Florida’s transportation agency faulted in SunPass contract deal

The failed bidding process is the latest contracting scandal for the DeSantis administration.
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge.
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge. [ VRAGOVIC, WILL | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published July 26, 2022|Updated July 26, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Department of Transportation asked companies last year to bid on a multimillion-dollar contract to take over call centers for its SunPass tolling facilities, the agency had a key requirement: Bidders had to have at least 10 years of experience doing similar work.

But the department later chose a company that had not even existed for five years.

In the latest questionable award for the state, a Tallahassee judge last week rejected the agency’s decision to give a potential $157 million contract to Emovis US, the winning bidder on a seven-year contract to take over tolling operations for the state’s turnpike authority.

Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham last week blasted the state’s procurement, calling some of the language “inexplicably sloppy” and recommending it rescind the award because Emovis US didn’t meet the minimum requirements. (The judge’s decision was first reported by News Service of Florida.)

The decision could now pave the way to give the contract to another bidder, including Conduent State and Local Solutions, the company blamed for the 2018 SunPass fiasco that overbilled thousands of motorists and caused the state to lose an estimated $50 million in toll revenue.

Related: SunPass: Inspector general faults state, contractors for toll failures

The Department of Transportation didn’t respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Emovis US, a subsidiary of a French company with the same name, wasn’t incorporated until June 30, 2016. That put it way under the state’s requirement that it have provided tolling services for at least 10 years.

But the company ended up winning the state’s contract, with a proposal of $157 million over seven years — nearly 40% lower than the average bid among all the other companies.

The second- and third-place companies, California-based Shimmick Construction Co. and New Jersey-based Conduent, filed protests mostly over Emovis’ experience. (Conduent, which is currently handling the state’s toll operations and whose bid was nearly $231 million over seven years, also protested that the bid from Emovis US was suspiciously low.)

In court, Emovis US and state transportation officials argued that the company should be allowed to count the work of its subcontractors in its 10 years of experience.

Van Laningham rejected that argument. Although state officials were “sloppy” in the request for proposals, Van Laningham wrote that the “plain meaning” was clear: Emovis US didn’t qualify. And neither did Shimmick, which had undergone a series of corporate transformations that resulted in acquiring a different company’s relevant experience only in 2020, Van Laningham determined.

The request for proposals “was not drafted with the precision and attention to detail that a solicitation of this magnitude calls for,” Van Laningham wrote. “Sloppily written language, however, is not necessarily ambiguous language.”

The decision now goes back to the department for a final order.

The dispute is the latest procurement scandal for the DeSantis administration, and it continues the Department of Transportation’s long-running problems with bids over the SunPass tolling system.

Related: How Florida’s SunPass debacle started in 2012

In 2014, when the department reported to then-Gov. Rick Scott, transportation officials awarded a 14-year contract estimated at $600 million to Conduent to process tolling transactions.

But competing companies protested, noting that the department repeatedly lowered the minimum requirements to accommodate Conduent’s experience and officials deviated from the department’s procurement practices during the process. The department then paid one of the companies $3.6 million to drop its bid protest, which prompted the Legislature to change state law to restrict such payoffs.

In 2020, department officials spent six months bidding out the second half of Conduent’s 14-year contract, only to scrap it and start over for reasons the department didn’t detail.

Procurement problems have cropped up in other state agencies as well. In 2020, the Agency for Health Care Administration awarded a $135 million contract to Deloitte Consulting after downplaying Deloitte’s past work building the state’s troubled unemployment system, which melted down during the pandemic.

Related: Florida officials tried to steer education contract to former lawmaker’s company

Last year, the Department of Education tried to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to a company whose CEO has ties to the state’s then-education commissioner. Education officials held a one-week bidding process even though it was already in talks with the winning bidder, records showed. That deal was later scrapped.