Bexar County Commissioners renewed a contract with Blue Armor Security Services on Tuesday, a firm owned by District Attorney Nico LaHood’s Chief Investigator Willie Ng Jr.
The decision was widely criticized by Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who cast the sole vote against the $1 million annual contract. Wolff said Ng’s position in the district attorney’s office creates a “perceived conflict of interest.”
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners chose Ng’s firm over the staff recommendation, Corpus Christi-based AMTEX Security. Blue Armor’s estimated cost was $200,000 lower than AMTEX’s proposal, commissioners said.
“The term ‘Local Government Officer’ refers to commissioners and those county officials designated with contract authority and who control county business. That does not include the tax assessor-collector, county clerk or (district attorney),” LaHood stated in a Facebook post after the San Antonio Express-News published a column that revealed Ng’s relationship to the security firm. “For Kevin to misuse the law for his agenda is wrong. Simply stated, there is no issue regarding Willie Ng or Blue Armor and any Texas Statute.”
LaHood has said that a certain clause that prohibits county employees from pursuing county contracts is surmounted by state law that allows county commissioners to pursue those same contracts if they don’t vote on them.
“Just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean you should,” Commissioner Wolff told the Rivard Report Tuesday afternoon.
“(LaHood tries to make the case) that the rule that we’ve had forever is unenforceable because it’s not written in statute, and I disagree with that, Wolff said. “Currently, the rest of the court agrees with the DA and not me, but that way is what I call making strategic longterm decisions. With what we’re doing going forward now, anybody that works for the County, anybody that’s elected to a County position, including commissioners, can hold a County contract and if you don’t see a conflict with that…wow.”
Chapter 176 of Texas Local Government Code states that all county employees must disclose any business relationships of theirs in writing with their governments within seven business days of noticing the conflict. Blue Armor has provided security for the county since 2013. It’s unclear if Ng, who was hired by LaHood in January 2015, followed this rule.
If Ng did miss that deadline, he has not been penalized.
In a letter given to county commissioners on Tuesday, Ng claimed to have approached someone in the purchasing department before he was hired to see if his existing contract with the county would be an issue, Commissioner Wolff said. Ng was told that he had nothing to worry about, he stated in the letter, despite a clause in his contract that stated that no County employee can have financial interest, direct or indirect, in any agreement with the County.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who is Commissioner Wolff’s father, said such a misunderstanding was no reason to deny a renewal of Ng’s contract.
“The bid was good, the service was good and he has a great background,” Judge Wolff added. “He was with the police department for 22 years, he knows what he’s doing, so as long as he’s not using County time to work on (his business), I think it’s agreeable within the law.”
Ng stated in his letter on Tuesday that he has an associate who runs his security company so he can focus on his County duties, and the original contract, after all, was awarded to Ng when he was not yet a County employee, Judge Wolff said.
“I don’t think Willie would intentionally violate (the contract),” Commissioner Wolff said. “I’ve read through it and the statutes and it would be easy to miss something like that, especially if you’ve already been told, ‘oh you’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.’ I think it was just an honest mistake.”
But the mistake, Commissioner Wolff added, could have serious consequences. While he has no doubts about Ng’s integrity or the quality of service Blue Armor provides, Commissioner Wolff is worried that allowing this exception will set a bad precedent that could discourage applicants of future projects from applying.
“This is a dangerous precedent we’ve set across the board,” he said. “For instance, when we release a (request for proposal) for design and engineering, it costs thousands if not tens of thousands for those engineering firms to put together a response, so if you’re one of those firms and you know that employee X (who works for the County) is applying, then you’re making a business decision (whether or not to apply) based on the costs.
“I can see our decision here impacting whether or not a company would respond to an RFP if they think it’s already a done deal with the guy inside (the County).”
Commissioner Wolff had concerns about the selection process used by the county purchasing department as a whole. He wondered why AMTEX was even considered after its former president, Wesley Terry, “recently was arrested and charged with improperly operating the company,” as reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
County purchasing agent Mary Quinones told Commissioners that she and the evaluation committee had no idea about Terry’s arrest when they chose AMTEX over the eight other submitted applicants for the contract.
County staff analyzed each company’s costs, relevant experience, and ability to fulfill the terms of the contract through preliminary research and conducted some interviews. AMTEX placed fourth on the bid scoring sheet behind Blue Armor, War Eagle Security Services, and Vets Securing America, which scored the highest and was never called back for an interview. This, along with Ng’s perceived conflict of interest, prompted Commissioner Wolff to make a motion to rebid the contract. It was denied.
“(The purchasing department) just made a bad situation worse by bringing something to us that shows that perhaps the process of selection was flawed itself,” Commissioner Wolff said. “I try very hard not to interfere with staff going through this process because just to be going through this process puts pressure on people, but it’s like they went against their own scoring system and I don’t really know why.”
Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) didn’t see a conflict of interest. The County hasn’t had issues with the company before, he said, so there is no reason to seek assistance elsewhere – or spend more money – if it’s not necessary.
“I want to get this behind us. There’s been enough discussion, especially behind the scenes and in the pages of the paper, and my motion (to award Blue Armor the contract) was made strictly on performance,” he said. ” … I’ve been here 30 years and (Blue Armor Security Services) is the best security we’ve had in the courthouse during that time, so I’m going to stick with my motion.”
Top image: Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Elizondo says that Blue Armor Security Services deserves to have its contract with Bexar County renewed. Photo by Camille Garcia.