UMass Lowell bypassed bidding laws, SJC rules

By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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The state’s high court said yesterday that the University of Massachusetts Lowell wrongly bypassed state bidding laws when it cut a deal with a private developer to build a dormitory the school would then lease.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said the 2008 deal — which has since been abandoned by the school — would have granted Brasi Development LLC easements on state property that required a competitive bidding process.

“The residential housing project here involved creation of a new building, adjacent to the university’s campus and dependent on the use of the university’s parking lot, which the university had the right to occupy for 30 years,’’ Justice Judith A. Cowin wrote for the court.

Cowin added, “These facts persuade us that the dormitory project was indeed construction of a building by the university in the sense contemplated by the competitive bidding statute.’’

The court’s ruling vindicated Attorney General Martha Coakley, who weathered harsh criticism from UMass officials when she insisted in 2008 that the deal was legally improper.

In a statement yesterday, Coakley said the “ruling reinforces the need for public awarding authorities to comply with competitive bidding laws, to ensure that public works contracts are awarded in accordance with the goals of fairness and transparency.’’

She added, “the competitive bid ding laws are important to ensure that taxpayers get the best value for their money.’’

Patricia McCafferty, chief public affairs spokeswoman for UMass Lowell, said college officials would not comment.

She said the school has since purchased and renovated a former Doubletree Inn for student housing in Lowell.

James W. McClutchy, speaking for Brasi Development, said the company was disappointed by the ruling, but it held out the hope the deal could be reworked to eliminate legal objections.

He said the company halted work on the project after building the foundation on the four-acre parcel on Marginal Street.

“We are going to work on this and see if there is a way we can satisfy this decision, and satisfy the attorney general and satisfy the university and hopefully move forward,’’ he said.

The case reached the courts because an unsuccessful bidder for the construction job protested to the attorney general, who agreed the bid award to Brasi was improper; when UMass moved to end the deal Brasi sued.

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