A day before a vote on a huge contract, law firm told Met Council to preserve documents on its decisions.
A day before the Metropolitan Council was to vote on a huge contract for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line, the law firm for one bidder sent a letter that began:
"In anticipation of potential litigation you must preserve all documents. ..." The letter was hand-delivered to council members' homes on July 24.
The next day, the council voted 14-2 to divide up the $94 million engineering contract and seek numerous bidders rather than give the job entirely to URS Corp., the bidder whose law firm sent the warning letters.
"They were kind of trying to intimidate a little bit," said Council Member Gary Van Eyll.
"I have no idea what, if any, impact that letter may have had on other council members, whether it was positive or negative," said Council Member Steven Chavez. "I didn't feel intimidated."
Neither URS nor the law firm responded to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.
URS was in line for the job as recently as early June, when Met Council staffers recommended giving it the $94 million. But its role in designing the Martin Olav Sabo pedestrian and bicycle bridge in Minneapolis caused the Met Council to reconsider. The Sabo bridge failed in February when light winds caused cable plates to fail. The bridge is still being repaired.
Just a week before the vote, the agency's staff reversed itself and urged council members to carve up the contract. Some council members endorsed the new direction at a transportation committee meeting only a day before the warning letters were delivered.
The agency will seek new bids for three preliminary engineering contracts, including one to provide oversight of the work done by other engineering firms. URS can compete with other firms for the work. A fourth contract will be issued later for advanced design.
The letter from the Dorsey & Whitney law firm notifies council members to preserve "records, documents, data and communications ... including e-mails, voice mails, text messages, notes" related in any way to the contract decisions.
The notice covers discussions among council members and staff and includes "diaries, journals, calenders."
"You should not only identify and preserve old records, but any records or documents created from this point forward," the letter read.
It specifically seeks to preserve any documents dealing with the Sabo bridge, lawsuits over the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and Gov. Mark Dayton.
During his 2010 campaign, the governor criticized URS for its role as a consultant to the state on the 35W bridge. URS settled a lawsuit by victims of the bridge collapse for $52.4 million without admitting liability or fault and stressing that the firm had nothing to do with designing the bridge in the 1960s.
The governor met in late May with Met Council Chair Susan Haigh to talk about the Southwest engineering work. Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said he did not take a position on what firm should get the job.
Haigh said Tuesday that she wasn't concerned about a lawsuit. "The council acted completely within its legal authority. We are not in any way concerned about the legality of the actions that we've taken."
She called the bidding process that began late last year "very fair, very open, very transparent" and noted that URS has a chance to bid for the new contracts.
When URS faced friction earlier in the bidding process, it took a different approach. It hired Tunheim Partners, a Twin Cities public relations firm, to assist with its image and communications in Minnesota. That company's founder, Kathy Tunheim, serves as Dayton's senior adviser on job creation.
The letter was delivered to council members' homes beginning on July 24, with some members getting it the following day, when the vote occurred.
"It was hand-delivered right to my door," said Eyll, who got it on July 24. "My wife got it."
"When I saw it I was a little concerned. The way it was worded was kind of ambiguous about their capacity to sue us. It really didn't state that that would happen, but they [implied] that it could."
Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, a critic of URS, took a blunter view of the letter: "Bullying at its best."
The rules for bidders caution they "may be disqualified if any unsolicited contact ... is made with an employee or representative of the council" other than a designated administrator.
Van Eyll said the letter didn't affect his vote. He was among the 14 council members who voted to break up the contract. Two other council members -- Steve Elkins and Roxanne Smith -- sided with URS. They said they worried about an increased cost of carving up the contract or thought URS was the best bidder.
Another council member, John Doan, abstained from voting because he owns stock in a firm that had signed up as a subcontractor to a rival bidder, AECOM.
Chavez, who voted to carve up the contract, said the letter didn't give him pause. "These kind of things don't faze me."