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Low bidder on Hernando Beach Channel dredging linked to FBI inquiry

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando Beach Channel dredge has been arguably the most troubled project in Hernando County's long history.

Turns out the low bidder for the project has had some troubles of its own. They include a connection to an FBI investigation of a Port Authority official in Jacksonville and problems with a dredge project in the Naples area.

A spokesman for the firm's parent company told the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday that none of these issues should concern Hernando County officials. The problems, he said, stem from misunderstandings of the firm's corporate identity and misinterpretations of the normal course of business.

Hernando purchasing director Jim Gantt opened bids this week for the Hernando Beach Channel dredge and the apparent low bidder was Jacksonville-based Subaqueous Services LLC with a bid of approximately $5 million. Two other companies submitted bids millions of dollars higher.

Hernando officials are checking on Subaqueous through their consultant on the dredge project but had not come across any negative information about the company, County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said Thursday.

A performance bond, which was part of the bid requirement, will provide protection for the county, he noted.

"Unless there is a substantial problem with their performance'' or some legal complication, Russell said the county will give every consideration to hiring the company to do the work.

"By the same token, we'll make sure that everything adds up before we contract with them,'' he said.

Subaqueous Services LLC was created in February 2008 when the Orion Marine Group Inc. purchased the assets of a firm called Subaqueous Services Inc. and brought on employees from the old company, including Curtis Huggins as president.

A year ago, the FBI subpoenaed records from Jacksonville Port Authority member Tony Nelson, two firms he was affiliated with, and two contractors that did business with the authority, according to published reports.

One of those contractors was Subaqueous Services Inc. The firm had done no-bid contracts with the Port Authority, reports stated.

Nelson has since resigned from the Port Authority.

The former owner of Subaqueous Services Inc., Lance Young, was also named in the subpoena. Orion did not hire Young to work in the new company, according to Orion spokesman Chris DeAlmeida.

The FBI probe is ongoing, but DeAlmeida said he does not believe that Subaqueous is still being looked at or that Huggins or anyone connected with the new entity is connected to the investigation.

He said computer equipment requested by the FBI has been handed over and he is not aware of any recent contact with investigators.

Nevertheless, when Subaqueous bid on another Jacksonville Port Authority project last summer, the authority picked a higher bidder and part of the concern was the connection to the FBI probe.

"We weren't pleased that we lost it to the extent that they were not understanding who we are today,'' DeAlmeida said. The company has tried to educate Port Authority officials on how the corporate structure had changed, but without success.

"We were disappointed by that,'' he said.

More recently, Subaqueous Services LLC ran into a snag with a dredging project in Naples. In that case, surveyors found that the company missed about 16,000 cubic yards of sand that it was supposed to remove from an area known as Doctors Pass.

This month, Subaqueous returned to the job site to remove the material it missed before.

Such surveys and responses are a regular part of doing a dredge, DeAlmeida said. In this case, weather caused the company to move its equipment to safe harbor and there was a misunderstanding about whether the job was done or not.

He said the contract in Naples will be fulfilled within the time line set forth in the contract.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Low bidder on Hernando Beach Channel dredging linked to FBI inquiry 04/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 7:46pm]
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