Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday he will ask for a Senate inquiry to determine whether MacDill Air Force Base violated federal law by mishandling a contract to build temporary office space for foreign military officers.
The Florida Democrat also has requested a separate investigation by the Air Force inspector general to look into allegations that MacDill retaliated against a contracting official on base for informing Nelson's office about a series of problems with the contract.
The General Accounting Office released a report Tuesday saying MacDill paid $509,951 for the installation of several mobile homes in preparation for the war in Iraq last year. That amount was more than three times the original bid of $142,755.
Because of poor recordkeeping by officials at the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill, the GAO said it is impossible to determine how much MacDill should have paid for the project, known as Coalition Village II, at U.S. Central Command.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, did not comment outright on the legality of the Coalition Village II contract in its report. It said the way MacDill awarded the contract was "questionable."
In an interview Tuesday, Nelson, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would ask the committee to look into the case. He said he wanted to know whether contracting officials at MacDill violated the law.
"I think that's an appropriate question to be answered for the sake of making sure that these kind of things are not done in the future, and making sure that the taxpayers' money is wisely spent," he said.
Col. Brian T. Kelly, vice commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, said contract officials adhered to federal law.
"This acquisition was accomplished through a valid contract executed by an authorized contracting officer," Kelly said in a statement. "As needs evolved, the contractor submitted cost proposals to cover changes requested by the government customer.
"To ensure the government was still paying appropriate compensation, every line item on their cost proposal was validated by the proper government offices and all changes were negotiated by an authorized contracting officer."
In its report, the GAO painted a different picture.
"Because of these weaknesses in contract management," the GAO said, referring to a lack of documentation, "we were unable to determine if the government paid costs that otherwise might have been avoided or minimized."
Barry Holman, director of defense capabilities and management at the GAO, said he believed the contract was legally executed.
Holman, who supervised the investigation, pointed out that the two other contractors who submitted bids on the project could have protested the award to Resun Limited Inc. of Brandon but never did.
One of the contractors, Orlando-based Williams Scotsman, did file a formal protest, but company officials were told by MacDill that the company's claim was not valid because the bid was higher than Resun's. When Williams Scotsman backed down, Tech Sgt. Barry Snyder wrote in an e-mail to his superiors, "As expected, our aggressive, thorough, and professional response to Williams Scotsman "made a molehill out of a mountain.' "
On Tuesday, Fred Langebartels, Central Florida area manager for Williams Scotsman, which built Coalition Village I at CentCom in preparation for the war in Afghanistan, said it would consider legal options against MacDill over the Coalition Village II project.
"I'm still sour about the way the bid was handled," Langebartels said. "In all my years in this particular business, I've never seen anything as ludicrous as this bid was handled."
In its report, the GAO said the bid from Resun to MacDill was "arguably late" in meeting the deadline.
Nelson requested the GAO investigation of the Coalition Village II contract, and another into rents paid off-base by military personnel assigned temporarily to MacDill, in response to articles published last year by the St. Petersburg Times.
On off-base housing, the GAO concluded that contracting officers at MacDill did nothing wrong, and, in fact, saved $12.6-million with the housing arrangements in 2003.
Last June, the Times reported that soldiers living off-base were paying above-market rates, as much as $3,600 for a three-bedroom apartment. Nelson said that while he accepted the GAO conclusions, he still believed the rents were too high. Over the past year, federal investigators have targeted MacDill. An investigation by the Pentagon inspector general continues into allegations that the Special Operations Command, along with the Pentagon comptroller, hid $45-million from Congress over the last two years.
Nelson also has asked that the Air Force inspector general investigate allegations that MacDill officials retaliated against Dennis Fuentes, a former contracting official, for sharing information with him about MacDill contracts.
In an e-mail to colleagues last April, Fuentes, who at one time oversaw the Coalition Village II contract, said MacDill was in violation of federal law. Fuentes has since been reassigned to a noncontracting position at MacDill.
His lawyer, Lynn Cole of Tampa, said Fuentes would not be available for comment.
Capt. Ken Hoffman, a MacDill spokesman, said privacy issues prevented him from discussing the Fuentes case.
_ Paul de la Garza can be reached at (813) 226-3432 or delagarzasptimes.com.