For four days this summer, Denver will play host to an international trade conference and forum. Hosted by Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, the forum will focus on ensuring free trade in the Western Hemisphere.

Maybe they should start a little closer to home.
The Colorado International Trade Office recently advertised for professional consulting firms to provide fundraising, advance work, coordination and budget management for the conference, which is expected to draw 1,400 people from as many as 34 countries. But back in Colorado, some political insiders are charging that CITO's process in awarding that contract hasn't been exactly free--or fair.

Earlier this month, CITO advertised in local papers and magazines asking interested bidders for the contract, worth an estimated $150,000 to $250,000, to submit a Request for Proposal. The ad ran in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News from March 8 to March 12 and in the Denver Business Journal on March 10. But CITO's "informational briefing" for prospective bidders was held on March 8, the same day the first ad was published. And all completed bids were due at CITO on Monday, March 13--only three business days after the first public notice.

"There just wasn't enough time, with the notice given, to put together all the pieces necessary for an event of this international scope," says one Colorado political consultant, adding that he decided not to bid after hearing rumors from as far away as Washington, D.C., that the fix was already in. "This is really Denver's moment on the international stage, and it's a shame that some petty political deal was cut in a back room someplace."

And just whose back room might that be? Although the official word is that no contract has been awarded, inquiries from Westword prompted some furious finger-pointing. Stewart Bliss, former chief of staff for Governor Roy Romer, is chairman of the international trade conference's host committee; he claims the RFP process was "initiated by CITO, not the host committee," and directs all questions about the process "to the governor's office or CITO." But Matt Sugar, Romer's press secretary, insists, "It's the host committee's responsibility. They're private citizens." CITO did not return Westword's calls.

On March 24, the day after Westword began making calls about the contract, the governor's office privately requested that Deputy Attorney General Maurice Knaizer research whether the tight time frame of the Request for Proposal had violated Colorado laws. According to the governor's press office, Knaizer determined that CITO, a state agency, had only "assisted" the "private" host committee in its RFP, so the contract technically was not subject to state procurement laws.

Coincidentally, on March 24 that "private" host committee found it necessary to, in Bliss's words, "legally reconstitute" itself, making certain members non-voting. Initially, the host committee consisted of a mix of public officials and private citizens. At the informational meeting on March 8, Stephanie Foote, Mayor Wellington Webb's chief of staff; Morgan Smith, director of CITO; Howard Gelt, former chair of the state Democratic Party; and Bliss all introduced themselves as members and made no mention of their voting status. But last Friday, after a vote "reconstituting" the host committee, Foote and a representative of Romer's office were made "non-voting" members, and the other public official, CITO director Smith, was missing from the member list altogether.

Safely protected by their newly "private" status, the members of the host committee now refuse to disclose which firms or consultants ultimately submitted bids for the conference contract. Committee member Jim Reis, president of the Rocky Mountain World Trade Center, says, "I called more than half, and they didn't want their names disclosed." And Colorado law requires that the names of bidders be made public only if the Request for Proposal comes from a government entity.

Surely this isn't what Commerce Secretary Brown had in mind when he called Denver's conference an example of the administration's commitment to "public-private" partnerships.


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