I-Team: Questions of Influence Peddling with Georgia DOT Mowing Contracts

by Dale Russell
Aired August 26, 2016

ATLANTA – A Georgia DOT contract to mow grass and weeds along Georgia highways has raised questions of influence peddling.

Our FOX 5 I-Team investigation found one company with no mowing experience and twice rejected by the D-O-T staff ended up with a 5 year 15 million dollar contract in Atlanta.

The politically connected Southeast Georgia company, Road Services, was given a chance to bid, even though the staff warned top DT officials that the inexperienced company would be taking on a dangerous job that had historically caused injuries and deaths in Georgia.

Last fall, DOT put its statewide mowing contracts out to bid. Eight companies put in proposals, including Roadside Services, owned by Neal Howard.

Howard is the son of former longtime DNR Captain and Pierce County commission chairman, Bobby Howard.

Bobby Howard was best friends with a legendary Georgia politician who was director of State Parks, George Bagby.

“I guess if you look back on it,” says Howard, “I guess we are well connected.”

Neal Howard has worked with Georgia DOT for more than 20 years striping roads. But, he had no experience mowing roadsides.

When he submitted a proposal to be qualified to bid, the DOT staff gave his company low ratings, in part because of his lack of mowing experience. They found his proposal non responsive and said he wasn’t qualified to bid.

Howard disagreed, saying his striping experience was more than enough.

“When you are working in traffic every day for 20 plus years,” says Howard, “it is way more difficult and way more serious than mowing a ditch and picking up trash.”

Howard asked for a second chance as allowed by DOT regulations. Howard put in a new proposal showing he hired someone with road paving experience.

But, DOT emails show the staff still found Road Services had “no mowing experience” and they did not “warrant a passing score.”

Maintenance Engineer, Bill Wright, warned top DOT brass that highway mowing is extremely dangerous and the DOT has had numerous injuries and fatalities due to the nature of the work.

End of story? Not even close. DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry says three top DOT managers including his deputy commissioner, Mike Dover, ignored the staff’s double denial and let Road Services bid on the mowing contract. Commissioner McMurry told me he wanted to give more companies an opportunity to bid on new contracts.

But our investigation found heavy political lobbying by Neal Howard may have played a role in the decision.

Following the first denial, Neal Howard called every political contact he had. He said he called his state representative, Chad Nimmer, and he met in State Senator Tyler Harper’s office with the DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry.

“He (McMurry) happened to be in there, when I was seeing Tyler Harper. I told him I was going to bid on a lot of categories, he said great,” says Howard

McMurry insists that meeting was after his senior staff overruled the double denial and allowed Road Services to bid.

“When I met with him, there was a meeting to say, here is a guy trying to do business with Georgia DOT, that was the nature of the meeting,” says McMurry. “So, it was an introduction from them to me. At that point he was still in application process.”

Mr. McMurry told us since the state had yet to seek bids from the contractors he could meet with Neal Howard.

But, DOT rules clearly state during the process to select qualified companies, those companies “are not allowed to communicate…with any staff of DOT, including the commissioner, DOT Board Members and Legislators”

Howard Neal says flatly: “They all helped me. They all helped me. Not one person. They all went to bat for me.”

Twelve days after Neal Howard met with the DOT Commissioner he and two other mowing companies that originally weren’t qualified were allowed to bid.

Howard was the low bidder, by some 2 million dollars, in the Atlanta area. The state, concerned about the low bid, awarded him the contract anyway. A deal that didn’t turn out so well for taxpayers.

According to state DOT files, Road Services had serious problems almost immediately on the job. Within two months the DOT revoked Road Services’ contract – saying they failed to meet mowing schedules.

Howard claims his company was the victim of an overzealous inspector who nit-picked their work and held them up.

“We couldn’t finish any amount before he’d make us go back and do little nitpicking things,” says Howard.

Commissioner McMurry says, “Basically, the taxpayers suffered while the grass grew and the litter was collecting on roadways and that was not being taken care of.”

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