Magic Bullet: How a Small Gift Shot Down a Huge Contract

skeetshooting

It is one of the simplest ways to educate people about ethical behavior. Whether you are dealing with your employees or your kids, perhaps the most effective way to teach people about how to make the right ethical decision is have them think about a basic question: How would you feel if what you did was headlined on the local paper? Odds are many of us, and perhaps our parents, were taught to live our work and personal lives by answering this straightforward question over and over again. And of course, as an acquisition executive, no matter what specific code of ethics or legal requirements your jurisdiction may have in place, you hope that your staff thinks about this simple question when making decisions that may fall into a gray area.

And so it’s always a good day for an agency and its executives when the local newspaper (or to update the analogy, the paper’s website or app) bears no mention of any questionable conduct by one of the agency’s employees. Such was not the case recently for the administrators at the Los Lunas School District in Los Lunas, New Mexico, in suburban Albuquerque. And what was the headline splashed across the front page of the Albuquerque Journal? Well, it involved skeet shooting…

Antonio Sedillo is a construction supervisor with the Los Lunas Schools, and as a hobby, he is a skeet shooter who recently participated in a skeet shooting competition in Albuquerque. The problem arose when another skeet shooter, who was employed by a local construction firm, saw that Sedillo was actually shooting in the event as part of a team from McCarthy Building Companies. Sedillo’s $125 entry fee for the competition had been paid for by McCarthy Building, which had recently been awarded a $24 million construction contract by the school district for the new Los Lunas High School. And who was on the school district committee that evaluated the bids from McCarthy Building and four other competitors? You guessed it—Mr. Sedillo! And who did the curious fellow shooter who reported Sedillo being on McCarthy’s team? As you probably guessed, he was employed by one of the losing firms!

So now, if you are school Superintendent Bernard Saiz, you have a real predicament on your hands. Your employee, who was on the committee to decide the contractor on the district’s largest construction project to date, accepted the “gift” from the firm that won the competition. To make matters worse, it should be noted that the skeet shooting competition actually occurred in the interim between the time the four firms made their proposals and when the award was actually made.

In public comments on the situation, Superintendent Saiz characterized Sedillo as a good employee, but his decision to accept the entry fee was a “clear violation” of the district’s procurement rules. Saiz commented that: “He (Sedillo) is an avid shooter, and I think he just let his desires get ahold of him here.” Saiz has announced that the contract will have to rebid, and that McCarthy will indeed be allowed to compete. However, he has also expressed his belief that in this situation, “I think McCarthy and my employee could have used better judgment.”

So, what have we learned here? The “lesson learned,” and one that should be make this a “teachable moment” for all involved in acquisition at any level of government, is that appearances do matter—greatly! No matter the amount, no matter the circumstances, no matter the timing, those involved in procurement decision-making have to strive to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Antonio Sedillo’s decision to accept that $125 entry fee cost the school district and the competing construction firms probably 1000 times as much in terms of rebidding of the project. Additionally, it cost the district a great deal in credibility—both with the public at large and with the business community.

And finally, one must ask was it the money that really mattered? What if you had been Mr. Sedillo, would you have been in a questionable situation if you had been on the McCarthy team in that skeet competition, even if you had paid your own fee? Given the timeframe involved, many would say “yes.” Imagine the team celebrating a good round of skeet shooting and the school distict’s construction supervisor being “high-fived” by execs with the local unit of the firm that was in line to get the multi-million dollar contract in just days.

How would you feel if what you did was headlined on the local paper? It’s a question we should have etched in calligraphy on our walls, carried in our wallets, and most importantly of all, foremost in our minds.

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