Plans for new DHHS building cause controversy

September 9, 2013 5:40:40 PM PDT
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is once again under the microscope.

The ABC11 I-Team has learned that taxpayers almost ponied up $1 million more than they needed to for a new building.

The program NC FAST, which deals with food stamps, needs more space. So they took bids for a new building, but just as the state was about to award it to the lowest bidder DHHS changed the rules. Now, the state auditor wants to know why.

"I'm going to find out the answers to several questions," said State Auditor Beth Woods.

For Wood, this is one of those times there are more questions than answers.

"I have to know that the bidding process was handled like it was supposed to," she said. "I have to know that this is a done by the rules lease."

Earlier this summer, NC FAST, which is part of DHHS, put out a request for proposals looking for a new building. Five bids came back, and according to emails obtained by the I-Team, a building on Silicon Drive in Durham came in as the low bid. The Department of Administration sent out an email saying it would be presented to the Council of State for a vote.

However, just six minutes later, the director of NC FAST, Anthony Vellucci, shot out an email saying it was not acceptable. He wrote it wasn't even their second choice even though it met the specifications and was the low bid. They preferred a building in Cary, which cost $1.2 million more.

That prompted a response from long-time Department of Administration Manager John Webb. He said, "I think I need to bring the hammer down on Mr. Vellucci. He needs to be dealt with strongly by administration."

However, soon after, DHHS came up with new specs for what they needed, which included more square footage, and more parking spaces. They are specifications the more expensive building in Cary met, but the one in Durham did not.

Wood says DHHS explained the change by saying they'd just discovered federal mandate requiring space for 60 more employees. So far, she says, she hasn't seen proof of that mandate, which prompted more questions.

"If there was a federal mandate, what was the timing of that federal mandate," asked Woods. "Is there really a federal mandate?"

Vellucci wouldn't talk to ABC11 Monday.  A spokesperson for DHHS told us they needed more room to grow. They didn't mention a federal mandate, or answering why they didn't take that into account in the first place.

All of it has Wood pledging to dig deeper.

"I'm going to have to put my staff on it," said Wood, "because before I vote on this lease that's necessary. I want to have answers to all those questions I just posed to you."

Wood was the only person willing to go on camera Monday to talk about this story.

DHHS Communications Director Ricky Diaz offered this statement, "At this time, it has been determined that none of the submitted proposals fully met the revised DHHS requirements, and DHHS will continue to work closely with the Department of Administration to ensure project needs are met going forward."

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