PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Board of Elections is planning to vote on Tuesday to lease a new headquarters in Cranston, even as a lawsuit accuses the board of participating in a “sham” bidding process.
The Board of Elections is looking to move out of its offices on Branch Avenue, in Providence, and Tuesday’s agenda includes a possible vote to sign a lease with Dean Warehouse Services for space at 2000 Plainfield Pike, in Cranston.
“We are going to execute the lease on Tuesday, if everything goes according to plan,” board Vice Chairman Stephen P. Erickson said Friday. “Our goal is to be in the new building by Dec. 1.”
But John O. Mancini, an attorney representing two rebuffed bidders, said, “We don’t think it is prudent for them to execute the lease because we have strong grounds to believe the process was a sham.”
Paolino Properties and Mutual Properties 14 Thurber LLC have filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court, claiming the state received five bids but unlawfully abandoned the bid process in order to cut a deal for the Cranston property — even though the owner of that property never submitted a bid.
Abandoning the bid process “was a pretext’’ that allowed the state to award a “lucrative, 10-year contract for an inflated contract rate to a non-bidder whose property was inexplicably recommended” by the Board of Elections “based on some unknown process,” Mancini’s firm argued in court documents.
“Such a non-transparent procurement process is exactly what the bid statutes were intended to prevent,” he wrote.
But state lawyers are asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Rhode Island law does not require the use of competitive bidding to lease real estate. The state’s chief purchasing officer may use the competitive bidding process to find a lease for a state agency such as the Board of Elections, but the law doesn’t require it, state lawyers said in court documents.
Also, state lawyers emphasized that a section of this year’s state budget specifically authorized a lease of up to 10 years with aggregate rent of $6 million to $6.5 million for the Cranston property.
The Board of Elections followed the law by requesting that the chief purchasing office cancel the request for proposals, state lawyers said. The Division of Purchasing issued a written determination, saying it had received five bids. “Technical review team toured each of the proposed sites and none met the satisfaction of the agency,” it said.
The lawsuit said the five bidders were never provided with specific reasons for the disqualification of their bids while Dean was allowed to negotiate without bidding.
On Aug. 16, Superior Court Judge Melissa E. Darigan denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the Board of Elections from leasing the Cranston site.
Mancini said the plaintiffs will seek a preliminary injunction. But first, the court will hold a Sept. 16 hearing on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.
Mancini represents Mutual Properties, which was proposing a Smithfield location, and Paolino Properties, which was proposing East Providence and Providence locations.
Former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., managing partner of Paolino Properties, said, “If you’re saying there is going to be a public process, you can’t throw out all the bids and say ‘We are going to do a side deal.’ ”
“Why do that? It makes me wonder. It makes no sense,” Paolino said. “It’s bad government. I’m surprised the Department of Administration would allow that to happen.”
In a June 10 memo, Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase indicated Mutual Properties did not own the Smithfield site, though it may have had a conditional purchase-and-sale agreement for it.
In any case, DiBiase said, “The state went out for competitive bidding and did not receive an adequate proposal. The state was able to otherwise identify adequate space which may prove to be suitable after negotiations. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the state to attempt to negotiate a lease for suitable space.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Elections plans to enter a closed-door session to discuss a lease with Dean Warehouse Services and Berkeley Acquisition. Court records indicate both entities are owned by Bradford Dean.
Board of Elections records show Dean Warehouse Services Chairman Bradford A. Dean and his son, CEO Bradford S. Dean, have been regular contributors to Rhode Island campaigns over the years.
Erickson said the Board of Elections is looking to move quickly because it needs to be ready for next year’s presidential primary and general elections.
The board’s Branch Avenue headquarters is a former Mack Truck dealership that’s long overdue for replacement, Erickson said. The roof leaks, the heating system needs work, and there’s not enough parking, he said. Plus, the state now must store a lot of its voting equipment at the Cranston Street Armory, where birds sometimes leave droppings on the machines, he said.
The Cranston location includes enough warehouse space to consolidate all the voting equipment in one spot, it provides easy access to Route 295, and it has a large hearing room that could double as a training room, Erickson said. “It’s a place that people will feel comfortable coming,” he predicted.