By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
A contractor hired by the state to manage a $76.8 million renovation of Camp Randall Stadium agreed to accept a higher bid for a new scoreboard over a competing offer that an outside consultant advised was of better quality.
The contractor, J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., Janesville, is a listed subcontractor on this bid, for which it stands to receive more than a half-million dollars.
The new state-of-the-art scoreboard, slated to be built in 2013 (the old one recently was removed), is part of the renovation that J.P. Cullen is under contract with the state Department of Administration to oversee. The contract calls for J.P. Cullen to be paid as much as $61.4 million for its role, including the hiring of outside contractors.
UW System spokesman David Giroux said the project will be entirely paid for by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletics Department, from donations and sports-related revenue, such as ticket sales. Most of the money was borrowed using state bonding authority.
J.P. Cullen received two bids in response to its July request for proposals for the scoreboard’s video component. A Utah-based company called YESCO (for Young Electric Sign Co.) offered to do the job for $2.7 million.
Daktronics, of South Dakota, submitted a $3.4 million bid.
Anthony James Partners, a Virginia-based company specializing in audio-visual consulting, was hired by J.P. Cullen to provide advice and technical assistance, for a $137,000 fee. AJP, in an Aug. 17 report, strongly recommended picking the YESCO bid, saying it delivered more pixels and had a more efficient design, at a significantly lower cost.
“We simply believe that YESCO has won this bid,” AJP wrote in its report.
Instead, the job went to Daktronics, whose bid listed J.P. Cullen as the scoreboard installer. J.P. Cullen then took steps to fire AJP and hire another consultant.
“I do this for a living. I’ve won and lost many jobs,” said Chris Olinger, a Wisconsin-based YESCO sales representative who worked on the rejected bid. “This was the most unethical bid I’ve ever seen.”
Denis Collins, a business professor at Edgewood College in Madison who specializes in business ethics, said J.P. Cullen’s role in selecting a bid it stands to gain from “raises a lot of red flags” and might constitute “a major conflict of interest.” He called the process “highly questionable.”
UW and state officials declined to directly respond to ethics questions. According to an email attributed to Justin Doherty, the UW’s associate athletic director for external relations said: “The UW Athletics Department has been working with the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) to work within the state of Wisconsin guidelines.”
J.P. Cullen, through project executive Jeremy Shecterle, said questions about the company’s role “pertain to a state of Wisconsin Department of Administration project, and it is therefore appropriate for the Department of Administration to respond to the questions.”
According to an email attributed to Stephanie Marquis, the DOA spokeswoman said, “The selection of Daktronics occurred because the project team determined that Daktronics had a superior quality product for the intended use at a price within budget.”
The scoreboard bid had two components: the video portion and a new sound system. Daktronics bid on both parts.
J.P. Cullen is listed on Daktronics’ video bid as the installer. Marquis said this task will be performed by several subcontractors, and “J.P. Cullen’s portion of the installation is approximately $585,000,” at most.
Marquis said that, in the end, Daktronics agreed to build both the video scoreboard and sound system for $3.85 million. That’s about $500,000 less than the combined cost of its two bids but still slightly higher than the bids from YESCO and a competing sound system provider.
After AJP filed its report recommending YESCO’s bid, Shecterle asked the two bidders to stage a side-by-side viewing of their screens on campus. AJP was not invited to this demonstration. The demo, known as “shootout,” took place Sept. 18 on campus.
Olinger said the difference was dramatic and that “Everybody who walked by said our screen looked better.”
Chuck Dyer, a UW-Madison computer science professor who has studied video image quality, reviewed the YouTube video at the Center’s request. Without knowing the presenters, he said the screen from YESCO appeared sharper and had a broader range of colors, as evidenced by smoother gradients. But he felt this screen’s larger size “could have introduced some bias.”
On Oct. 1, J.P. Cullen sent a letter to AJP terminating its contract, listing three pages of “ongoing performance problems.” AJP’s report recommending YESCO was not mentioned.
According to an email attributed to Shecterle, AJP sent a letter “addressing some of the non-performance issues” and asking for payment in full. At that time, AJP already had received almost $60,000 of its $137,000 contract.
Doherty said the issue of how much AJP will be paid is unresolved.