Legal Issues Pertaining to Sweeping
A Cautionary Tale About a Sweeper Purchase and Sale
by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
An organization called 'The Edgar County Watchdogs' is raising questions about whether bid rigging occurred when the Algonquin County Highway Department sought bids for a new street sweeper.
Founded in 2011, the Edgar County Watchdogs are two veterans who are members of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The organization's purpose is to "foster accountability, truth, and transparency in our local governing bodies."
In 2017, the Watchdogs noticed what appeared to be a potential irregularity in the bid process for a new street sweeper for Illinois' Algonquin Township. As members of the Watchdog organization review this type of process, they search for "red flags" showing that bids contain specifications that are either narrower or wider than past, similar bids. If the winning bidder's product or service is considered overly similar to the specifications, or if the specifications mention specific brand names, the organization's stance is that the bid process may be rigged.
This person must also be aware if the winning bidder prepared the contract specifications, the losing bidders complain of specifications tailored to the winning bid or if there are significantly fewer bids than expected. The last red flag is if one bidder continually receives contract awards.
The then-current Algonquin Highway Commissioner, Robert J. Miller (who has since been replaced), correctly published a request for sweeper bids in the local newspaper, as well as placed the request on a statewide public notice as required by Illinois statute. According to the advertising and bid/selection document provided to the Watchdogs under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Algonquin Township received bids by three bidders, who provided bid information for a Johnston regenerative air, Schwarze A-7 Tornado and an Elgin Crosswind. The bids came in at $253,700 for the Johnston, $267,622 for the Schwarze and $307,719.25 for the Elgin.
Apparently as a result of a bid review by Commissioner Miller, the Elgin bid was revised to $297,000.85. Miller then selected the Elgin bid "because it met the proper specs." In the case of the Algonquin Township street sweeper, the Watchdogs reported that the specifications supplied by Miller were an exact match to the Elgin dealer's product. I.e., it appears the winning bidder prepared the sweeper specifications for Miller and the Algonquin Township.
According to Kirk Allen, one of the Watchdogs' authors and researchers, the Algonquin Township and Road District have, since then, both received grand jury subpoenas, with five different areas being targeted. His understanding is that one of these is concerning this particular sweeper purchase. The Township's ethics problem has been so widespread in the past, Allen said, that the current Road Commissioner, Andrew Gasser, who has since replaced Miller, actually ran on – and won his seat on – a platform that promised transparency.
This story underscores the importance of NOT having a dealer develop specifications for a sweeper purchase. In this case, the bid specs included this wording: "The following specification is based upon an ELGIN CROSSWIND street sweeper, mounted on an Autocar ACMD 'Xper' Cabover Chassis." Further on, in a section titled 'Equivalent Product,' the specs include: "Bids will be accepted for consideration on any make or model that is equal or superior to the sweeper specified."
The bid specs stated upfront that they were based upon the Crosswind; as the Watchdogs noted, the specs issued appeared to have been supplied by the Elgin dealer. However, that wasn't sufficient to meet the appearance of fairness, especially when the purchase decision was made for the Crosswind at a price differential of nearly $44,000.
Both municipal agency personnel and dealer personnel need to be aware of the legal problems inherent in conducting a process such as this. When a bidding process with the above lack of transparency occurs – or when specifications include specific information that only one make of sweeper can meet – then it opens up the process to the appearance of bid rigging, whether or not that actually occurs.
A second action by Commissioner Miller is receiving similar scrutiny. He allegedly struck a sweetheart deal to sell the Township's previous sweeper, a 2012 Elgin Crosswind with 25k miles on it, to the nearby Village of Island Lake for $70,000. The Watchdogs, in their article on that topic, include a listing for a 2012 Crosswind with 75k miles on it for $135,000. In addition, it appears Miller may have violated the Illinois statute covering the sale of single township property by not getting "elector approval" for the sale. In short, the Watchdog article includes this sentence: "All indications appear to point to the Road District selling equipment in direct violation of the law."
If you haven't picked it up on your own, this would seem to be the moral of this particular saga: There is much more oversight available now in the 21st century's Internet age. We are no longer in a time when oversight of operations happened as a result of relatively rare government inspectors. Rather, an average citizen with web access and the inclination to investigate, coupled with use of the US Freedom of Information Act, will probably be able to ferret out what has actually occurred in most government transactions. In addition, many communities now have organizations, like the Watchdogs, composed of individuals who have an interest in government transparency and ensuring ethical conduct.
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