‘We Are Dedicated To Competitors’: High Wolf Ofc Says As Admin Faces Scrutiny For Pandemic Procurement Practices | Wednesday Morning Espresso
July 25, 2021
Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
A senior Wolf administration official has defended the state’s procurement practices during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that the commonwealth balanced speed against transparency as it tried to meet massive need.
“We, as an administration, like the prior administration, and the administration before that … are absolutely committed to doing as much contracting on a competitive basis as we can,” Pennsylvania Department of General Services Secretary Curt Topper told a state House oversight panel on Tuesday. “We are committed to competition.”
Topper’s comments came as the Republican-controlled General Assembly kicked off a probe of the commonwealth’s procurement practices during the worst public health crisis in century. It comes in response to published reports that the state awarded $340 million in emergency contracts last year with little oversight.
“Between 2015 and 2019, Pennsylvania agencies made on average 135 emergency procurement requests each year,” the investigative news site, Spotlight PA reported Tuesday, citing records it obtained through an open records request.
Last year, the number of emergency requests jumped to 483, “with about half explicitly for COVID-19 response. Only 15 were denied,” Spotlight PA reported.
The investigative news site highlighted two questionable instances, including the awarding of a contract to a contract tracing firm that, through a security lapse, later exposed the personal information of about 72,000 people.
Speaking to the House State Government Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations on Tuesday afternoon, Topper said that low rejection rate should be taken as a point of pride, rather than a point of contention because it meant agency heads were only submitting requests that they believed were worthy of approval and weren’t extraneous.
“Agencies know better than to send [a procurement request] that we’d say no to,” Topper told the GOP-controlled panel.
The questioning at Tuesday’s hearing was led by two of the Wolf administration’s better-known Republican inquisitors, House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, of York County, and the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny.
Ortitay, who instigated the hearing, had Topper walk lawmakers through the intricacies of the procurement process, of both the emergency and non-emergency variety, and the circumstances under which goods and services are put out to competitive bid and those when they are not.
Speaking to Spotlight PA, Ortitay said the state’s emergency procurement process, which sidesteps competitive bidding, is far from transparent.
On Tuesday, Topper defended the agency’s emergency practices, saying they’re “as rigorous and transparent as we know how to make,” them, given the speed with which the state acts on emergency requests.
Topper, who said he’s spent two decades in the procurement business both inside and outside of state government, opened his remarks by drily thanking the panel for their sudden interest in procurement policy. Lawmakers spent the rest of Topper’s remarks drily parrying the jab.
Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, who worked as an accountant before joining the General Assembly, asked Topper if his agency had identified any weaknesses in policy, exposed by the pandemic, that could be improved through legislative action.
Topper told Ryan he’d like to see the agency authorize fewer emergency extensions of existing contracts — saying that could be addressed by better planning.
He also touted what he said were the state’s safeguards against procurement fraud by making sure that bids pass through different sets of hands at every stage of the process.
Returning to a central theme, Topper stressed to Ryan that he remains proud that the state denies few emergency requests because that “means we’re communicating effectively, and giving guidance to have needs met fast.
The last thing we want to do is to take a week and then say no during an emergency,” he said.
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Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:
What Goes On
9:30 a.m, Lancaster, Pa: House Urban Affairs Committee
10 a.m., Hearing Room 1, North Office Building: Senate Communications & Technology and Health & Human Services committee, joint hearing.
11 a.m, Philadelphia: House Democratic Policy Committee
1 p.m, G50 Irvis: House State Government Committee
3:30 p.m., Pittsburgh Pa.: Senate Democratic Policy Committee
Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.
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