January 12, 2010 - 10:00 pm
A federal judge chastised Clark County commissioners for scrapping a contentious road-widening job on the northern Las Vegas Beltway.
He also accused them of acting "corruptly" when they awarded the project twice last year to a union contractor whose bid was $4.6 million higher than the bid from a nonunion shop. Two commissioners objected to his statements.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones last week ordered the county to award the project to Fisher Sand and Gravel, the nonunion contractor, even though the county scuttled the project in November.
Jones said commissioners searched for reasons to reject Fisher so that they could award the contract to Las Vegas Paving, a union contractor.
"You know it, and it’s in the back of your head, and that is illegally they were denying this bid because they (Fisher) are not a union shop," Jones said, according to court documents. "We all know that’s what was unspoken. Maybe it was spoken at the prior hearings. And corruptly they did it."
Just two of seven commissioners responded Monday to the judge’s harsh words: Steve Sisolak and Tom Collins.
Last year, the judge ordered both of them to sit out hearings involving the disputed contract to widen the Beltway between Decatur Boulevard and Tenaya Way. Stan Parry, an attorney who represents Fisher, had accused them of being particularly biased.
"It’s surprising that a judge would go that far in mischaracterizing an elected official," Sisolak said.
He questioned whether the judge has the authority to tell an elected body that it can’t revamp a project and start bidding from scratch.
"I guess he wears the robe, and he is the judge," Sisolak said.
In an e-mail, Collins challenged the judge’s latest order.
"Is Judge Jones overstepping the separation of powers of the Constitution?" Collins wrote. "Is the Judge too close to attorney Stan Parry to give an unbiased decision?"
Collins has stated that Parry and Jones are known to have personal ties through the church they attend.
Collins argued that state law gives government bodies wide discretion in accepting or rejecting bids.
"As a five-term Nevada state legislator, I believe the Board of County Commissioners have indeed followed the law," Collins said.
Las Vegas Paving plans to appeal the judge’s order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The judge’s order was a mistake," said Wade Gochnour, an attorney for Las Vegas Paving. "His decision is a little off track legally. He forced an opinion on Clark County and taxpayers."
The project has bounced between the courts and the commission for almost a year. In September, Jones ordered the commission to reconsider bids and stated that Collins and Sisolak would not participate.
A transcript indicates that Jones was miffed with the commission’s 4-1 vote to vacate the project. Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani was the lone dissenter.
Jones contends that by denying all bids, the commission sidestepped his order for a new hearing.
At the time, commissioners said they were tired of the prolonged legal tussles and wanted to get roadwork started to create jobs. They agreed to scale down the Beltway widening and add an interchange at Fifth Street.
County officials argued that re-bidding the project was in the public’s interest because they could get lower prices than the year before.
Jones, however, contends that the county had already awarded a contract and couldn’t simply back out of the project, especially after the court became involved. If that type of action was allowed, a local body could simply reject all bids whenever a contractor challenges the legality of the bid awards, Jones said.
But Jim Barker, Las Vegas Paving’s corporate counsel, said commissioners were never "thumbing their nose at the court."
They asked the county’s attorneys to ensure that rejecting all bids was lawful and wouldn’t bring them more grief in the courts, Barker said.
It is fairly common for an elected body to toss out all bids and start again, Barker said.
The commission’s action showed that Las Vegas Paving wielded little weight, Barker said. The company would have to compete all over again and could lose, he added.
"We were on the exact same playing field," Barker said. "We would have to stand in line like everyone else and submit a bid."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at email@example.com or 702-455-4519.