Expressing concern about public officials' unwillingness to justify spending, state Auditor Dave Yost has instructed his staff to gather "additional facts" about millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts uncovered by The Dispatch.

An investigation by The Dispatch, published last week, revealed that Ohio Department of Administrative Services officials have for years awarded many information-technology contracts -- to two companies in particular -- over the objections of state purchasing analysts, who cited the failure to use competitive processes to award the work.

Administrative Services officials said a waiver of competitive selection from the state Controlling Board --largely a bipartisan group of legislators -- each biennium allows the agency to award contracts for "specialized" IT consulting without seeking price quotes or bids from others. Other state records suggest that the practice is improper under the department's own policy.

"I'm concerned about some of the facts. At face value, they are at best concerning and at worst ugly, so we're collecting additional facts to see if more work is needed," Yost said Thursday afternoon.

Yost, a Republican in his second term, declined to specify whether gathering "additional facts" would involve interviews with state employees and contractors and obtaining departmental purchasing records. He said gathering information, which would precede any full-fledged audit or investigation, will take four to six weeks. 

Top officials of the Department of Administrative Services refused to speak to The Dispatch about the no-bid contracts for Sunday's story, with a spokesman saying, "The complexity of this subject matter does not lend itself to an interview."

Yost objected to such a stance, saying, "One of the most alarming things I saw in the article was a statement suggesting the information was too complex to talk about. That's not a red flag. That's a flashing red light with sirens. It's the public's money, and we always need to be ready to explain ourselves and our decisions."

The auditor said he met with his staff on Thursday regarding The Dispatch's stories. "My legal team did a first glance at this and gave me a report this morning," he said. "This is an incredibly convoluted area of the law riddled with exceptions, and there's exceptions to exceptions."

Administrative Services officials said their purchasing analysts who called for competition before the awarding of the no-bid contracts -- many of which carried rates in excess of $200 an hour -- did not understand purchasing requirements and policies.

"We think the General Assembly (as represented on the Controlling Board) has been right in understanding the unique complexities of these contracts and in providing DAS these flexibilities for decades but, of course, welcome the auditor's thoughts on this issue," said Administrative Services spokesman Tom Hoyt.

The Dispatch reported that the Advocate group of companies based in Columbus has received at least $14 million in unbid contracts since mid-2011. Many of Advocate's employees assigned to work with the state Office of Information Technology formerly were senior state employees who worked closely with top Administrative Services IT executives.

In addition, Stonyhurst Consulting of Middleburg, Virginia, received more than $3 million in unbid information-technology contracts.

The newspaper also detailed its struggle with the state Department of Administrative Services to obtain records; many were not turned over for more than four months.

Yost, whose office monitors government compliance with public-records law, said of the DAS response: "I would hope the slow and fragmentary approach you experienced would not be a typical response."