State ethics officials approved a procedure Thursday that is meant to prevent conflicts of interest as a top Indiana Department of Transportation official continues employment talks with an engineering firm whose contracts he’s played a role in reviewing.
But the chairman of the Indiana State Ethics Commission said that the conflict-of-interest questions could become more difficult if INDOT Chief of Staff Troy Woodruff actually takes a job with RQAW Consulting Engineers & Architects.
At Thursday’s meeting, the commission only discussed the screening process that will be used as Woodruff seeks the job. Members did not debate any potential post-state employment restrictions for Woodruff.
Ethics Commission Chairman James Clevenger said he expects the latter will lead “to serious issues.”
State rules require state employees to wait one year before taking a job with a state contractor – if the employee was involved in the negotiations or awards. Woodruff has signed contracts between the state and RQAW. However, INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning could waive the cooling-off period.
“At this point, I don’t think I would deem it OK for post-employment,” Clevenger said. “I’m just telling you that the next step is going to be difficult for me.”
But, Cyndi Carrasco, executive director of the state ethics commission, said the chairman could not entertain the post-employment debate because that was not currently on the table for discussion.
Instead the commission approved the screening procedure INDOT put in place when Woodruff began job negotiations with RQAW on June 23. The procedure is meant to prevent Woodruff – the agency’s chief of staff – from any state business involving the company.
“We understand that there is absolutely a conflict of interest and possible post-employment restrictions, so as soon as (Woodruff) was aware of this potential employment opportunities all of the firewalls were put into place,” said Heather Kennedy, ethics officer for the state transportation agency. “INDOT is fully aware that Mr. Woodruff has been in communication and contact up until the time that the negotiations started.”
The procedure states that Woodruff will not attend the agency’s selection review committee meetings – where contracts are reviewed – until his negotiations are completed and a decision is made about potential employment with the company. Also, Deputy Commissioner Jim Stark will sign all consultant contracts for state-funded programs until the negotiations with RQAW have finished.
An investigation by The Indianapolis Star found that two weeks after Woodruff’s job negotiation with RQAW began, INDOT awarded the company with a project worth $175,000 to $350,000 even though it did not receive the best score from the staff. Woodruff – usually a member of the selection committee – did not attend that meeting.
But, the investigation found that Woodruff had personally signed at least three other contracts with RQAW – worth $562,000. And the selection committee awarded the company a contract for a roadwork job in Jasper County – for $294,300 – even though Lawson-Fisher Associates received the highest score from department staff.
Browning has not decided whether to waive the cooling-off period for Woodruff, said INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield.
Woodruff called his potential departure from the state bittersweet.
“I really enjoyed my time with the state government but it’s time for a new challenge in my life,” he said.
Woodruff deferred additional questions to INDOT’s spokesman.
“The chairman voiced his opinion, and we respect his opinion,” Wingfield said. “Obviously, if there was going to be another request put in, they would evaluate the request at that time. All members of the commission would vote on that request.
“There are other aspects beyond just one opinion on something that hasn’t been submitted yet,” he said.