Ft. Lauderdale Construction Oversight Problems

Faced with the latest scathing audit about construction at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Broward County commissioners and their staff are scrambling to address if they are safeguarding how hundreds of millions of dollars in public money is spent.

Last week marked the fourth time in two years that auditors uncovered potential misdeeds by contractors that they said should have been caught by the people who oversee construction. County auditors are alleging the TLMC Enterprises construction firm repeatedly submitted bills that misstated how much work it did.

Commissioners argue they ordered airport staff to make reforms after the earlier audits and assumed that happened because managers said they had followed through. They are livid over the string of audits and threaten to dump URS Corp. The county is paying the firm up to $14 million this year to oversee airport construction.

"It's pretty astounding and it almost makes you wonder if you could audit any contractor at the airport and have similar results," Commissioner Ilene Lieberman said. "I don't know where to go next, but it seems to be there's a systemic problem there and it's very troubling."

The airport staff and URS counter they made the changes commissioners sought to better review contractors' work and their invoices. Still, Interim County Administrator Bertha Henry told commissioners last week she is working with the airport to ensure its construction management is in line with how other government agencies handle oversight.

"There is no allegiance to URS and we would act appropriately and aggressively if we find there is a problem with oversight," Aviation Director Tom Jargiello said through his spokesman. The airport is part of the $3 billion-a-year bureaucracy that reports to the commission through the county administrator.

The question about whether the airport and URS are properly managing construction work comes as the airport is battered by other issues.

The Transportation Security Administration is threatening to fine the airport more than $100,000 for security violations. And county commissioners are furious at Jargiello for not revealing internal discussions that started six months ago about the future and condition of the old Palm Garage.

Some proponents of modernizing the busy airport worry long-needed work will suffer as officials trade charges.

"We are at a crucial point, and the problem is, when you have issues like this, it allows the detractors of airport expansion to say: 'If they can't manage this, how can they manage more?'" said Christopher Pollock, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.

The audit released last week was of $6.9 million in construction handled by TLMC Enterprises. County commissioners fired the company last year when its owner was accused of lying to the county about her husband's ties to the corruption scandal that surrounded the late Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr.

County Auditor Evan Lukic concluded TLMC submitted invoices for uncompleted work and billed the county for employees working simultaneously on different projects. He said the firm may not have paid county-required wages and may have used unlicensed electricians and welders.

Lukic charged URS failed to monitor TLMC.

Previous audits concluded that the county was overbilled for engineering inspections, that an engineering team overstated the work it gave to minority firms and that affirmative action goals were skirted when a minority-owned company subcontracted $2 million of a $2.1 million contract to another firm.

The repeated problems have prompted Lukic to start an audit looking directly at URS. He expects to have that completed by the time commissioners return in mid-August from their summer break.

"There is clearly a pattern here," he said.

At the center of the storm are URS and Jargiello.

The last time an airport director faced this level of criticism from commissioners was in the months leading up to the departure of Jargiello's predecessor, Bill Sherry, in 2003. Jargiello, who makes $177,000 a year, had been the airport's deputy director, coming here after serving in the No. 2 jobs at airports in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Jargiello said through his spokesman that he is committed to remaining at the airport and is working to improve communication with his bosses. He said he would act to address any concerns about construction oversight that exist once Lieberman's review is complete and project managers respond to the audit findings.

URS's point person on airport work, Roger Foster, said Lukic's audits questioned a small amount of money compared to the overall project, which has included a $247 million new rental car facility-parking garage and $83 million in entrance road improvements. He said reforms were made following earlier audits.

"All the projects have ended up on time and under budget," Foster said. "It's a complicated environment and everything doesn't always go the way you want, but we have not had any bad projects under our management."

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