By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
With little public discussion, the Broward County Commission has overwhelmingly approved an $18.9-million payout to airport contractor Tutor Perini to settle a bitter dispute about who was to blame for costly construction delays.
Paperwork filed in support of the deal, including the settlement itself, revealed that an unidentified whistleblower recently sued Tutor Perini in circuit court using the Broward County False Claims Ordinance. The whistleblower’s claims are not known, but sources said an unhappy subcontractor filed the complaint. Whistleblowers who help the county recover money lost to fraud or other schemes can recover a reward of up to 25 percent of the proceeds.
Tuesday’s settlement deal, approved in a 6-1 vote, marks an expensive flip-flop by the county from assertions earlier this year by then-Broward aviation department boss Kent George that, in fact, Tutor Perini owed the county more than $34 million for those delays.
George stepped down as aviation director in March, but remains on the county’s payroll until the end of the year. He negotiated the settlement approved Tuesday.
In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported that on New Year’s Eve George had a letter sent to Tutor Perini demanding those damages cover the costs of a dozen “significant … deficiencies and unresolved issues” that seriously delayed completion of the $800-million expanded south runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“You owe us millions of dollars and now I’m paying you millions of dollars in a settlement?” Commissioner Lois Wexler said Tuesday. “Unless there’s a real explanation as to how it morphed into something else, I’ll be a no vote today.”
County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey, who recommended approval of the settlement, offered a brief discussion about that. Coffey indicated the county was responsible for the delays because change orders expanding the scope of Tutor Perini’s work were approved without an appropriate expansion of work days in which to complete it.
A dissatisfied Wexler voted a lonely no.
Tutor Perini, (NYSE: TPC) has contended that the county was to blame for the construction delays. In fact, the county aviation department lost more than a dozen claims adjudicated before a “dispute avoidance panel” established at the project’s outset to resolve disagreements between the county and its runway contractors.
In recommending approval, Coffey warned the county could have as much as $80 million in liability without a settlement.
County ‘probably could win’
Nevertheless, Commissioner Dale Holness said that in private discussions with “our staff and attorneys” he’s been assured the county “probably could win” a lawsuit against the company.
“But they weren’t sure a hundred percent because we had some issues on both sides,” Holness said.
Wexler went further. She said her “lengthy briefings” with staff bore little resemblance to Tuesday’s outcome.
“When Ms. Coffey and Mr. [Michael] Kerr [deputy county attorney] came to my office, they said, ‘Don’t worry, commissioner, we’re going to recoup, we’re going to recoup,’ ” Wexler said. “Now all of a sudden something else comes forward.”
The settlement includes $6.1 million that was approved but never paid to Tutor Perini, plus an additional $12.8 million. No commissioners asked how that figure was arrived at, and county staff did not explain.
The settlement raises the “final” contract amount to $239 million. The original contract award to Tutor Perini for design-build services was $179.9 million. Change orders approved by the county raised that figure to $226.2 million.
The settlement is with the Tutor Perini Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Joint Venture.
California-based Tutor Perini is the prime consultant for the tunnel structures that carry the expanded and elevated south runway and taxiway over U.S. 1, the Florida East Coast railroad tracks and East Perimeter Road. The venture was also responsible for related construction, including the new southbound airport exit ramp to U.S. 1.
The original contract completion date for the runway project was Feb. 22, 2014. In fact, the runway opened for air traffic in September 2014, and the project was declared “substantially complete” in January 2015.
Still, work at the airport goes on. Today, Tutor Perini is adding decorative and architectural features to the U.S. 1 tunnels – finishing work worth several million dollars. The settlement requires Tutor Perini to finish all remaining work by Aug. 31.
Friction between Tutor Perini and the county isn’t limited to the airport project.
The company is the prime contractor on the new downtown county courthouse, a project that’s a year behind schedule, but is expected to open this summer. The Sun-Sentinel reported last month that a county public works official said Tutor Perini contends the county owes it $11.3 million for extra work.
The airport and courthouse disputes also figure in the selection of a contractor to build a long-sought expansion of the Broward County Convention Center and a next-door hotel on port property. Texas-based developer Matthews Southwest Holdings was accepted for the job in April, but Matthews’ team includes Tutor Perini – a fact that did not go over well at County Hall.