Company's paving issues delay contract to repair Old Dixie Highway in Pasco

Published August 18 2016

The crumbling lime-rock road leading to SunWest Park is even bumpier than imagined.

Pasco County is holding up a nearly $1.2 million contract to rebuild the road base and pave 1.25 miles of Old Dixie Highway in the Hudson/Aripeka area because of the low bidder's troubles in neighboring Hernando County.

The company, B.R.W. Contracting Inc. of Land O'Lakes, is barred currently from working county government projects in Hernando. This year, Hernando pulled the company from three of its biggest and most recent projects for either falling months behind schedule or building poor-quality roads.

Additionally, the company's past president, Phyllis Blankenship, was convicted of perjury after her arrest in February on charges she signed sworn affidavits for the company indicating none of its officers had been convicted of a public entity crime.

Her now former husband, Randy Blankenship, is the company's chief executive officer and was sent to prison in 2001 for defrauding the federal government on an Interstate 4 construction contract. The Blankenships divorced Feb. 1, according to court records. Randy Blankenship did not return calls from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.

Under state law, individuals involved in such public entity crimes are prohibited from bidding for government work for three years. Pasco County's purchasing ordinance requires a clean record for five years before they can bid for county jobs.

B.R.W. was the lowest of six bidders for the Old Dixie Highway work, and the company's documents to the county included a handwritten notation acknowledging Randy Blankenship's federal conviction, "which might be construed as a public entity crime,'' but which no longer fell under the 36-month disbarment from doing public work.

Randy Blankenship, who is Caucasian, was convicted in 2001 of using the African-American owner of a trucking company as a front man to defraud a federal program designed to aid minority-owned firms. Blankenship was released from prison in 2004.

The Pasco County Commission had been scheduled to award the Old Dixie Highway bid July 26, but delayed consideration for two weeks at the request of the County Attorney's Office, which wanted to review the problems in Hernando. On Aug. 9, the proposed contract again appeared on the board's agenda, where it was scrutinized by an obviously uncomfortable commission.

"Legally, you don't have anything in your current ordinance that would disqualify B.R.W.,'' County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder advised commissioners.

"Even if it's the wife, the sins of a former officer can't be held against the corporation,'' he said.

Steinsnyder's legal advice failed to persuade a commission majority.

"We need to fix that, I think,'' commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said of the county's purchasing ordinance.

"I'm not supporting it,'' said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr.

"I don't like it,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore, "but at the same time I want to protect the county.''

A motion to award the bid died 3-2, with only Commissioners Jack Mariano and Ted Schrader following the staff recommendation for approval.

B.R.W. has had four contracts for road work in Pasco County over the past two years, the most recent and largest of which was a June 2015 job worth $517,870 to make improvements to Lake Iola Road in northeast Pasco.

"I won't say it wasn't without bumps,'' Chris Wert, Pasco's assistant director of engineering services, told commissioners. But, he said, the company completed the work on time and slightly under budget.

Rejecting B.R.W.'s bid left the commission in a quandary. Commissioners could reject all bids and advertise the project again, but that wouldn't prohibit B.R.W. from submitting a new bid. Going with the second-lowest bidder likely would result in a lawsuit, Steinsnyder warned, because the commission had no legal reason to bypass B.R.W.

"I don't know how to advise you at this point, commissioner,'' Steinsnyder said to Schrader after the 3-2 vote.

Eventually, the commission voted to reconsider its 3-2 vote, then delayed its final decision until Tuesday, allowing time for each commissioner to meet individually with the county's legal staff. There was universal agreement on at least one point.

"That road,'' said Wells Jr. "needs to be done.''

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