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Dispute arises after county bid awarded

A Finland-based contracting company is questioning a Lake County bid award after it was passed over earlier this month for a winter shearing job.

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Susie’s Contracting of Finland submitted a bid for winter shearing on about 1,000 acres in the county. Susie’s was the lowest bidder, yet the county awarded the bid to the more expensive Wick & Associates of Toivola, Minn., located in St. Louis County.

Susie Hoff, the owner of Susie’s Contracting, attended the Lake County Board meeting on Jan. 14 with her husband Vernon when the board awarded the bid.

“I’m just here to say … I was the low bidder. I feel I’m the best value,” Susie Hoff said. “I wouldn’t have bid this project if I didn’t think I could have gotten it done.”

County Attorney Laura Auron and County Administrator Matt Huddleston acknowledged that Susie’s was the lowest bidder, but said that the company didn’t meet the definition of “lowest responsible bidder.” The county looks into the history of a company to determine whether it is the county’s best option for the job.

“We look at anything and everything that is available to the commissioners that we can review,” Auron said.

Last week, Auron, responding to a data request by the Lake County News-Chronicle, provided the documents used to evaluate Susie’s Contracting. The packet included court documents, a list of legal disputes involving the Hoffs and an affidavit from a county worker.

Seven of the 26 disputes specifically name Susie Hoff or her company. The rest name Vernon Hoff or his contracting company.

The legal issues run the gamut from minor traffic violations to civil suits and criminal charges, according to the court documents. During an April 2011 case charging Vernon Hoff with assault, terroristic threats and disorderly conduct, he answered questions about his business and its structure.

“My wife has an excavating business also. And I do,” Vernon Hoff told the court, according to a transcript from the case. “And we share — she’s a minority business enterprise, so she’s entitled to bid projects that I can’t bid, so she has a business called Suzie’s (sic) Contracting Incorporated, which is a — the incorporated business that we handle most of our work through …”

Later in the transcript, Auron, the prosecuting attorney in the case, asked Vernon Hoff about one of his employees, Kyler Jensen. It was established that Hoff considers Jensen to be his own employee, but later he states that “the employees are working for Suzie’s (sic) Contracting.”

In the case, Vernon Hoff was acquitted of the felony charges of assault and terroristic threats and pled guilty to disorderly conduct.

Also in the documents, an affidavit signed by a Lake County Land Department employee claims that Vernon Hoff is frequently seen at job sites in Lake County while Susie Hoff has never been seen at a job site. The affidavit doesn’t specifically name any work sites.

Vernon Hoff owns his own contracting company, Vern Hoff Land Development, and has completed work for the county. He told the News-Chronicle he has also worked as an employee for Susie’s Contracting, but that company belongs to Susie.

Vernon Hoff responded to the county employees statement, saying:“You never see an owner on a job site.”

In 2012, Vernon Hoff was convicted of violating the Endangered Species Act and making false statements to a federal officer in a highly publicized case involving the killing of two wolves, the records show.

The government’s sentencing position read: “Hoff has a significant criminal history dating to 1988, and adding that he has a “longstanding disregard for law enforcement.”

According to a letter written to the county by the Hoffs’ lawyer, Jeffrey Wieland, Lake County will be spending an additional $10,716.80 by awarding to Wick the four bid groups for which Susie’s was the lowest bidder.

“Given the scarcity of funds for public projects, that decision is curious,” Wieland wrote. “It also appears to be unlawful.”

Wieland said he has submitted a data request to the county, asking for all records considered or created by them during its consideration for the shearing project.

“It will be interesting to see if the county did a judgments search on Wick and whether it solicited any affidavits on Wick’s principals, or if they only scrutinized Susie’s to that degree,” Wieland told the News-Chronicle.

The Hoffs could pursue legal action against the county, but haven’t said whether they will do so.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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