New Hanover alcohol commission questioned about contracts
Posted February 21, 2010
Updated January 22, 2011
WILMINGTON, N.C. — A North Carolina county's alcohol commission hired the same contractor to build all four liquor stores since 2004, and the final price tags for those structures was often well above the contract bids, a newspaper reported Sunday.
Outgoing New Hanover County Alcoholic Beverage Control commissioner Billy Williams told the StarNews that he did nothing wrong when he signed off on changes that doubled and tripled the contracts' value.
Contractor Lee F. Cowper Inc.'s attorney also said his client did nothing wrong. Others told the StarNews that the practice of taking bids on a store shell then later allowing the same contractor to finish the building without going through another bidding process was unusual.
Williams also has been criticized for his salary and travel expenditures, and the newspaper reports that Williams hired the same contractor to do work on his own home.
The StarNews investigation found that construction contracts for three of the stores built since 2004 were approved by Williams, but never formally approved by the ABC board, as required by state bidding laws. All the change orders also were approved only by Williams.
The newspaper reported many records, specifically bid documents for three of the stores, were not retained as required by state law.
"The ABC board appeared to have relied upon their administrator to make decisions about the construction of their projects and approval of change orders," said county manager Bruce Shell, who is interim ABC board chairman. "My suspicion is they did what was expeditious and what was most cost-effective. The absence of documentation does beg the question."
Williams would not explain to the paper why the bidding process was conducted the way it was or what was included in change orders.
He referred questions to the interim ABC board that was appointed in January after the former board resigned. The new board was unable to provide the newspaper all the change orders.
Cowper's attorney, Grady Richardson, said in a statement to the newspaper that the company bid on the same specifications as everyone else.
"Cowper has an impeccable reputation that it has earned over the past three decades in the construction industry," Richardson said. "Cowper has done absolutely nothing improper."
Overall, Cowper was awarded $1.6 million in contracts but supervised $5 million worth of work, records show. It was unclear how much of that $5 million was kept by Cowper and how much went to subcontractors and Richardson would not provide that information.
"This situation just seemed like it was a little bit outside that normal set of procedures," said Ned R. Lavengood, owner of NRL Builders Inc. in Wilmington, the second-lowest bidder for one of the building projects. Lavengood said putting up just part of the building for bid rather than a complete building was odd.
Administrators of at least two other local ABC boards told the StarNews that usual practice is to take bids on the whole building.
Williams will retire next Friday. He and the other two members of the ABC board resigned after WRAL Investigates reported that Williams had an annual salary of $232,200, and his son, Bradley, was paid $115,500 a year as assistant ABC administrator. Both men also collected hefty annual bonuses.
Williams was the highest-paid ABC administrator in the state, despite the fact that areas like Mecklenburg County sold far more liquor, according to WRAL Investigates.
He recently repaid $23,000 in bonuses. Board members said they approved Williams' latest bonus, because he was responsible for the local liquor system generating $30 million.
Both Williams and Cowper also denied there was anything improper about Cowper building a sun room and a detached, two-story garage with a back wooden deck on Williams' home. Williams showed the newspaper personal checks totaling $143,000 showing he paid Cowper for the work done in 2006.
"He built my stores good, so I figured he'd do that good," Williams said. "He didn't do me no favors. Not when you build a garage for $100,000. That's not a favor."
Information from: The StarNews