State finance chief launches inquiry after ex-employee claims supervisors valued protecting own jobs over saving money

Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 31, 2014, at 1:51 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 31, 2014, at 5:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s finance commissioner has launched an inquiry into the Bureau of General Services, after an ex-employee claimed he was subject to reprisal from his managers for trying to negotiate lower rates on architecture contracts for state projects.

“Please be assured that if the investigations indicate that reform is appropriate, this department will implement all changes necessary,” said Sawin Millett, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, in a statement issued Thursday.

Victor Trodella of Yarmouth, a former project manager for the Bureau of General Services’ Planning, Design and Construction Division, claimed in his Jan. 21 resignation letter to Millet — obtained by the Bangor Daily News — that he saved the state more than $1.4 million by negotiating lower architecture and design fees since joining the agency in October 2011.

The Bureau of General Services oversees state properties and contracts related to them, including construction, design and planning.

But, Trodella claims, supervisors told him twice that “if anyone in the Legislature or in the State House found out that we have not been [negotiating], we could lose our jobs.”

Trodella, who has been a licensed architect in Maine since 1980, told the Bangor Daily News that he was able to secure lower fees by identifying redundancies in the contracts and areas where architects had proposed expenses that Trodella thought were too high.

With his resignation letter, he submitted a list of 25 contracts he claims to have worked on, along with the associated savings he allegedly achieved.

In most cases, Trodella said he was trying to negotiate fees that were in line with recommended architectural and engineering fees that are posted on the Bureau of General Services’ website, but that his efforts to negotiate were unique within his division, which is why he believes he received pushback from his superiors.

“Any time I negotiated a good savings and I told them about it, they would glare at me,” said Trodella to the BDN. “They were always fearful and visibly upset with me and it seemed to me that their priority was protecting their jobs and not saving money for the state.”

Millett said he takes Trodella’s allegations seriously.

“I immediately asked my staff to launch an internal [human resources] investigation and internal audit to determine if his allegations have veracity,” he said.

Because the allegations involve a personnel matter, the commissioner added, state law prohibits him from going into detail or answering questions about Trodella’s version of events.

In addition to Millett, Trodella also sent copies of his resignation letter and other documents to three of his supervisors and, unusually, the lead Democrat in the House of Representatives, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and one of Eves’ staff members, Bill Brown.

This caused speculation as to whether Trodella was making a political statement with his letter, but Trodella said he sent a copy to Eves because he had previously worked on a project with Brown, and that Brown was his only link to the Legislature.

“[Political] party had absolutely nothing to do with it,” said Trodella.

Trodella also said he is not pursuing any legal action against the state in regards to his position, and does not intend to.

Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, said she also received a copy of Trodella’s letter.

She has forwarded it to the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability, a nonpartisan watchdog that investigates state agencies, along with a request for the oversight committee to discuss the issue at its Feb. 14 meeting.

Cain said Thursday she believes the probe should go further than an internal investigation.

“I’m happy to know that they are taking some immediate action, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are serious questions that should be answered around the financial implications for the state that were in the original complaint,” said Cain. “It doesn’t change the fact that there are outstanding questions around workplace environment and workplace culture that need to be addressed.”

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