn disclosed in annual disclosure forms in the past three years. Rahn reported the meals as $30 gifts. He also disclosed a $35 meal in 2017 with Parsons Transportation Group, another of the companies involved in the consulting contract.
The Democratic Party also highlighted $12,000 in donations from HNTB-related organizations to the campaign accounts of Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford since November 2016. HNTB Corp. and HNTB Holdings Ltd. PAC also gave $92,000 to the Republican State Central Committee of Maryland and Republican Governors Association, which have supported the Hogan campaign.
“There is a cloud of scandal surrounding this contract, given Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn’s cozy relationship with HNTB,” Matthews said in a statement. “Governor Hogan should immediately release all communications between his administration, campaign, and HNTB, because Maryland taxpayers deserve to know whether there was cronyism, favoritism, and pay-to-play.”
Hogan’s office responded that HNTB had made previous donations to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), “and basically everyone in the state.”
“Any suggestion that they have a unique donor relationship with the Hogan administration just doesn’t hold up,” spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
Chasse also said that the O’Malley administration approved an HNTB contract extension after receiving a $4,500 donation in 2010.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, did not respond directly to a question about an allegation of a “pay-to-play” relationship.
She provided a letter from State Ethics Commission Executive Director Michael W. Lord that was sent to Rahn after the contract had been selected by an eight-member review panel. The letter said the state’s public ethics laws “do not prohibit your participation in matters involving your former employer, HNTB, as long as you have no financial interest in the entity and you are no longer employed by them.”
Lord also advised that state agencies “must make the determination of whether the integrity of the agency will be affected in a negative way” when the “appearance of a conflict of interest” remains even after the ethics law is followed.
Although Rahn participated in presentations and deliberations for the selection of the engineering consultants, he did not vote, Henson said.
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Delegate Kirill Reznik, who represents a district in northern Montgomery County that is bisected by I-270, have called for the project’s procurement process to start anew.
“I am asking you to reject this contract award, and restart the process in an open, fair, public, and transparent way, without the involvement of potential conflicts, and only after the public has had an opportunity to weigh in,” Reznik wrote in a letter to the Board of Public Works on Tuesday.
In emailed responses to questions, Hogan administration officials did not specifically address whether the procurement process will start anew or whether the project faces delays in light of recent questions.
Henson said MDOT withdrew the contract from the Board of Public Works agenda “to ensure that any questions members of the board have about the project are fully addressed.”
The contract — which is recommended to be awarded to a consortium of 26 firms, with HNTB listed as one of three primary members — covers $68.5 million for general engineering consulting for an overall $7.6 billion traffic relief plan that would install toll lanes on Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway and along I-270 to Frederick. The overall project has been billed by the Hogan administration as “the largest ever” proposed public-private partnership for a highway project in North America.
The consulting contract was selected through a waiver process that allows expedited consideration and more flexibility in procurement for large projects. The process was included in a procurement reform law passed by the General Assembly in 2017.
“There has been strong bipartisan support under two administrations and in the legislature for making the procurement process as efficient as possible so vital projects — and in this case, hundreds of thousands of Marylanders — can get moving,” Chasse said. “As with any new and innovative process, questions will be asked and should be answered. The governor is a relentless advocate for the important oversight role played by the Board of Public Works to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely, and the department must work to fully and transparently answer their questions so that this transformative project can move forward.”
She added that the Hogan administration “has no problem releasing public records whenever anyone files a Public Information Act request.”