County Auditor Says Former Commissioner Susheela Jayapal Pressured Public Employees to Help Contractor

A Seattle nonprofit won a contract from the Joint Office of Homeless Services in an unusual fashion.

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. (Brian Brose)

Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk today released results of her office’s investigation into a contract awarded last year to an underqualified Seattle contractor.

Acting on a tip from her office’s Good Government Hotline, McGuirk’s team examined the circumstances behind a contract worth up to $779,000 for landlord recruitment and engagement awarded to Homeless Connector, a nonprofit that helps people who are homeless find housing.

That’s a major focus for the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. But audit staff determined that when county officials first placed Homeless Connector on a county board agenda on March 16, 2023, indicating it was in line for a contract, the nonprofit had not yet qualified to bid for county money.

“The Board’s discussion appeared to forecast a contract with Housing Connector,” McGuirk wrote in a memo to county commissioners today, adding that the nonprofit did not even become a qualified bidder until May 8.

County spokesman Denis Theriault says Housing Connector was included in the March 16 agenda by mistake. A competitive bidding process began May 15, but when audit staff reviewed that process, it found Housing Connector had fared poorly.

“After the initial evaluation panel scored the applications to the program, Housing Connector finished 6th out of 8 providers, and with a score that was below the minimum for consideration,” McGuirk wrote.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. “After discussions with an elected official’s office, which was expecting the county to contract with Housing Connector, the Joint Office changed its allocation process, adding another round of questions,” McGuirk wrote. ”All providers that had previously responded—including those that had not achieved the minimum score—were given the opportunity to respond to the new questions.”

Although the “elected official” to whom McGuirk refers is not identified in her memo, McGuirk confirmed in a phone call with WW that the official was former County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who resigned in December to seek the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). The Oregonian first reported Jayapal’s involvement today after McGuirk released the memo to multiple media outlets this morning.

Not only did Housing Connector get a contract after Jayapal intervened, it got a substantially larger contract than initially seemed to be in the works.

“After the second round of questions, a Joint Office allocation committee recommended a $167,000 contract award for Housing Connector,” McGuirk wrote. “Ultimately, the county awarded a contract to Housing Connector worth up to $779,000 in September 2023. The change in the process and the substantially increased award raised questions about the impartial and open nature of the process.”

There’s been no allegation or evidence that Jayapal personally benefited from the contract. “I am concerned that the county’s contract award allocation process was not insulated enough from outside influence to assure impartial and open competition, and that outside influence put undue pressure on Joint Office employees,” McGuirk wrote.

In a statement, Jayapal said she did nothing wrong.

“The auditor’s memo confirms what we already knew—there was no wrongdoing here,” Jayapal said. “The Housing Connector program is a proven model for moving people from the streets, and one that I believe will make our system far more effective and efficient. I have no regrets about advocating for it. It’s unfortunate that some people think I pushed too hard, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as pushing too hard when it’s a matter of addressing our homelessness crisis, delivering results, and getting people the resources they need and off the streets as quickly as possible. I agree with the auditor’s conclusion that the process was flawed. In particular, I agree with her suggestion that it should have been a sole source procurement. The process and any changes were determined by the JOHS and county administration, not by me.”

McGuirk took issue with Jayapal’s statement.

“Once a procurement or award allocation process formally starts, individuals who are not on the evaluation team should not communicate about the process with proposers, or try to push the evaluation team toward a particular end,” she said. “At a minimum, this kind of influence gives the appearance that the process is not transparent, impartial, or open. It is particularly inappropriate when the individuals attempting to influence the process are elected officials or their staff.”

Records show that Housing Connector registered to do business in Oregon on March 8, 2023. The two officials whose names are on the registration filing, Samantha Holcomb and Pearl Leung, are executives at Zillow and Amazon, respectively. They serve on the board of the Seattle nonprofit.

Theriault, the county spokesman, also responded to McGuirk’s concerns, which he said will provide helpful guidance for future bids.

“We acknowledge the auditor’s statement that ‘it appears the way that this contract award allocation process unfolded was more complicated and confusing than it needed to be, and may cause questions about county contract award processes,’” Theriault says. “We disagree with any assertion that the process wasn’t impartial or open. The auditor did not recommend canceling the contract or taking other actions that would have reflected a definitive finding.”

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