New Jersey's third-largest public university broke public bidding laws when it purchased a custom conference table shipped from China that ultimately cost nearly a quarter-million dollars, the state comptroller said in a report Wednesday.
Officials at Kean University in Union County authorized a Chinese manufacturer to build and ship the 22-person, state-of-the-art table before obtaining approval from the school's board of trustees, according to the comptroller's 19-month investigation.
Comptroller Philip James Degnan did not refer the matter to the Attorney General's Office. Instead, he recommended that Kean "provide the appropriate training to university staff, and create, update or modify its policies and procedures" to follow the law.
In a statement, the 15,000-student university said it had complied with the law and that the report had "significant omissions."
The table is in an executive event space on the top floor of a building with a view of New York City's skyline. The university said it had used the conference room to host dozens of policy roundtables on issues such as solitary confinement, drug abuse, and domestic violence.
The conference room has "generated an excess of $22,000 in rental revenue and $250,000 in donations for the university," Kean said.
New Jersey residents were charged $11,581 in tuition and fees to attend Kean this year.
The Bergen Record first reported the purchase in late 2014. Based on those reports, the comptroller's office said, it began investigating Kean's use of a bid waiver during the procurement process.
The investigation raises questions "as to whether Kean received the best value when it purchased the conference table," Degnan concluded in his 25-page report.
It's unclear how much money the university might have saved through bidding, the report said, since Kean "never attempted to obtain competitive quotes for a table similar to the one that was ultimately purchased."
A spokesman for the comptroller said he did not know how much money the investigation cost taxpayers, and that the number of staff who worked on it was considered privileged.
Under the State College Contracts Law, state universities must advertise and solicit public bids before entering into contracts, which must be approved by their board. These requirements "are intended to secure competition and guard against 'favoritism, improvidence, extravagance and corruption' in order to benefit the taxpayers," the comptroller said, quoting case law.
However, there are some exceptions, and Kean cited two of them: that the product could not "reasonably be described by written specifications" and that it had "unique intrinsic, artistic or historic character."
The investigation found that Kean's architect and manufacturer produced written specifications and drawings of the table, invalidating the first exemption cited. Also, the table could not have had unique or historic character, the report said, since it was modeled after similar ones.
Kean said in a response that it "is confident that … it achieved the best purchase at the most reasonable price." The university said it solicited local bids through an architecture firm early in the process: quotes ranged from $187,778 to $1,062,000.
Kean said it then turned to its Chinese campus, which found a firm that agreed to deliver the project for about $151,000, making it the cheapest option. After the table was delivered and installed, the university said, "initial use … determined that modifications were needed to increase user satisfaction." Those cost an additional $70,000, the comptroller said.
The report said university president Dawood Farahi, who has held the position since 2003, led the push for the table. Farahi told the comptroller's office that he had been inspired by similar tables he had seen while traveling in Wenzhou, China, and in Denmark.
Kean has a campus in Wenzhou. The university's affiliate there purchased the table on Kean's behalf; in return, Kean "proportionately reduced payments" owed by the Wenzhou campus "pursuant to an unrelated payroll agreement," the report said.