Ambulance Chaser?

by Nathan Stubbs

Is Lafayette Consolidated Government favoring Acadian Ambulance with a soon-to-be-awarded contract for GPS monitoring of parish vehicles?

Doug Crawford was skeptical from the start when his company first decided to bid on a contract with Lafayette Consolidated Government to provide GPS monitoring for parish-owned vehicles. The request for proposals sent out by LCG contained several specifications that would directly favor a local company getting the contract, and the scuttlebutt was that Acadian Monitoring Services (a subsidiary of Acadian Ambulance) had assisted LCG with filling in the details of its RFP. In part because it has a local partner in Lafayette to help meet many of those demands, Crawford’s Trenton, Fla.-based FAS Systems decided to submit a proposal anyway.

It was one of 12 companies to answer the RFP. Only two of those, Acadian Monitoring and Consolidated Safety, are based in Lafayette.

A couple of weeks after the proposals were all received and accepted by LCG, Crawford got an e-mail: Lafayette Consolidated Government had decided to take a mulligan. All the bids received would be discarded and a new RFP, with new specifications, was being sent out. Crawford says he received no explanation for why this was happening. Upon hearing the news, his suspicions deepened, and he immediately picked up the phone and demanded that his company’s original proposal be sent back.

“It just reeks of some improprieties,” Crawford says. “We put in sealed bids which were opened then canceled, then re-bid. It makes me wonder who looked at my numbers. My question is, is someone [with a competitor] on the inside?”

Crawford has been with FAS for more than 15 years and bid dozens of contracts with local governments. “I’ve never had this happen before,” he says. At the very least, he claims the RFP process was mishandled and reflects poorly on Lafayette. “The level of professionalism? I’d have to put it really low, whether anybody looked at all the bids or not,” he says.

“It just stinks,” he continues. “I just can’t believe that you go out with an RFP on a project that size and then you screwed it up and have to re-bid it. I’m sorry, somebody looked at all those bids.”

LCG Chief Information Officer Keith Thibodeaux, who has been overseeing the GPS contract for LCG, insists the bid process has not been compromised, even though technically the proposals appear to have been subject to public record law for several days between the time they were accepted and the point LCG chose to cancel its initial RFP.

“They have not been distributed at all,” Thibodeaux says.

“I can assure you there is no fix,” he adds. “Now, do I blame the vendors for being upset about having to do work twice? No. Would they need to be upset that a competitor saw their bid? I wouldn’t blame them for being upset, but I can tell you that didn’t happen in here.”

Proposals for consideration on the contract, valued at $390,000, are now due by Jan. 12. Thibodeaux expects to have a contract signed by the end of February.

Thibodeaux says he wrote both RFPs that went out, basing them on a similar RFP from Cumberland County government in Tennessee. He did consult with Acadian Monitoring during the process, but says that he also discussed the RFP with reps from two other potential vendors, AT&T and Verizon. He also called officials at Stone Energy and Fenstermaker & Associates, two companies that contract out for GPS services.

City-Parish President Joey Durel has made equipping hundreds of LCG vehicles with GPS tracking devices a priority in his 2010 budget. Citing examples from other cities, Durel says that closely monitoring city-parish vehicles will result in big fuel and overtime savings. The issue briefly put the mayor at odds with the council during budget hearings. Councilman Jay Castille’s motion to strip the $395,000 set aside for the initiative won a majority vote from the council, only to be vetoed by Durel. (The council did not have a two-thirds majority to override Durel).

Thibodeaux says the council’s reluctance to fund the project prompted a decision to draft a new RFP, which he claims requires less of a commitment from LCG. “At that point,” Thibodeaux recalls, “we said, ‘you know what, I don’t know that we want to put ourselves in a position where we can’t easily get back out of this thing, because what if next year we don’t get the funding?’”

Thibodeaux says he discussed the issue with LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley, and then authored the memo himself canceling the initial RFP.

“If you don’t know you’re going to have the money to continue it, then you don’t want to make a big heavy investment up front,” he continues. “So that’s one of the real differences between the two RFPs. The first one we’re saying we want to see everything you got, show us what you would recommend us to do. The second one we’re saying, this is the only kind of solution we’re going to consider.”

Despite Thibodeaux’s assertions, two vendors that have been involved in the bid process say they saw few differences in the two RFPs. A side-by-side comparison of the documents, which The Independent obtained through a public records request, reveals mostly technical changes. Both 18-page RFPs include many of the same safeguards against unforeseen expenses, including clauses that require “vendor maintenance plans have an all-inclusive ‘flat-fee’ that will not require LCG to pay any additional fees for changes, modifications, and updates requested throughout the year” and that “software installation must be an automated process that requires minimal I.T. involvement.” As for the project’s scope, the newer RFP actually states that LCG will be ordering more GPS tracking units than the first RFP (between 500 and 700 as opposed to the initial RFP’s 100 to 500 unit estimation).

Both RFPs also are full of esoteric specifications that those in the industry say are a red flag for a contract that is custom-built for a specific vendor. An example includes LCG’s request for polygon-shaped GEOfencing. While most vendors provide GEOfencing — a virtual fence set up to alert attendants to when a vehicle has moved outside a designated zone — a more select group designs them in polygon shapes. In addition, LCG stipulated that it wants its vendor to offer on-site support within two hours of a call — a clause that would seem to clearly favor a local business. “In matters involving public safety,” responds Thibodeaux, “it is imperative that a vehicle be returned to service in a prompt time frame. It is felt that the two-hour requirement is both reasonable and attainable.”

U.S. Fleet Tracking Corp is one national vendor that will no longer be bidding on the project. After submitting a proposal for the first RFP, U.S. Fleet’s National Sales Director Richard Banks says the company will not be participating in the second round of bids, having determined that the project’s specs will prohibit an out-of-state company from competing. It’s something Banks says unfortunately has become all too commonplace in the business.

“When you’re dealing with local governments,” he says, “and I don’t care if it’s Lafayette, or a city in Oklahoma or any other state — it’s not at all unusual to find an agency has already selected the vendor they want to use. They then write the bid specification for that specific product or vendor. We see this all the time.”

Banks adds that because of this, U.S. Fleet rarely bids on local government contracts anymore. Based in Oklahoma City, U.S. Fleet is one of the country’s largest GPS manufacturers, and this year will be tracking vehicles for events including the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. (The company also claims to be the only provider of real-time monitoring.)

“When we see cases where there’s odd or unusual language which favors a specific product, we decline to bid simply because we refuse to lend legitimacy to such corrupt bid processes and practices,” Banks says. “They may be issuing an RFP, but in reality they’re asking for a legitimate request from multiple vendors when there’s only one vendor that will meet 100 percent of the criteria they’ve laid out. Yes, it does happen. It happens all over the country. And it’s wrong.”

It’s a sentiment Doug Crawford with FAS Systems shares. His company will be bidding again on Lafayette’s GPS contract, but he isn’t holding out any hope of landing it. “Do I expect to get it?” he asks with a laugh. “Not a chance. I’d be willing to bet on that one. We can start an inner-office pool on it. That contract is going to someone in Acadiana.”