Friends at Work

A little more than a year ago, the Arizona Department of Transportation paid Paul Braunstein almost a million dollars to go away.

Braunstein is the owner of BasePlans, a small engineering firm in Tempe. He once counted ADOT as his biggest client. A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, Braunstein had moved to Phoenix in the 1970s, started his own company, and set to work winning regular ADOT contracts for underground utility work -- and, records show, stellar evaluations from the agency.

But that was before things went bad.

Before ADOT took a contract he'd won, fair and square, and handed the work to a competitor.

Before Braunstein, trying to get to the bottom of his dwindling workload, discovered a hornet's nest of alliances between ADOT staffers and the private companies it hired.

Before he realized that he could complain all he wanted, and that he could even have irrefutable proof. But no one would pay attention unless he, Paul Braunstein, forced them to.

It was the political education of a man who'd never really cared about politics.

Sitting in his office in April, Braunstein doesn't bother to give explanations or offer a sound bite. He's an engineer through and through, albeit an excitable one, and his tale is a litany of dates, legal references, contract numbers. It only begins to make sense after weeks of subsequent study; on this subject, Braunstein ought to come with an appendix.

"Everything you would have expected to happen," Braunstein says, feverishly, "did not happen."

BasePlans' headquarters is a modest suite of rooms in a Tempe office park. Nothing fancy; there are only four employees.

Behind Braunstein are framed photographs and blueprints from the bridges of his childhood: the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River Bridge. In front of him are binders stuffed with documents, the physical representation of his mania to get at what's really happening at ADOT.

With his short, stocky build and rumpled appearance, Braunstein looks harmless enough. But his soul is pure badger.

After Braunstein won his $910,000, he probably should have gone away. But he was convinced that -- despite the payment -- he hadn't gotten ADOT's attention: The same old good-old-boys network and tangled connections continued to guide the expense of taxpayer money. ADOT workers were still slighting qualified companies, like his, in favor of their friends.

And so Braunstein has chosen to spend his settlement money on another lawsuit against ADOT, this one with even more explosive charges against the agency.

Instead of contracts worth less than a million dollars, Braunstein is now challenging awards that eventually could be worth $500 million.

And thanks to his fat settlement payment, he may actually have enough money to fight them.

And win.

The suit that Paul Braunstein filed in Maricopa County Superior Court last spring, his second against ADOT, focuses on freeway funds from Proposition 400, the half-cent sales tax that voters re-approved in November 2004.

Coupled with federal and state contributions, the sales tax is expected to haul in $17.6 billion over the next 20 years. And while it was the fat subsidy for light-rail lines that brought out the proposition's critics, the biggest share of the money is earmarked for freeways: 57 percent, or $9 billion. (Light rail gets just 15 percent, or $2.3 billion.)

Freeways are infinitely important to continued growth in the Valley, and that's one reason Braunstein's allegations are so scary.

In court documents, he suggests that the best people for the job weren't picked. He argues that cronyism trumped qualifications.

Indeed, one ADOT staffer on the selection committee that awarded freeway design contracts had a clear conflict: The staffer's daughter's company is listed as a subcontractor on all three winning proposals.

Tim Hogan is an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. While he is not familiar with the facts of the situation, he said the father/daughter relationship raises serious questions.

"Obviously, government employees are prohibited from steering contracts to themselves or a family member," he says. "When something like that happens, you may wonder whether the people of the state of Arizona are getting the best deal."

Because Braunstein's allegations are the subject of a pending lawsuit, ADOT spokeswoman Jodi Sorrell said the agency would decline comment. State Engineer Sam Elters did agree to talk to New Times, but the conversation was limited to the structuring of certain contracts.

In court filings, ADOT insists that it didn't abuse its power, and that contracts have been awarded to the best qualified companies. But public records suggest that this is hardly the entire story.

As ADOT officials admit, they've awarded the contracts in question without following the federal guidelines designed to ensure fair competition.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske